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About The Book

Percy Jackson meets Tristan Strong in this hilarious, action-packed middle grade contemporary fantasy that follows a young boy as he journeys across China to seal the underworld shut and save the mortal realm.

Zachary Ying 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.

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor

By Xiran Jay Zhao

About the Book

Hui Chinese American and gamer Zachary “Zack” Ying is doing everything he can to fit in at his small-town Maine school. Who needs to learn about one’s heritage when you’ve got to focus on making friends, right? When his life suddenly turns upside down, Zack realizes exactly how wrong he was. It is precisely that missing cultural knowledge he’ll need to win a race against time and seal the newly leaking portal to the Chinese underworld.

With the help of his gaming headset (occupied by Qin Shi Huang, one of China’s most prominent rulers, a brutal tyrant, and Zack’s apparent ancestor) and some new friends, Zack must make up for lost time and cram in all the cultural knowledge he actively avoided in the past. In this action-packed journey of a lifetime, Zack has got to heist ancient artifacts, dodge historical enemies, and save himself, his mom, and the rest of the world. Will our gamer-turned-hero be up to the challenge?

Discussion Questions

Prereading: Analyze the cover. What details stand out to you? What can you infer about the main characters or the contents of the book just by looking at the cover? Discuss as a group.

1. What are microaggressions? Discuss the microaggressions that Zack experiences in chapter one.

2. When you have labels, it comes with stereotypes and other assumptions. Both of Zack’s parents have been labeled “terrorists” for different reasons. Zack’s dad was labeled one by the Chinese government for speaking up against what was wrong. Zack’s mom was labeled one for wearing a hijab. Discuss why this label is dangerous. What are some other labels you can think of? How are these other labels dangerous as well?

3. After the fight with Aiden, Zack holes up in his room for hours ignoring a number of calls and communications from his phone and headset. How does he feel? What would you have done in his situation?

4. The characters in the book talk a lot about culture and identity. What are some cultural things that make up your identity? Who can you share that with? Who can you learn more from?

5. Upon arriving in China, Zack admits that he is not the “typical American, the typical Chinese person, [or] even the typical Muslim.” (Chapter five) Discuss why he feels this way. Describe a time when you felt different from everyone else. What did you learn from that experience?

6. Ethnicity plays a huge role in the book. Zack is Hui and Melissa is Miao. How does Zack feel when Melissa shares that she, like him, is also from an ethnic minority group? How can you tell that their ethnicity means a lot to both of them? Explain.

7. Consider this quote from Zack: “Whenever an empire or country pushed for everyone to be the same or to do the same, there were inevitably those who suffered because they couldn’t help but be different.” (Chapter seven) What are the pros and cons of standardization? Explain your rationale.

8. In exchange for being a mortal host, Zack, Simon, and Melissa each had a “wish” they wanted to be granted: strength, money, and fame, respectively—all things that the emperors would be able to help them achieve. What does each wish reveal about them as a person? What desire would you like granted? In small groups, discuss what it is, why, and how you can achieve it one day, even without a legendary emperor.

9. Zack is constantly unsure if he’s working with the villains or the heroes. Qin Shi Huang berates him for seeing the world in just black or white. Describe examples of moments when Qin Shi Huang and the group were heroes and when they were like villains. Discuss in a small group. What makes a hero? What makes a villain? Explain your answers.

10. It is clear from the beginning that Zack actively avoided his Chinese heritage in an effort to fit in. What are some examples from the beginning of his journey? How does that change throughout the course of the book?

11. Zack spends much of this journey constantly experiencing new and sometimes alarming things, very little of which makes him feel safe. What would make Zack feel safe? What makes you feel safe? Is it a place or a person or an object? Why? How important is feeling safe to you?

12. Wu Zetian says that the legends of the Eight Immortals were corrupted by people’s retellings so that they are not as pure or true as one might believe. How does this compare to myths and folklore from other countries? Consider Greek and Roman gods, but also think about other countries. Compare and contrast the Eight Immortals and other gods.

13. In a short amount of time, Simon and Melissa become the friends that Zack has always wanted to have. Zack understandably feels betrayed when he realizes who actually put his mother’s spirit in harm’s way. If you were Zack, how would you have handled the situation? If you were Simon and Melissa, how would you have convinced Zack of your good intentions? Explain.

14. The seal provided the holder absolute power and command over other people. Would you wield a power like this? If so, how would you use it? Why does Zack decide to use the seal’s power one last time and then no more?

