The Next Chapter

Why Zetta Elliott had to decolonize her mind to write the children's book Dragons in a Bag

The Ontario author on writing diverse characters and what inspired a middle grade fantasy book set in Brooklyn featuring characters of colour.
Zetta Elliott is the author of Dragons in a Bag (CBC, Random House)

Zetta Elliott was born in Ajax, Ont., and has lived in the United States for the past 20 years. She is a poet, a teacher and a writer for children and young adults.

Her most recent book is Dragons in a Bag, a middle-grade fantasy book set in Brooklyn that features Jax, a young black boy who sets out on an adventure with mythical creatures.

Elliott talks to The Next Chapter about why she wanted to write Dragons in a Bag.

"Growing up in Canada, I had a pretty steady diet of British fiction. I read a lot of fantasy fiction in particular. I loved C.S. Lewis and I loved E. Nesbit. I was reading these fantastic narratives where white children were having wonderful adventures in England. When you have a diet like that, it starts to impact how your own imagination develops.

"If I were writing a story, a historical fiction narrative, I knew because of my family's history, African-Americans had been enslaved and had migrated to Canada seeking freedom. I knew a lot of that narrative and if I were to write my own historical fiction, I would write about black people. But if I wanted to write fantasy the only examples I had to draw upon were those British fantasy authors — and because they only wrote about white children, I wrote about white children. That was sort of shocking. It took a real conscious and continuous and ongoing effort to become aware of the ways in which I had become white-identified because of what I had been consuming.

"It was about questioning some of my preferences, my tastes and the things that I loved. Instead of trying to entirely uproot the things that I loved as a child, I tried to talk back. I try to create a counter narrative. A lot of the fantasy fiction that I write is actually playing on existing conventions and most of those are European.

"When I say 'dragons,' kids immediately think of blond-haired, blue-eyed children in a castle in England. I can then subvert that convention. You can't do anything about the expectation — it's been hundreds of years in the making — but I can then take that expectation and uproot it and do something unexpected. That's really what I see myself doing in terms of decolonizing my imagination."

Zetta Elliott's comments have been edited for length and clarity.