An Interview with Zetta Elliott
By Chloe Grant, Read to Them Staff
Hi there, readers! We hope you’re enjoying the first week of Dragons in a Bag. Today we’re jazzed to be sharing an interview with the creator of Dragons, Zetta Elliott! Several of her publications have been awarded with distinguished honors, including the Paterson Prize for Books for Young Readers and a Skipping Stones Honor Award for her picture books. In addition to writing, Zetta has taught at a number of universities, and has continuously used her voice to advocate for diversity and equity in the publishing industry. In today’s interview she offers us her insight on the magic and power of literature.
What was your relationship with reading like growing up?
Both my parents were teachers—and my mother was my kindergarten teacher—so reading was a big part of my early life. We didn’t have a lot of books at home but my siblings and I had our own library cards and it was a weekly ritual to walk up to the public library and come home with a fresh stack of books.
How did you find your way to becoming a writer?
I became a storyteller as a child because it was a way of feeling like I was in control. It also guaranteed me an audience and that was hard to come by as the baby of the family! I wrote assignments for school and then when I was in high school, my English teacher Nancy Vichert told me I could become a writer one day. At that point I committed to writing every day, outside of school, and after a failed first novel aimed for shorter pieces like poetry and essays for my college newspaper. By the time I graduated, I had enough stamina to try another novel and I finished that one when I was 26.
You’re accomplished across many genres including poetry, essay, novel, and picture book. Which is your favorite to write and why?
I dread questions that include the word “favorite.” I don’t have a preferred genre—each idea, character, story sort of chooses its own form. Lately I’ve been writing a lot of poetry because the pandemic has made it hard to focus on my novels-in-progress. So if I only have a little bit of time, or limited focus, or need to respond to a traumatic event, then I turn to poetry. If I need to share a lot of detail, I’ll write fiction. If I need to make a point, I’ll write an essay. If I have two characters having an intense conversation, I might consider a play. Being open to all genres gives me the freedom to express myself with greater precision.
What was your inspiration for writing Dragons In a Bag?
My friend Marie gave me four tiny dragons and I carried them in MY bag in an empty mint tin. I thought it would be cool if a witch in Brooklyn did the same thing and I decided to give her a young apprentice.
You champion the importance of representation in children’s literature. What impact does representative literature have on our youth?
It’s a form of validation. Seeing yourself (or your family, your community, your culture) represented in a book lets you know that you exist, you matter, you’re not invisible. Inclusive books introduce kids to the range of people with whom we share this world. Seeing an author who looks like them might convince a child that they could become an author, too. Kids need to know that everyone has a story to tell. They also need to know that a small group of gatekeepers decides which stories land in their hands, are sold in stores, and are taught in schools. Representation—like magic—is about POWER and I want all kids to understand that fact.
What is something you hope families get out of reading Dragons In a Bag with Read to Them?
I was very close to my grandparents and they were big readers—they encouraged me to write and were always proud of my accomplishments. Elders often play a central role in my stories, and that’s true of Dragons in a Bag and The Dragon Thief. With Ambrose, too, I tried to point to people in our society that we treat as though they’re invisible. I hope when families read my book, they let the story live beyond the page—that they discuss the idea of belonging and what courage looks like, and that they see themselves in Jaxon as he takes risks and asks for help from his family and friends.
Jax is exposed to a side of reality he didn’t know existed previously. How can that magic of discovery be carried into the lives of readers?
As I said above, there are people all around us that have been marginalized; they’re present but treated as though they’re invisible or insignificant yet they have a lot to contribute. I think magic comes to those who believe, and I hope my books show that magic can happen to anyone, anywhere. You don’t have to live in a castle in England—you can find (or make!) magic in your own neighborhood, in ordinary objects and familiar places.
Similarly, the separation of the realms of magic and reality are central to this text. There’s varying opinions on how to bring them together, or keep them apart. In response to Jax’s suggestion Trub replies, “See that’s why we need young folks like you on board. We need fresh ideas and a new way of looking at things.” What do you hope young readers take away from this conversation?
We have a lot to learn from our elders, but young people’s point of view is just as important. They are going to inherit the world currently being (mis)managed by adults, so it’s important for kids to DREAM—to really think about how to shape the world in which they want to live. So many young activists are showing the way right now—standing up and speaking out against injustice, to save the environment. I hope young people learn from my novel that walls and borders don’t have to divide us—we can bridge realms and bring everyone closer together.
While travelling between dimensions is put on hold, what have you been doing during your time at home?
I just moved from Central PA to Illinois, so for the past few weeks I’ve been packing and unpacking. I’ve written a new collection of poetry that will come out this fall (AMERICAN PHOENIX) and I’m trying to finish a middle grade novel-in-verse right now. I’ve done a TON of Zoom presentations so I’m taking a break for a couple of months; that will give me time to explore nearby Chicago, which is the scene of the third Dragons book.
What advice do you have for young readers & writers?
I’ll share some advice James Baldwin once gave: “Trust your experience.” Don’t feel like your family, your community, or your culture isn’t good enough to be featured in a book. I only wrote about White kids when I started writing fantasy because I had never seen anyone who looked like me in a magical story. Now I make sure many different kinds of people are included in my books. This is a nation of dreamers so I encourage everyone to feed their imagination—read books, watch movies, look at art, walk in the park. Soak up as many different ideas as you can and turn them into a unique story that reflects your point of view.
We hope you’re inspired by Zetta’s words, both in this interview and in Dragons in a Bag. We encourage you to continue feeding your imagination, as Zetta suggests, and to come back on Friday for some writing prompts you can munch on. In the meantime, stay curious and kind! Happy reading.