15. Technology plays an important role in this book, but it can be used by people in good, neutral, and bad ways. Using XY Technologies as an example, discuss how it is good, neutral, and bad. What other technologies or tools can you think of? How are they used in good, neutral, and/or bad ways?

16. Explain what Jason Xuan wants to do with the same portal Qin Shi Huang and team are trying to seal. Are you Team Jason Xuan and the Yellow Emperor or Team Qin Shi Huang, Tang Taizong, and Wu Zetian? Explain your rationale.

17. Explain what happens to Zack when Fusu takes control over Zack’s body. What did Zack see while he was being possessed? How did it make you feel? How would you have handled the situation?

18. Time and time again, Zack displayed resilience and courage. Would you say that, like his original desire, he’s become stronger? Discuss examples of this. Why was he so willing to continue this mission even though it put him in harm’s way?

19. Qin Shi Huang was known for being the great unifier of China. Wu Zetian was known for being the only empress of China. Tang Taizong was known for ruling during the Golden Age of China. These legacies were built and stayed long after the person passed on. What do you want your legacy to be? What do you want to be remembered for?

20. Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor ends with a cliff-hanger! How do you feel about this ending? Explain your emotions. What do you wish will happen in Zack’s next adventure?

Extension Activities

Alternate Cover Design

Now that you have read the book, were your initial presumptions about the cover correct? How would you re-create the cover artwork to better represent your experience with the book? For extra points, draw or lay out how you would redesign it.

Fact from Fiction

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor features a lot of different Chinese legends and myths, from legendary emperors like Qin Shi Huang to other famous characters like poet Li Bai and assassin Jing Ke. Pick one of the legends featured in the book. Do a little research and read up on the character. Compare their role in the book to what you read online. Did author Xiran Jay Zhao do the legend justice or was there more creative liberty? Discuss with a partner.

Mapping the Route

Print out a minimalistic map of China. As you’re reading Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor, trace the route from where Zack first lands in Shanghai to where the book ends in Xi’An. Of course, some of their off-land expeditions can be harder to track, but interesting to pinpoint, nevertheless! See if you and a partner can find images online that anchor you from the places in the book to these real-life places.

Labeling Activity

Zack doesn’t like certain labels that are put on him, especially since he’s not the “typical American, the typical Chinese person, [or] even the typical Muslim.” Discuss ways in which you label yourself. Which labels do you like and which do you not like? What are ways in which you and your friends label one another? What happens because of your labeling or other people’s labeling of you? Discuss in small groups ways in which you can speak out against labels and stereotypes.

Culturally Relevant

Author Xiran Jay Zhao is an active YouTuber with hundreds of thousands of subscribers. Their channel is dedicated to Chinese history and culture and, most popularly, how cultural inspirations in pop culture are presented. Find “Everything Culturally Right and Wrong with Mulan (1998)” on their channel and discuss, as a group, what you found to be interesting and three things you didn’t previously know.

Author Talks

As a group, come up with a list of ten questions that you would like to ask the author if given the opportunity. Choose a few and take to social media with those questions to connect with the author! Maybe they’ll even answer a question or two from your class!

This guide was created by Christy Lau, Senior Children’s Librarian at the Chatham Square Branch Library of the New York Public Library.

This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes. For more Simon & Schuster guides and classroom materials, please visit or

About The Author

Photo by Xiran Jay Zhao

Xiran Jay Zhao is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Iron Widow series. A first-gen Hui Chinese immigrant from small-town China to Vancouver, Canada, they were raised by the internet and made the inexplicable decision to leave their biochem degree in the dust to write books and make educational content instead. You can find them @XiranJayZhao on Twitter for memes, Instagram for cosplays and fancy outfits, TikTok for fun short videos, and YouTube for long videos about Chinese history and culture. Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is their first middle grade novel.

Why We Love It

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is voicey, action-packed, and laugh-out-loud funny. Plus, it makes learning about Chinese history a blast (never thought I would use the word “blast” to describe learning about any history, but here we are). I am over-the-moon in love with this delightful, hilarious, and heartfelt fantasy adventure.”

