Posts Tagged Adventure Books for Middle Grade

Interview: Xiran Jay Zhao Talks About Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor

Bookcover for middle-grade novel Zachary Ying and the Dragon EmperorWhen I saw the amazing cover for ZACHARY YING AND THE DRAGON EMPEROR (illustrated by comic book artist Velinxi), I knew it was a book I wanted to devour. Which is why I’m so thrilled to interview the novel’s author on From the Mixed Up Files today. Xiran Jay Zhao is the New York Times best-selling author of the young adult novel IRON WIDOW, and ZACHARY YING is their debut middle-grade novel. Billed as a Chinese Percy Jackson, here’s the book’s description:

12-year-old Zack never had many opportunities to learn about his Chinese heritage. His single mom was busy enough making sure they got by, and his schools never taught anything except Western history and myths. So Zack is woefully unprepared when he discovers he was born to host the spirit of the First Emperor of China for a vital mission: sealing the leaking portal to the Chinese underworld before the upcoming Ghost Month blows it wide open.

The mission takes an immediate wrong turn when the First Emperor botches his attempt to possess Zack’s body and binds to Zack’s AR gaming headset instead, leading to a battle where Zack’s mom’s soul gets taken by demons. Now, with one of history’s most infamous tyrants yapping in his headset, Zack must journey across China to heist magical artifacts and defeat figures from history and myth, all while learning to wield the emperor’s incredible water dragon powers.

And if Zack can’t finish the mission in time, the spirits of the underworld will flood into the mortal realm, and he could lose his mom forever.

What was your inspiration for this book?

Xiran Jay Zhao, author Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor

Xiran Jay Zhao

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 thus ZACHARY YING was born!

 There’s such intricate detail about the history in China. Tell us about your research.

I didn’t need to do much fresh research since I already had so many historical and mythical stories in my head that I couldn’t wait to tell, so I basically just double-checked that my facts were legit. Whenever I saw an opportunity in the plot to bring up a fun anecdote, I went for it. My first draft was actually stuffed with many more of them, and I had to cut a few out to make the book less overwhelming.

What was the most surprising or interesting thing you discovered in your research, and if you didn’t use it in the book, why not?

The First Emperor was so dramatic of a person that there are a lot of stories about him that didn’t make the cut simply because I couldn’t find a good place to tell them. My favorite is the time he went up on Mount Tai, a sacred mountain in China, to proclaim his supremacy after unifying the seven warring states, then a huge rainstorm hit him on the way down and he had to take shelter under a big tree. Then he proceeded to make that tree an official rank-5 minister?!

Wow! I love the idea of the spirits of these legendary characters staying alive and powerful because of the belief people have in them. What inspired that?

There’s a lot of interconnection between myth and history in Chinese culture, and I’ve always found that fascinating! The Chinese pantheon of gods is very vast; there are basically no rules to who can become a god, as long as a group of people agree and make you a temple. Because of this, many early historical figures have been enshrined as gods, such as Guan Yu of Three Kingdoms fame, who somehow became the god of money. I thought it’d be cool to have magic fueled by legends.

Yes. So cool! I also love that you used a videogame as a way for the spirits to communicate. So fun! Are you gamer? And was Mythrealm inspired by a particular game?

I’m not a gamer myself, but the vast majority of my friends are. Mythrealm is specifically inspired by Pokemon GO (remember those two weeks after it came out, where it felt like we achieved world peace?), but with myth creatures instead of Pokemon.

I could see the similarities to that game! Is there a character who’s most like you? And if so, which one and why?

Zack drew heavily from my awkward, self-conscious 12-year-old self, though nowadays I’d have to say I’m more confident and self-assured like Melissa. It was a long road, going through this transformation!

That’s something a lot of middle schoolers will be able to identify with (not to mention a lot of adults. 🙂 ). Your debut novel, IRON WIDOW, was for young adult readers. Did you find it challenging to write for a middle-grade readers? How did your process change, if at all?

