Books·How I Wrote It

'I get to see myself more': Why writing a middle-grade book made Vancouver author Xiran Jay Zhao feel seen

The Canadian social media star and author of the bestselling book Iron Widow discusses the inspiration behind their latest book, Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor.
Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is a book by Xiran Jay Zhao. (Margaret K. McElderry Books, Xiran Jay Zhao)

Xiran Jay Zhao is a Vancouver-based author and social media creator. They are a first-generation Chinese immigrant who is passionate about Chinese history, cosplay and anime. Their debut novel Iron Widow, a YA fantasy featuring aliens, giant robots and a quest to battle evil, was a New York Times bestseller. 

Zhao's latest is a middle-grade book called Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor. It follows a boy named Zachary Ying as he embarks on a mission after discovering he was born to host the spirit of the First Emperor of China. His journey takes him across China to heist magical artifacts, defeat figures from history and seal the leaking portal to the Chinese underworld before it's too late.

Zhao spoke with CBC Books about writing Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor

The start of an idea

"It was a few years ago when I was really hyperfixated on Chinese history. I wouldn't shut up about Chinese history to my friend. And then she was like, 'Hey, you should consider writing a middle-grade [novel] because stories featuring the galaxy are really popular and do well in middle-grade novels.' So Zachary Ying is my first attempt at writing middle-grade ever.

I got the idea of the First Emperor of China, which I was really obsessed with because his story is so fascinating.

"I had the idea to riff off of Yu-Gi-Oh, which was a really formative media franchise when I was growing up. I got the idea of the First Emperor of China, which I was really obsessed with because his story is so fascinating. What if he possessed a little kid and then sent him to China on an adventure?

"I'm really fascinated by genre crossovers. Yu-Gi-Oh does a lot of crossover between technology and magic, so that's what I did in Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor. The First Emperor possesses this kid's AR gaming headset — I think that kind of thing is really cool. So then I basically wrote a book based on that."

The end comes first 

"I have a skeleton of a plot. So I always have to know the ending and the character arc. There are certain plot points that I fill out — what the character is going to struggle with, how the antagonist is going to push back against the protagonist's goal to achieve something in this book, and then what their back-and-forth is going to be and how the protagonist will achieve their goal by also resolving their character arc. So I have all of that in mind.

"I try to fill out as much of this plot skeleton as I can, but generally I don't finish before I just start writing because planning stories doesn't come naturally to me. So I really have to force myself to do it."

Channeling one's inner child

"I feel like I get to see myself more when I write middle-grade books. My writing partners have told me that it seems like when I write middle-grade, it is my best voice. It's the most natural to my style because I'm so chaotic and very unrestrained. I don't have to think about the prose as much as when I write YA.

I don't really try to make it universal. I just write the stuff that I would have wanted to read and that my younger self would have loved.

"I think what I do is I write the book to my 12-year-old self — what I love to read. And then in writing that book, then of course, other 12-year-olds must also want something like this.

"So I write for them. I don't really try to make it universal. I just write the stuff that I would have wanted to read and that I'm confident that my younger self would have loved. So I don't really aim that high. I just aim to do this for my younger self and a new generation of those like me." 

Unpacking racism 

"When I was 12, I went to a school where I was the only Asian kid. I dealt with a lot of microaggressions from the white kids. They would say stuff like, 'Oh hey, I heard that Chinese people name their kids by throwing pots and pans off the stairwell. So how come your name doesn't sound like that?' And I had to defend myself against that.

"So I dealt with a lot of stuff like that, and I was a really shy, insecure kid. Then it took me a lot of years to just unpack all that and take time for myself, my heritage. And I basically put my main character Zach through that in a very short space of time in this book. So in writing this book, I really do hope to maybe do some of that unpacking for future generations so they don't have as rough of an adolescence as I did.

I hope readers find more confidence in themselves and then also stop caring so much about other people's expectations.

"I hope that readers find more confidence in themselves and then also stop caring so much about other people's expectations. Zach is a person who starts off the book very conscious of the white gaze. And then I think over the course of the book, he slowly learns to stop caring about that — and that's what I hope people of my heritage, or BIPOC in general, stop caring about. 

"Just be yourself and stop worrying that what you do is going to represent your whole people —because that's not on you."

Xiran Jay Zhao's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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