Ask the Author: Alyssa Zaczek

What would you like readers to know about you? 

Hi! My name is Alyssa, and I write books for middle grade kids. I grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago and now live in a little town in the middle of nowhere called Saint Cloud, Minnesota. I did a lot of theatre and speech when I was in school, and I studied playwriting when I went to college. I have two dogs and two cats, and when I’m not writing, you can find me in the kitchen making something yummy, or selling vintage clothes from my online store. I identify as bisexual and my pronouns are she/her.  

 
What is your book about for those who haven’t read it? 

Seventh-grader Martin McLean doesn’t know how to express himself. His mother is an artist, his colorful Tío Billy works in theater, and his best friends Carmen and Pickle are outgoing and confident. But Martin can only find the right words when he’s answering a problem at a Mathletes competition—until his tío introduces him to the world of drag. In a swirl of sequins and stilettos, Martin creates his fabulous drag queen alter ego, Lottie León. As Lottie, he is braver than he’s ever been; but as Martin, he doesn’t have the guts to tell anyone outside of his family about her. Not Carmen and Pickle, not his Mathletes teammates, and definitely not Chris, an eighth-grader who gives Martin butterflies. When Martin discovers that his first-ever drag show is the same night as the most important Mathletes tournament, he realizes that he can only pull off both appearances by revealing his true self to his friends—and channeling his inner drag superstar. MARTIN explores both self-discovery and self-acceptance, and touches on themes every middle grader will recognize: Friendship, family, and first crushes, plus tougher topics like homophobia and bullying.  

 
What has been your inspiration for writing it? 

I knew that I wanted my middle grade debut to center on the performing arts in some capacity, because they were so formative for me, particularly in my middle school years, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to start with theatre. I also knew that I wanted to write a protagonist who was questioning their orientation and their identity in general, and for the message to be very strongly in support of that journey without pushing a “coming out” narrative. There are many fantastic, very necessary books in that vein, but I wanted to write a book that was less about the destination and more about the journey. I wanted to tell kids it was okay not to know who they were – who does, at 12? Heck, who does at any age? I think we’re always in the process of discovering ourselves, and I wanted to validate that for kids at a really vital point of exploration in their lives. 
 

In a more literal sense, the idea for MARTIN seemed to spring into my head fully formed after I saw a viral video of a drag kid named Lactatia. At the time of the video, Lactatia was about nine years old, and I was struck not only by her fabulous attitude, style and confidence, but also by the community of adults and kids alike who rallied around her and supported her passion for drag. When I was in middle school, there were no narratives about queer kids experimenting with their identity and loving who they were. I didn’t even know different sexualities beyond “gay” or “straight” existed until I was well into high school! Seeing Lactatia and her fellow drag kids, I was struck by an overwhelming feeling of gratitude that the world has progressed to the point that kids can be free to express themselves however they like, and I knew I’d found the right topic for the book. I’ve loved drag since the early days of RuPaul’s Drag Race, so I was excited to dive further into that world, and hoped that with a lot of guidance from real-life drag queens, drag kids, fellow queer folk and a diverse editing team, I could do the drag scene justice to the best of my ability. And in a really exciting, humbling turn of events, Lactatia actually read MARTIN when it was finished, and her blurb graces its cover!  

 
What was your favorite scene or part of your book to write? 

My favorite scenes in the book are the chat sequences between Martin and his friends. I come from a playwriting background, so writing conversations that are strictly dialogue is really enjoyable for me. I grew up in the heyday of AIM, so I hear myself and my friends at age 12 or so in those scenes very much!  

 
What books or authors inspired you to become a writer? 

So many! And many of them I read in middle school! I devoured every book I could get my hands on, but some authors I loved included Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Gail Carson Levine, Margaret Petersen Haddix, Andrew Clements, and Lois Lowry. Specifically during my middle school years, some of my favorite books were THE BABY-SITTERS CLUB series and the HARRY POTTER series, THE TWO PRINCESSES OF BAMARRE by Gail Carson Levine, HARRIET THE SPY by Louise Fitzhugh, A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeleine L’Engle, and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee. As a grown-up, my favorite book is THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE by Audrey Niffenegger.  

 
What advice would you give to aspiring authors who want to write a book? 

For aspiring authors of any age, I’d let you in on a secret: The absolute hardest part of writing a book is getting started. There’s nothing scarier than looking at a blank page, I know. But there’s also nothing more wonderful-feeling than filling it up! If you want to write a book, the best thing you can do is simply begin. It doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, it shouldn’t be! First drafts are meant to be messy, wild beasts, scribbled down in passionate fits and starts of inspiration. You’re telling the story to yourself in that first draft – let it flow out of you organically and worry about everything else later. Just begin. One word, to start. Then another. And one to follow that one . . . You get the idea! 
 

OTHER DETAILS: 

Where can I purchase MARTIN MCLEAN, MIDDLE SCHOOL QUEEN? 

I always advocate for interested readers to purchase their copy of MARTIN from their local independent bookstore! Our indie bookstores need us now more than ever, and it’s a win-win: You get to take home a book, and they get to keep their doors open for readers like you! You can find MARTIN at a local bookstore near you by visiting IndieBound.org. If you don’t have an indie bookstore in your area, MARTIN can also be found at Barnes & Noble bookstores and online, on Target.com, and on Amazon.com. It is also available in e-book (Kindle) and audio book formats, both on Amazon. 

If you are an educator using MARTIN in the classroom, you can find the downloadable discussion guide on Sterling Publishing’s website. 

Where can I follow Alyssa Zaczek on social media? 

Thank you for your interest! I am primarily active on Twitter, where you can find me at @AlyssaDZaczek. If you’ve read MARTIN and enjoyed it, I’d also encourage you to follow me on Goodreads and give MARTIN a review. You can also check out my website, www.alyssazaczek.com, for the most recent news and updates on all my goings-on.  

I am a reader or a parent interested in finding LGBTQIA+ resources and support. Where do I start? 

Here are some wonderful, inclusive sources for LGBTQIA+ kids and their parents or caregivers seeking information, support, and community:  

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