I actually didn’t have much difficulty transitioning to MG. Writing ZACHARY YING was easier for me, even. I honestly think ZACHARY YING embodies me as a person much better. I got to show the fun side of my personality that didn’t really get a chance to show up during the bleak brutality of IRON WIDOW.

And finally, what can we look forward to next from you?

I’m working hard on the sequel to my YA debut IRON WIDOW, which will hopefully release Summer 2023!

We can’t wait!

Learn more about Xiran Jay Zhao at their website, XiranJayZhao.com. You can also follow them on Twitter @XiranJayZhao for posts about Chinese history, Instagram for cosplay, TikTok for short videos, and YouTube for more information about Chinese history and culture.

Interview with Author Karen Pokras, author of THE BACKYARD SECRETS OF DANNY WEXLER, and BOOK GIVEAWAY!

I’m so thrilled to have Karen Pokras on today talking about her newest book, THE BACKYARD SECRETS OF DANNY WEXLER! Karen and I met at a writer’s conference many years ago and have since been part of a super cool writer’s group that meets once a week at a café to write alongside each other. It’s been a while since we’ve met up, of course, but even better for readers at From The Mixed Up-Files—we get Karen here today to talk about her new fun, adventurous, and heartfelt story! PLUS you could win a hardcover copy of THE BACKYARD SECRETS OF DANNY WEXLER. Just enter the contest at the end of this post. U.S. residents only please.

What’s THE BACKYARD SECRETS OF DANNY WEXLER all about? …

Eleven-year-old Danny Wexler, the only Jewish boy in his town during the late 1970s, is obsessed with the Bermuda Triangle. When a local child goes missing, Danny’s convinced it’s connected to an old Bermuda Triangle theory involving UFOs. With his two best friends and their Spacetron telescope, Danny heads to his backyard to investigate. But hunting for extraterrestrials is complicated, and it doesn’t help that his friend Nicholas’s mom doesn’t want her son hanging out with a Jewish boy. Equipped with his super-secret spy notebook, Danny sets out to fight both the aliens and the growing antisemitism in the town, in hopes of mending his divided community.

Interview with Karen

Donna: The story is rich with family bonds, community connections, and 1970s nostalgia that adds a fun and deeper layer to the story. How much research was involved in writing a story set in this time period and how much of the 1970s references were inspired from your own childhood?

Karen: First, thank you so much for having me on From The Mixed-Up Files today!

In 1978, the year the story takes place, I was ten years old, so there is definitely a lot that is taken straight from my own childhood. At the same time, that was many years ago and I wanted to make sure I was capturing the time accurately. That’s mostly where the research came in, looking up things like what movies were the biggest box office hits (Grease), whether or not nurses wore caps on their heads (yes and no), and what pizza toppings were the most popular (pepperoni.) A couple of other fun facts I learned: the video game Space Invaders came out in 1978 and movie prices were only $2.00. I also put out a crowdsource call on Facebook asking friends to share some of their own favorite 1970s memories. The responses were so fun to sort through.

Donna: Danny is a sweet and endearing character who struggles at times and fumbles a bit in his choices and beliefs, making him very relatable to readers. Is his character based on anyone you know?

Karen: Like most of the characters I write, Danny is a combination of many people I know. I love to mingle real life observations and memories when creating characters. Part of the fun in writing a character like Danny is exploring his fumbles and watching him figure his way through, even if messy. The goal is for young readers to say yeah, I get it, I’ve been there, or I’m going through that, or this is something I want to remember because it’s important and it can help others.

Donna: The story is full of zany adventures for Danny and his friends such as investigating The Bermuda Triangle, aliens, werewolves, and urban myths that young readers will be sure to enjoy. How did you create the idea to blend all these things together in a story?

