Ahead of the upcoming Author Talk with Calyssa Erb, Huron County Library branch assistant Shannon O’Connor connects with the author to discuss her book, Maya Plays the Part, the journey to publication, what inspired her to feature an autistic female main character, and more!

What inspired you to write a middle school book featuring an autistic female main character?

I wrote this book for 10-year-old me who loved to dive into stories of characters going for their goals. I read a lot when I was younger, but I never saw an autistic female main character in the books that I read. When I received my own autism diagnosis a few years ago, I decided to revisit my experience at that age with this new understanding and to imagine what might have been different if I had this knowledge then.

Were there any parts of writing Maya’s story you found particularly challenging and if so why?

The most challenging part of writing Maya’s story was my own inner critic and my worries about whether she would be likeable. I wanted her to feel authentic and shed a light on some of the comments I received as a young girl, but I also wanted her to be someone that young readers would want to spend time with as she works towards her own dreams.

 What was your journey to publication like? Did it take a while to find an agent or publisher for your story?

I have wanted to be an author since I was very young, and I wrote my first contest winning short story in the 3rd grade. However, I struggled a lot with finishing projects. It wasn’t until I received my autism diagnosis that I was able to recognize the factors that were impacting my writing like autistic burnout and sensory overwhelm. It was around the time that I started working on Maya’s story that Annick Press set up their mentorship program. I received such valuable feedback from them during this mentorship that it gave me the momentum to keep working on Maya’s story. About a year later, I had revised enough that I felt confident in sending the book out to publishers and agents. I received a lot of rejections! But then, serendipitously, Annick reached out and offered to publish the story.

 Growing up did you have any favourite middle grade books or characters that you connected with? 

As a pretty shy and reserved kid, young girls who were determined and the heroes of their own stories resonated with me. It’s interesting because the way we designate a middle grade book now is different from how children’s books were categorized when I was growing up! These are some of the characters and books that hold a special place in my heart from when I was 10-12 years old: The Dear Canada series, Meggie from the Inkheart series, Mitsuki of the manga Full Moon o Sagashite, Ella of Ella Enchanted and Anne from Anne of Green Gables.

 Have you noticed an increase in more #ownvoices autism stories in fiction and do you have any favourites or any authors you admire?

I have noticed there are more #ownvoices stories and stories about autism from a lived experience. There’s still lots of opportunity for more autism stories in fiction because the autistic experience is so varied. My favourites in the middle grade space include A.J. Sass, and Meg Eden Kuyatt. I’m also a huge fan of Elle McNicoll whose A Kind of Spark was adapted into a TV series! It’s really incredible and a must-watch for autistic representation in kids media.

Do you have any plans for more books featuring Maya in the future and if not can you tell us anything about what you’re working on next?

I am interested in returning to Maya in the future! She’s already started whispering that she’s got more stories to share with readers, but right now I’m working on a story about neurodivergence and body image. I’m hoping to create a wonderfully connected universe of characters, so that readers can jump in from any book and feel connected to a larger world.