Our Friend is Here! is a guest feature at The Quiet Pond, where authors, creatives, and fellow readers, are invited to ‘visit’ the Pond! In Our Friend is Here! guest posts, our visitors (as their very own unique character!) have a friendly conversation about anything related to books or being a reader — and become friends with Xiaolong and friends.
If you are a gamer looking for a good book about gaming or if you have a young person in your life who loves playing or watching e-sport, then you won’t go wrong with Last Gamer Standing by Katie Zhao, a book about a Chinese-American girl who is an up-and-coming amateur e-sport player of a battle royale VR game called Dayhold. I had the pleasure of reading Last Gamer Standing last week – I even reviewed it! – and as a fellow gamer, I can attest to how good this book is.
Last year, we had the honour of having Katie Zhao visit us when she had, then, recently published her debut, The Dragon Warrior. Katie talked about who she wrote The Dragon Warrior for, and the importance of ’embracing our inner dragons’ – and she visited us a red dragon! A year and a half and three published books later, Katie is back and I get the privilege of interviewing her about her newest middle-grade book, Last Gamer Standing! I’m personally so excited to have Katie visit again (this time, visiting us as her same red dragon, but now a virtual gamer red dragon!), and you are going to love the interview that I did with her.
Before we dive right into my interview with Katie, and in case you haven’t heard of her book, I’d like to formally introduce you to Last Gamer Standing!
Last Gamer Standing by Katie Zhao
Twelve-year-old Reyna Cheng is the up-and-coming junior amateur Dayhold gamer, competing in a VR battle royale against AI monsters and human players alike. But despite Reyna’s rising popularity and skills, no one know who she is. Gaming is still a boy’s club and to protect herself against trolls, she games as the mysterious TheRuiNar.
When Reyna qualifies for the Dayhold Junior Tournament sponsored by her favorite team, she knows she’s got what it takes to win the championship title and the $10,000 prize.
But when she’s blackmailed and threatened to be doxed, having her personal identity revealed, by an anonymous troll, Reyna will have to deal with a toxic gaming community, family complications, and the increasing pressure to win as the tournament gets underway.
Author Interview: Katie Zhao
CW: Hi Katie! A warm welcome back to The Quiet Pond – it’s so awesome that you are visiting us again. Since your last visit, you’ve published two more books with two more on the way: The Fallen Hero (2020), How We Fall Apart (2021), Last Gamer Standing (2021) which we’ll talk about today, and Winnie Zheng and the Magic Mooncake (2022). Talk about an incredible array of books! Go you! What has your writing journey been like so far, since your last visit in May 2020? How have you grown in the last year and a bit?
Katie: Hi CW! Thank you so much for having me back at The Quiet Pond – it is such an honor. And thank you for the kind words! I can’t believe it’s been about a year and a half since I last visited, and what a whirlwind it has been. I sold LAST GAMER STANDING to Scholastic in summer 2020, and within a few weeks, I then sold my new middle grade trilogy WINNIE ZENG to Penguin Random House. Then, I had to finish drafting LAST GAMER STANDING and WINNIE ZENG Book #1 (new title to be revealed very soon!), also back-to-back, within a few weeks.
Since that whirlwind of a summer, I’ve published and written YA work as well (my debut YA HOW WE FALL APART, which came out last month, and THE LIES WE TELL, which comes out in summer 2022, and…secret stuff!), and…I may or may not have also finally finished a satisfying draft of an adult fantasy novel that I’ve been working on for 3 years. So…it’s been a lot! Lots of work across age categories and genres. But to me I’m truly living my best life. And I am so very excited about all the work coming down the pipeline after LAST GAMER STANDING.
CW: Let’s talk about your newest book, Last Gamer Standing, a middle-grade book about gaming, the gaming community, and one Chinese-American girl’s mission to be the best. What was your inspiration for Last Gamer Standing?
Katie: As an introverted kid, reading books and playing video games were two of my greatest loves, so it feels as though it would be natural for me to find my way to writing a book about gaming one day. With gaming as huge as it is, and streaming platforms like Twitch making it even bigger, I wanted to tackle the concept of how gaming would look several decades into the future, when technology might be advanced enough to make e-sports really huge. I also wanted to write about gaming from the perspective of a female Chinese American gamer, because I’ve never read a book like that before. Thus. LAST GAMER STANDING was born!
CW: What I loved about Last Gamer Standing was that Dayhold, the game that Reyna plays, felt like a real game – one that feels both familiar but also new in how you’ve envisioned gaming will look like in 50 years from now. What research did you do when coming up with the VR tech in Last Gamer Standing? And what media inspirations did you draw from when crafting Dayhold?