Karen: As a child, I remember being so curious about the Bermuda Triangle and UFOs. Those were always big topics in my house and among my neighborhood friends. I also had a completely irrational fear of a white van kidnapper. I honestly have no idea where it came from, but to me it was very real. I’m sure my older brother put it my head. (P.S. I’m not at all sure he did, but when I was 10, I blamed everything on him, so we’ll go with that.) When sitting down to write a story that took place in 1978, I knew I wanted all of these elements that were a big part of my own childhood. As for the werewolf, I have no explanation, other than: welcome to my ten-year-old writing brain.

Donna: While a fun adventure, the story also has more meaningful threads of cultural divides, multi-generational relationships, anti-Semitism, and strength of community bonds. What prompted you to combine light-hearted high jinks with these rich and heartfelt threads?

Karen: In 2017, when I’d first started thinking about writing a new story and began brainstorming with memories from my childhood, I knew I wanted to write about a small town in the 1970s with a strong community bond. I also knew the story would have humor and high jinks as that’s where my middle grade voice always tends to land. At the same time, however, I’d been watching acts of antisemitism nationally and locally month after month: Charlottesville, Jewish cemeteries being vandalized just miles away, people finding KKK fliers on their cars in my community. While it all terrified me, I also felt compelled to write about it, and so my focus shifted to make room in the story’s underlying themes, adding in the multi-generational relationship to help facilitate the discussion.

Donna: Unfortunately, anti-Semitism and bullying in many forms are just as relevant today as they were in the 1970s—and often go hand-in-hand. Were there any experiences of both from your own childhood that helped drive your writing?

Karen: There definitely were. It’s funny how we keep certain memories buried. The deeper I got into Danny’s story, the more I would remember specific incidents from my childhood, through college and graduate school, straight into adulthood, all of which helped to drive the story. There’s no doubt this was a difficult book to write, particularly the ending, because there is no neat “tie it in a bow” resolution-type ending for antisemitism and other forms of bullying on a wide-scale.

Donna: There are many “what if?” scenarios throughout Danny’s story that add to the mystery and mayhem and will appeal to young reader’s imaginations. Do you use your own “what-if?” process to write books and if so, how does that work?

Karen: I’m pretty sure my brain is on a constant loop of “what-if.”  When it comes to writing books, I absolutely gravitate toward a “what-if” approach. For this book in particular, I spent a good deal of time journaling and exploring my own personal memories and feelings. I had a very, very loose picture with a few random scenes, but really no idea of how to get there or even how these scenes would fit together. I remember early in the process sending chapters to my critique partner with the message “here’s another chapter to the story without a story.” Slowly though things started coming together. So yes, there were a lot of “what ifs” and my critique partner is basically a saint for letting me run them all by her.

Donna: I love Danny’s Super Secret Spy Notebook. Where did this idea come from—and did you have your own secret notebook as a child to record secrets in?

Karen: I wish I had a really cool answer for this one, but I don’t. It’s one of those things that popped into my head at some point during one of those “what if” moments. While I did keep diaries as a child, they were very different from Danny’s Super Secret Spy Notebook. They were the kind with a lock and silver-edged paper, and I was always losing the key. I have no idea what became of them, and occasionally wonder if they wound up in the trash, or if someone has all my secrets stashed away somewhere.

Donna: Can you share what current story you’re working on, and does it explore similar themes in The Backyard Secrets of Danny Wexler or new ones?

Karen: I have a couple of manuscripts in the works and while both are very different than Danny Wexler, they both have multi-generational relationships, quirky/funny characters, and meaningful underlying themes. The first, about a science-loving girl who moves into a house that’s rumored to be haunted, is on submission, and the other, about to head out on submission, is about ballet and also examines antisemitism, but under very different circumstances. I’m hoping to share more information about both of these stories soon! Thank You, Donna!

