Aside from genre, fiction can be separated into categories based on the age group of the target audience. YA, or young adult, is one of the most well-known, as that classification encompasses some of the most popular books and series within the last few decades. The Percy Jackson & the Olympians series, The Hunger Games, and more cemented themselves into the public consciousness, attracting readers well outside of their target. Less well known is the classification of stories aimed at slightly younger readers, such as preteens, known as middle grade fiction. Middle grade stories tend to have a different writing style than their YA cousins, although the plots may share commonalities. However, while they definitely aim for a younger audience than YA fiction or books meant for adults, middle grade fiction does not underestimate its readers. Rather, the best middle grade writers understand that children are far more intelligent and emotionally aware than adults would assume.
Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is the latest novel by New York Times’ best-selling author Xiran Jay Zhao and author of 2021’s excellent Iron Widow. Their second story begins a brand-new series, sharing similar influences as Iron Widow, while presenting a vastly different story and themes. Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor falls firmly into the middle grade category, aimed at young audiences around the age of twelve, the same age as the titular character of the story. However, like their first novel, Zhao’s latest work showcases their knowledge of Chinese history and folklore, this time aiming for historical accuracy instead of using it as inspiration for a fantastical world. Online, Zhao is well known for their videos examining how Chinese culture and characters are portrayed in western media, and particularly went viral for their breakdown of Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan. While Zachary Ying is certainly meant for a younger audience, that does not mean it censors reality from its readers. The titular character, Zachary Ying, is a Chinese-American boy, and Zhao allows him to acknowledge the discrimination he faces from white Americans, while also letting him feel like he’s not 100% Chinese for being the child of an immigrant who wants him to assimilate. While the details of his life are very specific to his existence, there is enough shared experience for people of many marginalized or immigrant backgrounds to relate to. Feelings of ostracization, of people not understanding who you are or making assumptions about you, and discriminating against you for being you are too real, and Zachary Ying does not attempt to censor reality.
Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor follows the titular Zachary Ying as he is drawn into an adventure involving ancient Chinese spirits, an augmented reality game played on headsets, and magical powers in order to prevent a horde of ghosts from invading the world of the living. Or, rather, that’s what he is told. The book opens with Zachary living in Maine with his single mother, the only Asian kid in his school. The opening pages allow him to explicitly acknowledge and talk about the racist bullying he faces in school, coupled with the Islamophobia he experiences as a Muslim. Right from the start, we also know that his family fled mainland China due to their oppression against Muslim minorities, resulting in the execution of Zachary’s father. This is an integral part of his backstory, and his life experience inform every decision he makes throughout the course of the story. In the midst of being coerced by bullies into harassing another Chinese child who showed up at his school, Zachary discovers that is the descendant of Qin Shi Huang, the legendary first emperor of China who, along with other emperors Tang Taizong and Wu Zetian, exists as a spirit. Very quickly, Zachary makes a deal with Qin Shi Huang to allow the spirit to posses him in exchange for the power to become stronger, although the possession is botched. Rather than occupying Zachary’s body, Qin Shi Huang finds himself trapped within Zachary’s virtual reality headset. The plot of the novel is rather straightforward, but it is the twists and complications along the way that make it engaging. Zachary only joins the mission willingly because his mother’s soul is captured, but he never stops doubting the motives of the three emperors and questioning who is really right in the conflict.
Xiran Jay Zhao’s nerdom and influences were very apparent in Iron Widow, to excellent effect, and they have continued the trend with Zachary Ying. There are clear inspirations from Percy Jackson & the Olympians, especially when it comes to the main characters and their relationships, but the biggest influence seems to be Yu-Gi-Oh! (yes, the exclamation mark is part of the name). Yu-Gi-Oh! is a Japanese manga and anime which takes place in a world where most conflicts are solved using a card game called Duel Monsters. The main character, Yugi Moto, has a partnership with an ancient Egyptian pharaoh who lives in a pyramid-shaped puzzle he wears around his neck. Meanwhile, Zachary Ying partners with an ancient Chinese emperor who lives in a virtual reality headset Zachary wear on his head. The magic system in the book is also filtered through the game Zachary plays, echoing the card games of Yu-Gi-Oh!. However, it is not just nerd culture which provides a cultural context for the book. Where Iron Widow used history as inspiration, Zachary Ying partially functions as a history lesson. Whenever we meet a new spirit or figure from Chinese history, Qin Shi Huang or one of the other characters explains it to Zachary. Far from slowing down the pace, this history lessons are integral to the reading experience. Just as Zachary is able to learn more about his heritage and history, so too will readers learn.
While the plot of this novel is certainly interesting and propelling, and the history keeps us grounded, it is Zachary’s character and his relationships to the others that really forms the heart of the story. The plot is not so much about trying to stop the ghostly apocalypse. Rather, stopping is the means to the end that is rescuing his mother. And yet, Zachary does not fit the mold of a hero for most of the story. He is meek, quiet, nervous, seemingly suffering from anxiety and depression. Once his mother’s soul is captured, those feelings only increase, now coupled with the grief and regret that he could not do more to save her. Those feelings, plus a crippling lack of self-confidence, are things many children feel. Those feelings tend to be ignored by adults, who want children to feel and act how they are told to feel and act. But Zhao understands that kids need the opportunity to feel those emotions, to work through them and not be told that their feelings do not matter. In a way, Zachary’s adventure works as a sort of therapy. Over the course of the story, he goes from being relatively friendless to understanding that his previous friends were bullies to finding a pair of friends who actually care about him. As he overcomes trials and tribulations, and is forced to step up, he continues to grow. Finding connections to his heritage and history certainly help, although he never blames his mother for cutting him off from Chinese culture. More than anything, Zachary is complicated in a way that many children are, even if the adults around them believe them to be simple.
Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is a middle grade book starring a Chinese-American child, written by a Chinese-Canadian author, featuring characters outside of the all-too-standard white heteronormative trend we see in many books. Representation is important, and is more important than ever for children to see themselves reflected in literature and media, a simple acknowledgment that they exist. This book does not shy away from so-called “difficult” topics such as race, religion, or even sexuality. Aside from the racism and Islamophobia, it is strongly hinted that Zachary is gay for most of the book, adding another layer to his identity. This is integral to his character; he and the story would not be the same otherwise. Even these simple acknowledgments of the facets of Zachary’s identity are important as they show children that who they are is valid and normal. Zhao understands that racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination are real things affecting real children right now. Since they are apparently not too young to experience it, they are not too young to read and learn about it. To remove these facets of the real world from literature meant for middle grade readers is an attempt to erase and devalue their lives and identities, subtly indoctrinating them into believing that there is a “correct” way to exist. Zachary Ying may be a very specific, particular character, but he is relatable in so many ways to so many people.
Overall, Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is not just an excellent work of middle grade fiction, but a great novel overall. While it is meant for a younger audience, and certainly feels like it, there is more than enough here for adults to read and enjoy the story being told. The action is cool, the magic system is well thought out and fun, and the characters and their growth are a joy to experience. Zachary himself is a great character and, thankfully, this is just the start to a series. Without spoiling the plot, the climax of the novel brings an incredibly engaging action sequence after some truly excellent character work, and sets up an even larger adventure for our heroes to experience in the next book. Xiran Jay Zhao is proving to be a fantastic author, and we cannot wait to see the stories they will tell.
Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold
Total Read Time: 15 days
Next on the List: Tear Down the Throne, by Jennifer Estep