by Judy Newman with Alexie Basil and Alana Pedalino
I grew up outside of Boston, where pretty much everyone I knew was scared of New York City.
We Red Sox fans did not like the Yankees. We felt invaded when we saw New York (or New Jersey) license plates when they showed up in Newton Center—or worse, on Squam Lake in Holderness, New Hampshire, during our two-week summer vacation.
But while I was antagonistic about New York City from a distance, I really didn’t spend too much time there growing up.
Our family did drive down to the Big Apple one cold December weekend when we were kids. It was sort of fun—watching the ice-skaters at Rockefeller Center and trying to get a glimpse of the huge tree and the Saks Fifth Avenue holiday window displays through the crowds. My parents always tried to get front-row seats to shows, and I remember craning my neck to watch the Rockettes and worrying a little about one of the dancers falling on us. (But I loved practicing the cancan for the next 12 months, back in the safety of our family room in Newton.) The streets were clogged with honking cars—most with New York license plates!—and it all felt a little overwhelming.
But if New York City was an unwelcoming and chilly destination in my childhood experience, Brooklyn was another story. I have to admit, I didn’t realize that Brooklyn was connected to Gotham City (as we called it in those days because of Batman). I think from my childhood perspective (which I now increasingly realize was very provincial), Brooklyn felt like its own state. I read and reread A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. While New York teams were our sports enemies, I was so inspired by the story of Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers.
I wanted to go to Brooklyn to see the Brooklyn Bridge, the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, the Gowanus Canal (relevant because of our local fixation on the “dirty water” of the Charles River), and Coney Island. But it wouldn’t be until many years later when I actually spent any time in Brooklyn and discovered more of its rich culture and texture in books like this week’s Book of the Week, Dragons in a Bag.
Readers and writing teachers talk about settings as characters in wonderful novels, and Brooklyn is definitely a major player in Zetta Elliott’s young middle grade novel Dragons in a Bag, lovingly illustrated by Geneva B. As Zetta says in her acknowledgments at the back of Dragons in a Bag: “Brooklyn is my heart.”
And it shows.
You can feel the author’s—and illustrator, Geneva B’s—love and respect for Brooklyn come through on every page of this fresh, page-turning, realistic fantasy novel. Action takes place in Prospect Park, which is one of the main characters Jax’s “favorite places in Brooklyn,” with its carousel and zoo and playground and Lefferts House. And then there are the guardhouses, which look like tiny castles—four of them positioned at each entrance to the park. It will be one of those guardhouses that is actually a transporter that will deliver Jax and Ma through time and space and into realms of magic, which readers—those who know Brooklyn well and those who have never been—will love.
In addition to bringing its characters to thrilling, magical realms, Dragons in a Bag is a novel that transports us readers, whether or not from Brooklyn, to magical reading realms. The novel stars nine-year-old Jaxon—Jax loves geography and impresses Ma (the mysterious old lady he’s staying with for the afternoon while his mama battles a terrible landlord in court) with his knowledge of Madagascar and Africa. Vikram Patel and Vik’s sister, Kavita—both dinosaur experts—introduce readers and the baby dragons in the story to peda, a sweet creamy cake. In addition to its rich Brooklyn setting, Dragons in a Bag features exciting adventure, delightful magic, and characters of color.
Zetta Elliott’s passionate commitment to writing stories in which all children can see themselves was echoed loudly this past Saturday when Scholastic Book Clubs hosted a virtual author panel at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) conference.
Moderated by Dr. Caryn Denise Cooper, and featuring authors Grace Byers, Malcolm Mitchell, Varian Johnson, and Christina Soontornvat, the panel discussed how critically important it is for all children—from all backgrounds—to see themselves represented in the books they read. You can watch the video here.
Fresh from the enthusiasm of the NCTE panel and determined to make sure all kids have access to books in which they see themselves, we are excited to offer Zetta Elliott’s Dragons in a Bag as the Scholastic Book Clubs Book of the Week.
“What a breath of fresh air: a chapter-book fantasy with an urban setting, an array of brown-skinned magic wielders, and a lovable black protagonist readers will root for and sympathize with.…Good, solid fantasy fun.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
David Vozar joins the many readers who are inspired by Dragons in a Bag. He dreamed up some ways he might hide a dragon in plain sight:
Take a peek at the creative and useful resources we put together this week to help you share the magic of Dragons in a Bag with your students!
• Get your students as excited about Dragons in a Bag as the Book Boys in a fun, student-friendly video.
• Watch an exclusive author interview with Zetta Elliott to discover the real-life dragons that inspired this book in Behind the Scenes.
• Discover how fourth grade teacher Juan Gonzalez uses Dragons in a Bag to help his students practice descriptive language and hold dialogues about intentionality in Book Talks.
• Download a free draw-and-describe creative activity asking students to imagine that they have dragons in their bag in Cooked Up from a Book.
I loved visiting Brooklyn through the pages of Dragons in a Bag to meet Jax and Mama and Vik and Kavita and Trub and Ambrose—and the whole fun and inspiring and magical group of Zetta Elliott’s characters whom readers are going to love!
Let me know what you think—DM me on Instagram @judynewmanatscholastic or email me at email@example.com.
This Book Is Available from Scholastic Book Clubs