About Karen:

Karen Pokras is a daisy lover, cat wrangler, and occasional baker. She has been writing for children for over ten years, winning several indie literary awards for her middle grade works. Always an avid reader, Karen found her passion for writing later in life and now runs all of her stories past the furry ears of her two feline editorial assistants before anyone else. A numbers geek at heart, she enjoys a good spreadsheet almost as much as she loves storytelling. A native of Connecticut, Karen is the proud mom to three brilliant children who still provide an endless stream of great book material. She lives with her family outside of Philadelphia. ​For more information, visit karenpokras.com.

Karen’s social media links:

Website: www.karenpokras.com

Instagram: @karenpokras_author

Facebook:  www.facebook.com/karenptoz

Twitter: @karentoz

 

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Interview with Alex London for BATTLE DRAGONS, Plus Giveaway

Alex London is joining us on From the Mixed Up Files today to talk about the first book in his brand new middle-grade fantasy series BATTLE DRAGONS. Alex is the author of more than 25 books for children, teens and adults, including the middle-grade series DOG TAGS, TIDES OF WAR, WILD ONES, and ACCIDENTAL ADVENTURES. His latest series launches on Sept. 21 with BATTLE DRAGONS: CITY OF THIEVES, which is a super fun adventure. Here’s the description:

Cover of Battle Dragons: City of Thieves by Alex LondonIn a modern mega-city built around dragons, one boy gets caught up in the world of illegal dragon battles and a high-stakes gang war that could tear his family apart.

Once, dragons nearly drove themselves to extinction. But in the city of Drakopolis, humans domesticated them centuries ago. Now dragons haul the city’s cargo, taxi its bustling people between skyscrapers, and advertise its wares in bright, neon displays. Most famously of all, the dragons battle. Different breeds take to the skies in nighttime bouts between the infamous kins―criminal gangs who rule through violence and intimidation.

Abel has always loved dragons, but after a disastrous showing in his dragon rider’s exam, he’s destined never to fly one himself. All that changes the night his sister appears at his window, entrusting him with a secret…and a stolen dragon.

Turns out, his big sister is a dragon thief! Too bad his older brother is a rising star in Drakopolis law enforcement…

To protect his friends and his family, Abel must partner with the stolen beast, riding in kin battles and keeping more secrets than a dragon has scales.

When everyone wants him fighting on their side, can Abel figure out what’s worth fighting for?

Doesn’t it sound awesome? Until you can get your dragon paws on your own copy, let’s go behind the scenes of the book’s creation. And make sure you read to the end to enter the giveaway.

Samantha: Hi Alex! Welcome to From the Mixed Up Files. I loved BATTLE DRAGONS: CITY OF THIEVES. Tell us where you got the idea from?

Headshot of Alex London | Photo by Gina Clyne Photography

Alex London | Photo by Gina Clyne Photography

Alex: Thanks so much!  The short pitch is that it’s The Fast and The Furious meets How to Train Your Dragon, except that I hadn’t actually seen those movies or read those books when I began this project. Of course, I’ve corrected that oversight now (and am kind of obsessed with the gleeful story-telling chaos of the Fast and The Furious franchise.

As to my inspirations, there are endless sparks that ignite the ideas in any novel, but this one combined so many influences that fueled my imagination when I was a middle schooler. It combines my love of cyberpunk like Akira and Blade Runner with my love of fantasy, of dragon lore, and ultimately of stories set in that middle school time, when young people start to come into their own and realize how much bigger, complicated, and wonderful the world is than they ever dreamed. I wanted to write a story that would have appealed to me in middle school, but that would’ve also expanded my imagination for what kind of a world was possible.

There are sibling rivalries and new friends and high stakes souped-up dragon riding action. There are also, I hope, a lot of laughs!

Samantha: You’ve incorporated a lot of dragon story lore (with the dragons keeping a hoard, for example), but you’ve also expanded on the roles of dragons, like having them be taxis, school buses and cleaners. How did you decide what to keep and what to add for this story?

