asian-american, fantasy, middle grade

Middle Grade Must-Reads – Winnie Zeng Unleashes a Legend

Winnie Zeng Unleashes a Legend (Random House Books for Young Readers)
Written by Katie Zhao

Middle school can be a scary transition in life. New building with new teachers, some familiar faces among the student body, but always the chance it’s other kids you’d rather not be in class with. Winnie Zeng has the expected anxieties around this new chapter in her life. Still, it’s about to get more complicated than she could imagine. When a class bake sale is announced one morning, Winnie begins racking her brain on what to bake and settles on her late grandmother’s mooncakes. After making them, she suddenly unleashes grandma’s spirit from her pet bunny. The world is full of ghosts, some friendly and others malevolent. Winnie comes from a long line of people who fight back against the evil ones. Unfortunately, something has entered our realm and is causing havoc, so it’s up to Winnie, her grandmother, and some unexpected allies to take it on.

This first book in a new middle-grade fantasy series is off to a fantastic start. Author Katie Zhao has presented a main character whose voice is clearly defined from page one and experiences all the pitfalls and successes you would expect from a young child. However, even without the fantasy elements, this is still a solid book about growing up and dealing with insecurities surrounding siblings & classmates. It’s become cliche to feature Asian children whose parents have very high standards. Still, I think it’s an experience that all children can relate to. As a young adolescent, life is full of figuring out people’s expectations of you and trying to juggle them all. 

Unleashes a Legend is full of Chinese mythology and folklore that doesn’t get too complex to overwhelm the unfamiliar. It is a great entry point that is sure to inspire some readers to want to learn more about the beings and concepts mentioned. Zhao approaches these supernatural elements like the Ghostbusters or Men In Black, putting Winnie in a world where most of the population is unaware of the mystical aspects that live beneath the surface. She presents this with hefty doses of humor, and nothing gets too harrowing. I would point out there are a few too many pop culture references that I think will age portions of the book shortly. I find the best fantasy literature are the books that seek to remain timeless, never pinning themselves down to a single point which makes them endlessly readable. This is a grand first entry in a potentially fantastic new series.

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