From “Harry Potter” to “The Hobbit”, there’s no shortage of fantasy books for children and young adults, but we don’t often see Black characters in those stories.
Chicagoan Zetta Elliott created the urban fantasy book series “Dragons in a Bag”, to allow Black children to see themselves in the pages of fantasy books. The latest installment, “The Witch’s Apprentice,” was just released. It tells the story of a young boy on an adventure to learn about magic and power.
“I grew up reading fantasy fiction. I absolutely loved books like “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, but there were no little Black girls in Narnia, and I still remember how it felt to be excluded from the stories I loved. It’s like loving a book and realizing it doesn’t love you back, and I spent a long time trying to sort of decolonize my imagination and accept that magic can happen to anyone anywhere, and I just felt that if there was something I could do as a writer to prevent future generations from having to go through the pain of that exclusion, then that’s what I was going to do,” said Elliott.
Elliott says she likes to write about witches and magic, because she wants to challenge conventional norms of what popular fantasy book characters should look like.
“I thought what if I took the existing conventions right, because when kids think about magic, they think about witches and wizards, but they think about a witch as being someone who has green skin and a pointy black hat and rides around on a broom and they have this vision of a wizard who has a long white beard. They’re basically drawing on European conventions, European folklore, and it’s important to me that children realize that every culture has its own magical traditions,” said Elliott.
Despite her stories being in the fantasy genre, Elliott also places an emphasis on history and includes brief Black history lessons in her books, including the history of Black Chicago neighborhoods.
“For me, fantasy is a way to have a deeper engagement with reality, so I write about the neighborhoods I live in. The first two books are set in Brooklyn and then I moved to Chicago, to the South Side, so I definitely wanted to write about the neighborhood.” said Elliott.
Elliott hopes to reach reluctant readers with her books, and says when kids see themselves on the pages, they may be more likely to read.