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Winnie Zeng Unleashes a Legend

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An epic new fantasy series inspired by Chinese mythology that #1 New York Times bestselling author Kwame Mbalia calls "a hilarious tussle between homework, family, and heroism." When a girl awakens the stuff of legends from an old family recipe, she must embrace her extraordinary heritage to save the world.

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.

ISBN-13: 9780593426609

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Random House Children's Books

Publication Date: 04-25-2023

Pages: 304

Product Dimensions: 7.63(w) x 5.13(h) x 0.69(d)

Age Range: 8 - 12 Years

Series: Winnie Zeng #1

Katie Zhao is a graduate of the University of Michigan, where she earned a BA in English and political science in 2017 and an MA in accounting in 2018. She is the author of the Dragon Warrior series, How We Fall Apart, Last Gamer Standing, and the Winnie Zeng series. She's a passionate advocate for diverse representation in literature and media.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Middle school. Is there a scarier place on the planet? In books and movies, everything bad happens in middle school. Kids get bullied. Kids go through puberty. Teachers might turn into monsters or, worse, give out real homework.

Middle school has been ruining young lives for so long, there’s an ancient Chinese proverb that goes, “Middle school is the worst three years of a person’s life.” Okay, I may have made that one up, but if you ask me, it should be a proverb. Maybe middle school wasn’t so bad in ancient China.

Anyway, I planned to be as well equipped as possible to face down the beast known as middle school. I tried to buy a sword on eBay, but my parents stopped me and yelled about “buying dangerous weapons online,” even after I explained that the only danger was in me attending middle school without proper equipment. That didn’t go over very well, either.

As a result, I was forced to be resourceful. All summer before starting sixth grade at Groton Middle School, I studied movies, comic books, and anime to learn how to survive the upcoming school year. I practiced my roundhouse kicks in case an eighth-­grade bully tried to shove me into a locker (something that was likely to happen daily, according to movies). Another common middle school occurrence, based on my reading of comic books and anime: kids discovering their hidden magic or superpowers and saving the world from evil adults. So I bought a pink cape and sparkly pink tights and memorized the Sailor Moon theme song. The chances were pretty slim, but just in case the Sailor Scouts came knocking on my door, asking me to join them in fighting evil by moonlight, I had to be prepared.

Then there was my real-­life research on middle school, which came from my fourteen-­year-­old sister, Lisa. She’d just graduated from Groton Middle School and moved on to the only place more frightening than middle school: high school. Observing Lisa for the past three years had taught me exactly what not to do.

Still, all of my middle school readiness wasn’t enough to prepare me for the scream that woke me up on the first day of school:


My mother’s shouting jerked me out of sleep. Groaning and rubbing my eyes, I rolled over to check my clock. It was only seven in the morning. Every other eleven-­year-­old on the planet was still fast asleep. Thanks to the nightmare I had last night, I’d barely slept a wink.

It was the same nightmare I’d had for almost two weeks straight, ever since I lost first prize in the statewide piano competition by only half a point. In my nightmare, the judge, who bore a suspicious resemblance to my mother, handed me the first-­place trophy. But as soon as I reached out a hand to grab it, the Mama-­judge snatched it back and announced that she’d made an error, and first place actually went to a giant marshmallow. For coming in second, I received . . . a truckload of SAT prep books.

“What the heck? Why am I being punished?” I cried out.

“This is for your own good, Winnie.” The Mama-­judge opened the truck’s back door, revealing towering piles of workbooks. I tried to run but found that my feet were frozen. A huge, wobbling stack of books fell out of the truck and landed right on top of—


I’d woken up from the nightmare drenched in sweat at three a.m. Even though I was exhausted, it took me a whole hour to fall back asleep. I hadn’t exactly been eager to see the conclusion of that nightmare.

In reality, I had lost the first-­place trophy not to a giant marshmallow but to David Zuo, a.k.a. the single most annoying eleven-­year-­old in the whole country. Actually, make that the whole Western Hemisphere.

David attended my Sunday Chinese school, and we had the same piano teacher. As far back as I could remember, Mama was constantly comparing me with him. (Did you see that David won another Chinese language contest? Did you hear that David got a perfect score on his piano test?) And in my parents’ eyes, David Zuo could do no wrong. Though, of course, they didn’t know him like I did. They didn’t know that sometimes he went out of his way to show me that he’d gotten a higher score on a Chinese test, the jerk. They didn’t know that if you looked up obnoxious in the dictionary, you’d find his picture. It was up to me to prove to my parents that I could be just as good as—no, better than—David at anything and everything.

This was the second time in a row that I’d lost the piano competition to that turd David. It wasn’t exactly a successful start to the new school year, but at least I had the whole rest of the year to work on it.

“Stop thinking about David,” I ordered myself. Even though David had ruined part of my summer, at least there was no chance of him ruining middle school for me, too. He went to some smarty-­pants private school in the next town over. I still reigned at the top of my grade, and I planned to keep it that way all throughout middle school.


“Coming!” I’d promised my mother yesterday that we’d wake up early and make breakfast together. And if there was one thing that could get me to leave my bed, it was the promise of food.

I grabbed the first-­day-­of-­school outfit that I’d left hanging on my desk chair: a white sundress Mama had bought on sale at T.J. Maxx. Bounding down the stairs, I quickly combed through the tangles of my long black hair with a brush, which Mama had also picked up from the clearance rack at T.J. Maxx. (There was nothing my mother loved more than finding a good bargain at that store.) Then I styled it into my signature hairstyle, two long braided pigtails.

“What’re we making?” I asked as I walked into the kitchen.

Mama wrapped her flower-­printed apron around her waist and then handed me mine, which had a panda design. “Your favorite. Scallion pancakes.”

At the thought of the savory dish, my mouth watered. Mama had already gotten out all the ingredients, so my job was to stir them together in a big mixing bowl.

By the time I’d finished and Mama had heated the pan, my older sister, Lisa, poked her head into the kitchen with a sleepy-­looking expression. “Morning.” She made a beeline for the box of Frosted Flakes on top of the refrigerator, which was pretty much all she ever ate for breakfast.

“Put that cereal away,” Mama ordered, pointing at Lisa with her spatula. “We’re having scallion pancakes for ­breakfast.”

“But we have Chinese food, like, every meal of every day,” Lisa whined.

“Well, we are Chinese people,” Mama pointed out.

“That doesn’t mean we can’t eat other food.”

I tried my best to tune them out. Mama and Lisa had this argument almost daily. Ever since Lisa had started hanging out with the “popular” crowd back in middle school, she thought that Chinese food was uncool. Popular in middle school meant taking pride in mediocre grades and having parents who spoiled the heck out of you. Oh, and not eating good food, apparently.

“—and don’t even bother trying to appeal to your father to let you eat that cereal junk,” Mama was saying to Lisa. “He’s already gone to the office for the day.”

Baba was always at the office. If he could, he would probably sleep there. He worked as a lawyer, which meant he got to yell at people for a living and came home at really odd hours. One time I woke up at midnight because of a loud banging noise in the kitchen. I thought our house was being robbed, so I grabbed my tennis racket and ran downstairs. Before I could show off my sweet serve by aiming the ball at the “criminal,” like I’d learned from the manga The Prince of Tennis, the “criminal” had flipped on the light and started yelling at me. Turned out Baba had been heating up leftovers for a late dinner, and he didn’t appreciate nearly being beaned on the heinie with a tennis ball.

Mama was a business school professor at the local university, and sometimes she didn’t go to campus until after lunch. So she did the parenting for both her and Baba, which meant she basically yelled for a living, too.