Year of Publication: 2018
Genre: Fantasy (Middle Grade)
Format (How I Read It): Paperback
The dragon’s out of the bag in this diverse, young urban fantasy from an award-winning author!
When Jaxon is sent to spend the day with a mean old lady his mother calls Ma, he finds out she’s not his grandmother–but she is a witch! She needs his help delivering baby dragons to a magical world where they’ll be safe. There are two rules when it comes to the dragons: don’t let them out of the bag, and don’t feed them anything sweet. Before he knows it, Jax and his friends Vikram and Kavita have broken both rules! Will Jax get the baby dragons delivered safe and sound? Or will they be lost in Brooklyn forever?
Themes: Segregation. Power of promises. Family. Adventure.
Character Development: The characters were easily the strongest part of this novel. They were vivid and fun and they all had very distinct personalities. Jax, the main character, is nine years old, which puts him on the younger side for middle grade novels. I enjoyed that we really get to follow him as he figures out who he is, and his innocence and sense of wonder were perfect for this story. The only character issue I had was that there is a witch that Jax calls “Ma,” but then he also calls him mother “Mama.” I just thought this was a little confusing since the names are so similar.
Plot/Pacing: I felt that the pacing in this novel was really odd. It didn’t pick up until the very end of the book. I appreciated how much effort was put into the worldbuilding and establishing of the magic system, but not much really happened other than that. I know this book is part of a series, and I’m sure the story itself will get more interesting in later books. However, each book should still be able to stand on its own, and this one really didn’t. Something exciting is finally about to happen at the very end, but then the characters just decide they’re tired and they want to go home and rest first. And then the book ends. So the first book ends up being all set-up and not much else. Also, although I loved his friends (Vikram and his sister, Kavita), their inclusion in the story ended up being totally unnecessary to the plot. It felt like a forced conflict to set up the main problem in the sequel, and that really bothered me.
Writing Style: The book is set in Brooklyn, so there was some East Coast terminology (i.e. housecoat), and as a teacher based in the West Coast I know that there would be little things that might confuse my students (especially my English language learners). It’s a very little thing, but I think it’s important to know going into it! Otherwise, the writing was simple and enjoyable.
“Bingeability”: Moderate. It’s a short book, but since nothing really happens it can be hard to motivate yourself to keep going back to it.
Emotional Investment: Moderate-low. I really enjoyed the characters, but it’s hard to feel invested in the story itself.
Windows and Mirrors: Eviction. Loss of a parent. Single mom. Indian desserts.
Overall Thoughts: Overall, I can’t say that I loved this book. However, I definitely see the potential and I bet the next books in the series are a lot better! It’s an interesting magic system, and I’d be curious to see where the author goes with it.
Something I noticed in the beginning is that there are casual references to swearing and drinking beer (there isn’t any actual swearing, and the beer was a joke in reference to drinking root beer). So there isn’t actually anything inappropriate. However, when reading with students I’m not always super comfortable reading about those things out loud.
There are also some outdated references to things like rotary phones and payphones. As an adult, I know what those are, but I worry that some kids might be totally lost! Again, it’s just good to know about this going into it so that you’re prepared to explain and maybe even show pictures of what those things are to help with comprehension. It’s also set in Brooklyn and includes references to Coney Island. For students who are not from this part of the country (or this part of the world), I think it would be fun for them to learn about it! As an educator or guardian it’s just good to again be prepared to explain and show photos to assist with comprehension if these things are unfamiliar. Also, although this is a book about dragons, there are several scenes involving dinosaurs too! I thought this was great since there are so many kids out there who are passionate about dinosaurs. They would definitely be into this!
Something else I loved about this book was that it was a very inclusive fantasy novel. The main character is a black boy, his dad passed away not too long ago, and he and his mom are facing eviction. There are many things happening in this story that aren’t often represented in fantasy (especially middle grade fantasy), so I loved that there are so many things that a variety of kids could connect with and relate to. The only small issue I had was that at times the inclusive themes and messages felt a little forced or heavy-handed. They’re great and important themes, I just wish they had been done more subtly and that the readers had been trusted more to understand them.
Recommendation: I would recommend this for grades 2-5, though you could maybe do this with first grade too. It could be a fun read-aloud for younger grades! I worry about it not being the most exciting read-aloud due to the slow plot, but the characters are so fun and expressive that I think that makes up for it (especially if you do fun voices for the characters!). Along those lines, it would be great to pair with a unit about character traits since the characters are so vivid. In general, though, it’s just a good one to have in the classroom or home library! It would be great for independent reading for younger/less advanced readers.
Thank you for reading my review! Leave a comment letting me know if you’ve read this one or have any questions about it, and keep an eye out for my next review!