Sixth grader Winnie Zeng has two goals: survive middle school and beat her longtime opponent David at Chinese school and piano competitions. To prepare for middle school, Winnie has studied comic books and anime. The only problem is that one common thread in those stories is magical powers, and she obviously doesn’t have those. Or at least she thought she didn’t, until she made her grandmother’s moon cakes recipe for a school bake sale and suddenly the spirit of her grandmother is talking to her through her pet bunny, which definitely wasn’t in the anime she studied!
Katie Zhao’s Winnie Zeng Unleashes a Legend is a laugh out loud funny middle grade novel that beautifully weaves together modern Chinese American life with Chinese mythology in a fast-paced plot.
First-person narrator Winnie is hilarious, often lightening serious moments with her humor. She also shines a light on the pressure middle schoolers face, from fitting in to mountains of homework to extracurriculars. Winnie has to balance battling evil spirits to prevent the world as she knows it from descending into chaos and studying for that pre-algebra test, and the struggle is real. Winnie is a fantastic narrator, who finally shows that being the Chosen One isn’t all its cracked up to be, especially when you have an English test this week. She not only struggles with self-confidence, like every tween and teen, but also with the constant comparisons she has to hear. Her parents compare her to her sister and her rival, the other adults in their close knit Chinese American community compare all the kids to one another and have humble-brag competitions that Winnie expertly narrates, even as she tries to escape to hide in the bathroom.
Winnie Zeng is full of painfully accurate middle school moments— the cafeteria hierarchies, the bake sale drama, the soul crushing loneliness that comes from feeling so alone. Winnie has both universal struggles, such as these, as well as experiences more unique to immigrant heritages, such as her packed lunch being different from the PB&J fare that populates so many other lunch boxes. Zhao expertly shows these moments without slowing the fast pace of the novel, making Winnie not only relatable and endearing, but setting the reader up to cheer her on as she faces bigger and bigger battles.
The action sequences in this book are fantastic. The battles are well-described and often bring in a dose of humor to lighten the moment, as well. Winnie’s fish-out-of-water experience as a hero provides plenty of comedic relief even when the stakes are high, and the reader can’t help but cheer her on through her moments of self-doubt.
The scenes between Winnie and her sister Lisa perfectly encapsulate sisterhood and the struggle that comes with changing people and relationships. Winnie’s ability to receive guidance from her grandmother’s spirit is one that may make young readers cherish their relatives more, and adult readers miss their departed loved ones a little bit more. Lao Lao’s spirit not only helps train Winnie as she develops her abilities, but also helps her see the value in her relationship with her sister.
Winnie Zeng is appealing to all readers, as it has a great balance of characters. The battles, action sequences, emotional discussions, and addressing of bullying would make this an excellent classroom read.
Winnie Zeng Unleashes a Legend will be available 26 April 2022. Thank you to Katie Zhao, Random House Children’s, and NetGalley for an advanced ebook edition such that I could share my honest opinions.
Winnie Zeng Unleashes a Legend is available from Bookshop.org here and Amazon here. Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and Amazon. I will earn a commission (at no extra cost to you) if you click through and make a purchase.