Katie: Your observations are so spot-on! In terms of VR research, I actually didn’t do much in the way of reading nonfiction/informative books (usually that’s my go-to research method). I did, however, read gaming fiction, like READY PLAYER ONE by Ernest Cline and GAMER ARMY by Trent Reedy, to immerse myself in the world of imagined futuristic gaming. And, honestly, I’m going to count my own gaming as research! Fortnite helped inspired the battle royale-style game Dayhold as seen in LAST GAMER STANDING, but I also drew inspirations from pretty much every game I’ve ever loved, like Pokemon, Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Mario…all of it came together to craft Dayhold.
CW: Sexism in the gaming community is a prominent theme in Last Gamer Standing. What was your motivation behind portraying misogyny in the gaming community, especially in a book with a younger audience?
Katie: You’re right that sexism is a huge problem in the gaming community, and yet I’ve never read a gaming book that addressed it. When I was a young girl, I remember gravitating toward single-player games and avoiding lots of games that required having to interact with others online, because I was very put off by what I’d observed about the gaming community. I never felt as though I belonged. I think that if I had, I would have been more active in gaming spaces online. It’s important to discuss such issues with younger audiences, because at that age, kids are so impressionable. It’s crucial to show how the sexist and misogynistic behaviors seen in gaming spaces are harmful toward girl gamers, and it’s also important to empower girl gamers to show them that they do belong in these spaces.
CW: Your YA debut, How We Fall Apart, released in August this year – congratulations! I know that How We Fall Apart means a lot to you personally. In your experience, how did writing How We Fall Apart differ from writing your middle-grade novels, process-wise, inspiration-wise, and emotionally?
Katie: Thank you! Writing HOW WE FALL APART and LAST GAMER STANDING could not have been more different experiences. They are very different in theme, age category, genre, writing style – pretty much aside from having Chinese American protagonists, as well as the same author, they don’t have that much in common, at least not from the surface. I had to rewrite HOW WE FALL APART several times before finally nailing the proper beats for a YA thriller, whereas my initial chapter outline for LAST GAMER STANDING was sufficient enough that my first draft didn’t need to be rewritten much at all. Whereas LAST GAMER STANDING was very fun to write, and didn’t require a ton of emotional energy from me, HOW WE FALL APART is so deeply tied to my personal experiences that it required a much bigger emotional investment. One thing I will add, though, is that both books are full of heart – and readers who pick up both my YA and MG titles should be able to see that same heart shining through the writing, though the stories themselves may be wildly different.
CW: I’m really excited to read your next middle-grade, Winnie Zheng and the Magic Mooncake! Can you tell us what Winnie Zheng will be about, and can you tease us with what your favourite scene in the book is?
Katie: Thank you so much! WINNIE ZENG follows the adventures of our main character Winnie as she tries to navigate her first year of middle school. On the first day, a group of students make fun of her Chinese lunch, which is a moment that so many children of immigrants have experienced. The book is really a way for me to reclaim that negative experience and turn it into a positive – Winnie learns to love making her cultural food. In the process of that, she accidentally awakens shaman powers that were passed down to her from her grandmother via cookbook, and has to save the world from evil spirits. My favorite scene is probably when evil spirits attack while Winnie is at Chinese school. It’s just a hilarious scene and I had a blast writing it, and reminiscing about my days attending Chinese school.
CW: The last time you visited, I didn’t get the opportunity to ask you this question, so I’m excited I get to ask today! What is a food that reminds you of ‘home’ – wherever or whoever that may be?
Katie: I would have to say that dumplings remind me most of home. Ever since I was old enough to be able to make dumplings, I’ve made them with my family for any special holiday, and there’s nothing like the taste of homemade dumplings for me. My grandparents live in China so I rarely get to see them, but I have treasured memories from my childhood when they would visit the States and we would make dumplings together. Dumplings are a food that not only are delicious, but also remind me of some of my best memories with family.
About the Author
Katie Zhao is a 2017 graduate of the University of Michigan with a B.A. in English and Political Science, and a 2018 Masters of Accounting at the same university. She is the author of THE DRAGON WARRIOR series (Bloomsbury Kids), HOW WE FALL APART (Bloomsbury Kids), forthcoming LAST GAMER STANDING (Scholastic), and forthcoming WINNIE ZENG series (Random House Children’s Books). She is represented by Penny Moore of Aevitas Creative Management. She’s a passionate advocate for representation in literature and media.