By: Dr. Rachel Slaughter
Despite being extinct for over 60 million years, dragons, as of late, are ubiquitous. Perhaps, before the early 90’s, dinosaurs were limited to the imagination of budding paleontologists who devoured all things dino related and delighted their parents with knowledge of the gigantic reptiles.
Think back to 1993 when Stephen Spielberg first mesmerized movie goers with full-sized dinosaurs on the silver screen igniting a dino obsession. The dinosaur craze inspired several more dinosaur movies, and dinos began invading binge-worthy television shows.
It is safe to say that the dinosaur craze is still hot. Perhaps little can quell sci-fi-enthusiasts’ hunger for dinosaurs. Unfortunately fantasy storytellers weave stories of science fiction that are monocultural and lack cultural diversity. Despite the lack of protagonists of color in fantasy and sci-fi books, BIPOCs are fans of the genres. This fact is evident in the popularity of Octavia Butler (1947-2006). Butler’s books that sometimes blend fantasy fiction and science fiction continue to captivate her readers long after her death. Since her books contain subject matter more appropriate for teens and older, middle school sci-fi enthusiasts may want books more appropriate for their age group. Zetta Elliott is here for it.
Each month “The Reading Quilt” provides a short review of a book that a teacher may use to spark conversations about culture and race, along with a learning activity that may help students understand human behavior. Using the acronym Q.U.I.L.T., Slaughter offers readers information about the Quality of writing, Universal theme, and Imaginative plot, as well as a mini Lesson plan, and Talking points that stem from the book’s premise. This month, a middle grade literature book, which takes the reader on a fantastical journey with Jaxon, a young hard-headed boy who has a strange relationship with an elderly Brooklyn witch, is featured.
Faced with just one of the common dilemmas that plague single Black mothers who need to make ends meet, Jaxon’s mom has an important court date that concerns Jaxon, but Jaxon can not attend. His mother must tend to the sensitive business alone which means Jaxon needs a sitter. Jaxon’s mother has only one option, her ailing and cantankerous mother. Jaxon didn’t know he had a grandmother and certainly didn’t have any interest in spending the day with an old lady who doesn’t own a television.
Elliott captivates readers with a compelling and exciting plot. Weaving realistic dialogue and genuine characters who salute their cultural heritage on every page, Zetta did not confuse her readers with racial or cultural ambiguity. With a dark brown-skinned boy on the cover, this book is definitely a book with a cast of Black characters who know how to travel through time with swagger.
Zetta Elliott, a self-proclaimed Canadian-American Black feminist writer, is a prolific writer of YA literature. Elliott, a PhD, is also a college professor.
QUALITY: Dragons in a Bag, book one in a series, opens with Jaxon crying as he listens to his mother Alicia dump him off at the tiny apartment of a belligerent and foul-mouthed, cane-wielding lady who has no interest in babysitting. Alicia is torn by the fact “Ma” doesn’t want the boy, but Alicia has no one else she can trust. Reality says she has no reason to trust “Ma” either. The conundrum leads to Jaxon sitting in a Brooklyn apartment without the modern paraphernalia to which he is accustomed, but Ma doesn’t care. Grossly underprepared for company, especially a young boy, Ma has little for the boy to eat and even less to occupy his mind. With as much hospitality that she can muster, Ma offers Jaxon a “beer,” a jar of peanut butter, and a book. He partakes in two of the three, and occupies himself with a mysterious box on Ma’s countertop. It is the contents of the box that ignites Ma and Jaxon’s adventure. Along the way, like in the Wizard of Oz, Jaxon meets Ma’s oddball friends.
UNIVERSAL THEME: Elliott’s genius story offers the reader a chance to study what makes people family, and the cultural elements that spark unity in Black folks. It is a story that may help the reader understand why Ma says, “Sometimes you can’t let your love show. Sometimes you have to say no when you want to say yes, because it is the responsible thing to do.” This sentiment sums up the quandary which is often at the core of social and political drama that Black Americans deal with on a daily basis.
IMAGINATIVE STORY: While on a special and important journey with Jaxon and Ma, readers learn about the gentrification that plagues Brooklyn, and the helplessness Ma feels when watching the neighborhood change in epic proportions. It is a change that means she will soon need to find a new place to live her authentic life. To escape uncertainty, Ma is lucky that she can travel through time in her sometimes faulty transporter.
LESSON PLAN: Published by Yearling, and illustrated by Geneva Bowers, Dragons in a Bag is a complex story that combines fantasy fiction with realistic fiction for middle school readers. It is a novel that a teacher can use to detail complex subjects like gentrification, segregation, and family structure.
TALKING POINTS: In several ways, Dragons in a Bag is a story about family structure and Black activism. Jaxon and his “grandma” show readers what can happen when an old lady in a velour housecoat can accomplish with the help of a young whipper snapper in sneakers. When unpacking the story and defining certain terms, several strong talking points will become obvious. Here are a few:
- Do you know the definitions of these words: Fantasy fiction, gentrification, family structure, othering, and culture?
- What are the various family structures that you know? Think of the unique struggles that each family structure may face?
- Do you understand gentrification?
Dr. R. A. Slaughter’s (Doc) textbooks Turning the Page: The Ultimate Guide for Teachers to Multicultural Literature, and Turning the Page: A Guide to Securing Multicultural Literature for Schools, both published by Rowman & Littlefield and available in all bookstores, have brought Doc international recognition. For more information, log onto DrRachelSlaughter.com.