I am so excited to be able to host another interview with Katie Zhao. A true middle grade queen, Zhao’s most recent middle grade Winnie Zeng Unleashes a Legend stole my heart. It was precious and I was thrilled Katie would answer all my questions about Winnie!
About Winnie Zeng Unleashes a Legend
Winnie Zeng has two goals: survive her first year of middle school and outdo her stuck-up archnemesis, David Zuo. It won’t be easy, since, according to her older sister, middle school is the pits. Luckily, Winnie studied middle school survival tactics in comic books and anime, and nothing will stop her from being the very best student.
But none of Winnie’s research has prepared her to face the mother of all hurdles: evil spirits. When she makes mooncakes for a class bake sale, she awakens the stuff of legends from her grandmother’s old cookbook, spilling otherworldly chaos into her sleepy town.
Suddenly Winnie finds herself in a race against time, vanquishing demons instead of group projects. Armed with a magic cookbook and a talking white rabbit, she must embrace her new powers and legacy of her ancestors. Because if she doesn’t, her town—and rest of the world—may fall to chaos forever.
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How was the process of writing WINNIE different or similar than your other MG books? You’re truly a MG queen and I would love to know if certain things get easier/harder as you continue to write in the age category.
Writing WINNIE felt easier to me because it involved less world-building than THE DRAGON WARRIOR duology and LAST GAMER STANDING, though of course there are still elements of fantasy and mythology involved. Because my editor required me to fully outline the book before I began drafting as well, I found that was really helpful to me in terms of forcing me to nail down the main plot beats from the start, leaving less room for my usual meandering while drafting. However, I did find WINNIE more difficult in one aspect – making sure the stakes were constantly rising without adding in as much magic as I’m used to!
Winnie’s feelings of being second took a chunk out of my heart. Can you talk about how it was to write Winne’s character? How did WINNIE ZENG come to you first? With Winnie, a scene, etc.?
The first bare-bone ideas for WINNIE ZENG came to me back in early 2019. I began playing around with the idea of a middle grade story involving a girl who is trying to lead a very ordinary life, but keeps being disturbed by evil spirits that want to destroy her town. After a failed attempt at drafting that book, in 2020, I finally sat down, started over, and fully outlined the story that would become WINNIE ZENG UNLEASHES A LEGEND.
Writing Winnie’s character came to me naturally, because I shaped her from my own experiences. Going to Chinese school, taking piano lessons, dealing with an annoying sibling (two, actually)–these experiences colored my upbringing, and so they became central to Winnie’s character and story.
I loved Winnie’s relationship – which is at times very complex – with her sister in WINNIE. What were your inspirations for this relationship? Did their relationship develop, change, or evolve as you were writing?
As an older sister of two younger sisters, I feel Lisa’s pain mostly, but I sympathize with Winnie. I’ve always wanted to write a middle grade with a complex sister dynamic at its heart. Lisa and Winnie’s relationship definitely evolved over the course of the book; I wanted them to butt heads at the start, and finally come to see each others’ perspectives, if only briefly, at the end of the book.
All of your MG’s have had an element of SFF, do you think you’ll always write speculative MG? What draws you to MG with these elements? Do you have any upcoming MG books to recommend?
I think I’ve always had a special place in my heart for speculative MG, because the books that made me fall in love with reading as a kid, for the most part, all had speculative elements. That was such a special and formative time of my life. I love writing MG SFF so much because I want to continue that magic for today’s young readers. I want kids to believe in the magic of the seemingly ordinary. As a kid, I was always looking for the extraordinary in the ordinary, and I’m very grateful to all the storytellers who fed my overactive imagination. There’s nothing more wondrous than feeling as though magic could be waiting for us around the corner, if only we looked closely enough. I hope that my words can keep that sense of wonder alive for kids for as long as possible.
Upcoming MG titles I recommend are NURA AND THE IMMORTAL PALACE by M.T. Khan and SHAH HADID AND THE ALCHEMISTS OF ALEXANDRIA by George Jreije. I read and blurbed both, and loved them! They are both debuts.
How much did you know about the side characters before drafting? Did any change drastically throughout the drafting process? I am particularly interested in David.
David is my favorite character (after Winnie, of course – she’d be livid with me if I ever chose David over her!) Funnily enough, David’s role in the book actually did change quite a lot from draft to draft. Initially he was meant to take a much smaller role in the book, basically just to antagonize Winnie at school and piano. But my editor, Tricia, planted the idea of giving David a more magical role in the story (let’s just put it that way, to avoid any spoilers.) So David changed from a minor side character to a more important side character–much to Winnie’s chagrin, and my delight.
I loved that you included recipes at the end of WINNIE, did you always know you were going to do that? Talk us through that evolution – did you always know the food you’d include a recipe for?
So glad you brought up the recipes at the end of WINNIE! I always knew I would include mooncakes and red bean brownies in the book, but my editor was the one who suggested including actual recipes at the back of the book. I think it was such a great idea, and it adds a more interactive element to the book for kids and families. I really hope they’re actually testing out these mooncake and red bean brownie recipes at the back, because they’re great, if I may say so myself!
About the Author
Katie Zhao is the author of The Dragon Warrior duology, How We Fall Apart, Last Gamer Standing, Winnie Zeng series, and forthcoming The Descendants duology. She grew up in Michigan, where there was little for her to do besides bury her nose in a good book or a writing journal. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a BA in English and a minor in political science; she also completed her master’s in accounting there. In her spare time, Katie enjoys reading, singing, dancing (badly), and checking out Instagram-worthy restaurants. She now lives in New York City.