Danielle Daniel, speaking about middle-grade books earlier this year, said that “there is a great tenderness and heart in these stories, which are not always accessible in other genres. Reading middle grade is good for the heart. Ditto for writing it.”
Vancouver author Xiran Jay Zhao, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Iron Widow (Penguin Teen), feels much the same way. “I do feel like I was more at ease [writing this novel],” says Zhao. “My personality is naturally more suited to writing the wacky and fun prose of middle grade.”
Zhao, who credits a friend with encouraging them to try their hand at middle grade, looked no further than ukiyo-e, the anime of their childhood, for inspiration. “What if, instead of dealing with an ancient Egyptian pharaoh, there’s this Chinese-American boy who has to contend with the spirit of the first emperor of China?” they say. So Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor, out now from Margaret K. McElderry Books, follows 12-year-old Zack as he communicates with the spirit of Qin Shi Huang, who’s on a mission to seal the portal to the Chinese underworld before the malevolent spirits of the dead can enter the mortal realm and cause chaos.
Unlike Zack – who must learn about his Chinese heritage as he makes his way across China to steal magical artifacts, all of which are either in the historical record or are recent archaeological discoveries – Zhao is obsessed with Chinese history. That wasn’t always the case. In their preteen years, Zhao didn’t feel confident or proud of their heritage, as they experienced painful discrimination that caused them to feel backward and alienated. All that changed with their discovery of Chinese history and mythology, which are filled with stories of people who not only stand up for themselves but also stand up against injustice. “Those [stories] inspire me so much and make me proud, because there’s such richness in my heritage,” Zhao says. “These legends are of people who shaped my culture.”
Zhao – a first-generation Hui immigrant from small-town China – shares these stories with their massive online audience in their signature tongue-in-cheek style while also pointing out the historical inaccuracies in popular culture, such as in Disney’s Mulan. For them, it’s an honour every time a member of their culture thanks them for presenting their heritage in such an accessible way. “It’s my main motivation for continuing on,” they say. “I realized the impact my content could have, and it’s a wonderful feeling.”
Written specifically for the Chinese diaspora, Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is an action-packed sci-fi fantasy that doesn’t shy away from the weightier issues of identity, toxic masculinity, grief, environmental degradation, and sexuality. It was also deeply important to Zhao to discuss the oppression of the Uighur Muslim population. In the novel, Zack’s dad was executed for speaking up against the government’s oppression, and Zack – a Hui Muslim – and his mom were forced to flee China when he was just a baby. “We all know there is a genocide going on,” says Zhao. “I don’t know if I’m going to be allowed into the country after this, but I feel I have a duty to speak out. I can’t set a book in China without acknowledging what’s going on.” To convey the terrible truth to readers, Zhao relied on their personal experiences in mainland China. “It’s pretty light in the east. But, as you go west, it gets a lot more tense.” Though Zhao didn’t approach Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor with the aim of starting a discourse on these topics, they were cognizant of just how aware the younger generation is of what’s going on in the world.
They are also aware that the publishing landscape is changing, and with it the idea that nobody would understand or be interested in books with a Chinese protagonist. “I basically wrote this book for my 12-year-old self,” Zhao admits. “We [people of colour] are writing the stories we wish we had when we were younger because we see we can succeed writing these stories.”
Illustration: Rachel Idzerda