Alex: Writing a mash-up of genres gave me the freedom to pick and choose what dragon lore was useful or interesting to me. What of my main concerns was using the lore that would make the dragons feel familiar and recognizable, without being derivative or boxing me in to any narrative corners. So, flying and hoarding and breath weapons were a must, but speaking English to humans, as they do in some wonderful dragon tales, was not something I wanted.

Samantha: I love all the different types of dragons you’ve come up with for the story. What inspired each one?

Alex: I couldn’t possibly go into detail on each one here, but I did develop a basic dragon taxonomy when I began, essentially dividing them into Short-Wing, Medium-Wing, and Long-Wing dragons, each more suited to different jobs for humans, and within each category a wide variety of species, from Infernal Long wings whose fire their hot breath from high in the clouds, the short winged Blue Foot, which are like the Honda Accords of the Drakopolis. Then there are the different Reapers, medium winged dragons who make the best battlers with their wide variety of breath weapons and skills, and the related Wyvers, pulled straight from mythology, but in my story, used mostly by the secret police. It’s a lot of fun researching and inventing dragons and their abilities! I spend a lot of time thinking of it like a card game, Pokemon or Magic: The Gathering. In fact, I even invented a game just like that for the story!

Samantha: Abel and his brother Silas and sister Lina are all very different. Are you closest to one of them or do they all have similarities to you in different ways?

Alex: I’m probably most like Abel, with my ADHD and tendency to catastrophize, though, like Lina, I’m idealist who broke more than a few rules as a teenager, but like Silas, I can slip into an inflated sense of self-righteousness if I’m not careful. This is the first series I’ve written since becoming a parent, however, so I do find myself identifying a lot more with their parents than anyone else! I hope I could stand up the gangsters and the secret police as well his Abel’s parents do!

Samantha: If you were one of your dragons from Drakopolis, which one would it be and what would be your favorite thing to hoard?

Alex: Oh, I would want to be Karak, the Sunrise Reaper, because describing him was just so cool! The scene where he meets Abel and Roa was the first I thought of, even before I starting writing.  And I think I would probably hoard books…because I kind of do already!

Samantha: You’ve written both contemporary and fantasy books, but you said in an interview that the fantasy book Redwall helped you become an avid reader. As a writer, do you enjoy writing one genre more than another?

Alex: I like writing everything! As this fantasy-sci-fi mashup with real themes of middle school probably demonstrates, I can’t confine myself to just one genre. The world is so full of stories, I’d hate to limit myself to just one kind.

Samantha: Do you have any tips for teachers and librarians who are trying to encourage reluctant readers to read more?

Alex: Choice! Letting readers choose their own reading—even if it doesn’t seem like great literature to us—matters. I read far more Calvin and Hobbes as a kid than I did prose novels, and far more illustrated nonfiction magazines than ‘literature’ and far more “trashy novels’ than ‘great books’ and now I’m an avid and critical reader and a fairly prolific writer. People come to it in their own time and in their own ways, and I think we need to model following our interests and knowing when to put books down if they aren’t working for us. Life is too short and there are too many good books to force ourselves to read ones we hate. For every “reluctant reader’ out there, there are books that will feel like their were written just for them. They just need the chance to find them.

Aside from choice, I think removing the stigma from not loving to read could help. We put a lot of moral weight on reading, but I know brilliant people who don’t read much of anything and total monsters who are bookworms. I think reading is a source of great joy, insight, and inspiration, and I want to invite kids into it, but I don’t see any use for shaming them when they aren’t.

Samantha: Finally, can you give us a sneak peek at book 2 in the series? When is it coming out?

Alex: It will be called BATTLE DRAGONS: CITY OF SPEED. I don’t know the publication date, but I do know that there will be high stakes dragon races, new and wonderful breeds of dragons, and new friends and enemies for Abel and his crew. It’s gonna be a high stakes, high speed, high flying romp, that I hope readers love!

Samantha: I can’t wait!

Enter the giveaway below by July 30 for your chance to get one of three copies of BATTLE DRAGONS: CITY OF THIEVES plus a signed bookplate.

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