Xiran Jay Zhao on Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor and fantasy books for early teens

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao. Book cover and author photo.


This month our Macaw subscribers are entering a vivid fantasy world that combines a hugely relatable contemporary lead character obsessed with augmented reality video games, with an adventure and setting directly inspired by Chinese myth and history. Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor had us on the edge of our seats! Here author Xiran Jay Zhao tells us more about what inspired the book and which fantasy books for tweens and early teens by authors of colour you should read next.

What inspired you to write Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor?

I was inspired to write this story when my friend Rebecca Schaeffer, author of the Not Even Bones series, encouraged me to try my hand at writing MG, since I’d been hyperfixating on Chinese history and myth, and myth stories make for very good MG novels. Immediately I thought of doing a Chinese take on Yugioh, the most formative anime of my childhood, in which I would combine modern gaming tech with ancient myths and magic. And so Zachary Ying was born!

We love the setting! Why did you choose to write about Chinese history?

It brings me great joy to share stories inspired by my cultural background, basically writing the books I wish I had when I was younger. As diaspora, it was very rare to find representation of my experiences in media, so now I feel a responsibility to create it.

What is your favourite video game and what do you think it would be like to play it in real life?

I’ve always loved the Tomb Raider franchise! Even some scenes in Zachary Ying were inspired by it. I don’t think it’d be fun to play in real life at all though. I would admittedly be too scared to enter an unexplored tomb.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

It changes from day to day. Right now, I’m really deep into the French Revolution and relate weirdly to Robespierre. He’s a very misunderstood figure, having never been the dictator or tyrant he’s now believed to be. When I read about how he was attacked from all sides for everything he did, even something as mundane as playing with a dog at a party instead of socialization with others, it hits pretty closely to some of my experiences.

Can you tell us anything about what the future holds for Zack?

All I can say is that he’ll be up against magical cyborgs!

Why did you choose to write books for this age group?

I’m drawn to coming-of-age stories, having had quite a tough time finding my identity while growing up. Writing kidlit allows me to share what I’ve learnt along the way with future generations, and I hope it can help them in some way. Not to mention that I can be as wacky as I want!

Do you have a favourite place to write?

In my bed, honestly!

Which other fantasy books would you recommend our subscribers read next?

There are so many amazing POC-penned science-fantasy MG books out this year! Check out:

Theo Tan and the Fox Spirit by Jesse Q. Sutanto

Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun by Tola Okogwu

Hana Hsu and the Ghost Crab Nation by Sylvia Liu

Copies of our Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor pack, including a copy of the book and loads of fun activities to go with it, are now available for individual purchase. Grab a copy while stocks last!

This post includes affiliate links to our bookshop.org page, meaning we receive a small percentage of the sale should you purchase through them. Additionally, a percentage from all sales on the platform goes directly to local UK bookshops which is an initiative we're delighted to support!


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