—Sarah M., Editor, on Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor

Product Details

  • Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books (May 10, 2022)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781665900720
  • Grades: 3 - 7
  • Ages: 8 - 12
  • Lexile ® 830L The Lexile reading levels have been certified by the Lexile developer, MetaMetrics®

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Raves and Reviews

Zach Ying has always had a hard time fitting in: he and his mom keep ­moving; they never have any money; and to top it all off, he’s the only Muslim ­Chinese kid at school. So when he learns that he’s meant to host the spirit of the First Emperor of China, he’s more than a little surprised. But a lot is riding on this: not only is his mom’s spirit hanging in the balance, but if Zach can’t seal the portal to the Chinese underworld in the next 14 days, the world will be overtaken by malevolent spirits. Oh, and the First Emperor didn’t properly ­possess Zach, instead attaching to his AR headset, which means Zach might have to find his own warrior spirit, something he’s pretty sure he doesn’t have. This is a creative, engaging story that will appeal to fans of ancient mythology and world history. The plot will draw readers in, but what will keep them is Zach’s struggle to belong, his journey to find himself and discover real friendship, as well as the highlighting of underrepresented mythologies. While the folklore and history might not be as ­smoothly incorporated as other ­mythological fantasies, it’s done well enough that middle grade readers won’t mind. VERDICT This new ­series will grab readers with its ­dynamic plot, video game lingo, and relatable characters. An exciting new addition to the world of ­mythology- and history-based ­adventure novels.

– School Library Journal, July 1, 2022

"Culture and technology clash as Zachary Ying takes adventure to a new level!"

– Kwame Mbalia, #1 New York Times bestselling author

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is an edge-of-your-seat adventure that has you laughing on one page and cheering on the next. Zach is a gamer turned hero who goes on an epic quest across the globe only to find his greatest strength within. More, please!

– James Ponti, New York Times bestselling author of CITY SPIES

"Jam-packed with humour, heart, and hijinks, ZACHARY YING is the Chinese history class you wished you had at school. Exploring diaspora and intersectional identity in between magical heists and mythical creatures, this book is a marvel. I am officially a Xiran Jay Zhao stan!"

– Graci Kim, author of THE LAST FALLEN STAR

"I started reading it and finished it in a day! There are so many things I adore about the book from the characters to the amazing and hilarious facts about Chinese history. It had me grinning all the way! It's a wonderful book, and I will be raving about it to everyone I know for a long time."

– Ann Sei Lin, author of Rebel Skies

Twelve-year-old Zack is recruited into helping the spirit hosts of ancient Chinese emperors in a dangerous mission.

Zack has always struggled with a sense of belonging. He is the only Asian kid in his mostly White town in Maine, and, as a Uighur Muslim, he is also a minority among other Chinese and Muslims. His dissident father was executed by the Chinese government, and he faces Islamophobia in the U.S. Zack has made friends through playing Mythrealm, an augmented reality game that uses a wearable portal-lens that spawns mythical creatures from folktales and legends from around the world. When a real demon threatens Zack and his mom is attacked, ending up in a coma, he discovers a connection to the spirit of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, that gives him magical powers. Together with the spirit hosts of two other former emperors, Zack travels to China in an attempt to save his mother’s life and prevent an otherworldly disaster. This science-fiction/fantasy mashup incorporates Chinese history and mythology into relentless action. Thrilling battles and chase and heist scenes are balanced with a droll sense of humor and quieter moments that explore Zack’s complex relationship with his cultural identity, including criticism of Chinese government policies that oppress Muslims.

Levels up legendary Chinese heroes and folklore into a thrilling adventure with video game appeal. (Fantasy. 9-13)


– Kirkus Reviews, 3/1/22

Zhao’s (Iron Widow) action-packed middle grade debut transports readers to a 12-year-old’s encounters with legendary Chinese figures who connect him to his personal history. Gamer Zachary Ying desperately wants to fit in outside the virtual world of Mythrealm, but as the only Asian kid in his largely white Maine town, he finds himself quietly suffering microaggressions and peer pressure to avoid standing out. Zack’s Chinese family is also Hui Muslim, a minority among other Chinese and Muslim people, but he knows little about his family legacy outside of his father’s execution by the Chinese government for speaking out against its "oppression of Uighur Muslims and other minorities." So when an attack on his mother leaves her soul in the hands of demons, and Zack is revealed to be descended from China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, he feels overwhelmed and unprepared. Things are further complicated when the Dragon Emperor bonds to Zack’s gaming headset, needing the boy to host his spirit. Now, Zack must travel across China and carry out a vital mission with the fate of the mortal realm at stake. Compact history lessons woven throughout guide Zack through the plot and into a greater understanding of his identity, while plentiful pop culture references root this fantastical read in the contemporary, making for a quickly paced book that’s by turns educational, reflective, and thrilling. Ages 8–12. Agent: Rachel Brooks, BookEnds Literary. (May) Correction: The text of this review has been updated for clarity.

– Publishers Weekly, 5/2/2022

Awards and Honors

  • New York Public Library Best Books for Kids

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