M-E Girard has spent a lot of time thinking about gender stereotypes. She can still remember being a kid shopping with her family when she picked out a She-Ra: Princess of Power figure while her sister opted for a Hot Wheels car. “And I was like, ‘You can’t have that, those are for boys!’ ” she recalls.

Now the 34-year-old full-time pediatric nurse has published her debut YA novel, Girl Mans Up (HarperCollins/Tegen, Sept.), a meditation on the struggle to deal with social expectations, including gender and cultural norms. The story is told through the eyes of Pen Oliveira, a 16-year-old Portuguese queer gamer girl inspired by Girard’s real-life girlfriend, Melissa Silva. Pen looks and dresses like a boy and doesn’t understand “why it’s such a big deal to people, the way I am.”

The book has been lauded by critics and fellow writers and is a finalist for the 2017 William C. Morris YA Debut Award. And Girard has already been recognized by strangers—she was approached by an employee in a Chapters bookstore near her home outside Toronto. “I was so excited—I wanted their autograph,” she says. “I still have this weird feeling when I pick up my book because it doesn’t feel real. It feels like a prop I had made. For somebody to actually care that I walked into their store... I called my mom on the way home.”

But for the most part, Girard’s life hasn’t changed that much postpublication, and she has no plans to quit her day job. “I still have to go to work,” she says. “I still have to pick up my dog’s poo.”

As a kid, Girard enjoyed S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders but preferred the likes of R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike to classic literature. “All these beautiful 25-year-old-looking teens on the covers—I thought that was real life,” she says. Girard hadn’t really considered writing for teens until, at the age of 27, she challenged herself to write a full YA manuscript and take some writing courses.

Girl Mans Up was not that manuscript. “Everything takes practice, unfortunately,” Girard says, and she doesn’t expect that first book, or the one she wrote after it, to ever see the light of day.

It took “eight completely different drafts” and years of perseverance for Girard to polish Girl Mans Up, starting with the very first lines back in March 2009. “At one point, chapter two changed and I had to hit delete on the next 88,000 words,” Girard says. “I just don’t understand people who can bang out a book in a few weeks.”

But Girard had done her research, so she was prepared for the lengthy process of drafting, rewriting, and—if she got very lucky—waiting the months between a publishing deal and publication. “This all happened incredibly fast,” she says, despite the process taking eight years. “I’m always expecting the worst. I was expecting to have a book published, hopefully, when I was 60.”

Readers can look forward to more tales set in the fictional Castlehill, a small suburb based on the area Girard calls home. The proud Canadian is passionate about keeping her stories in her country, a point of concern when she first snagged an American publisher: “That is my one deal breaker, I guess. I will kill Pen if you want me to but I will not make the story happen in the U.S.,” she says. “There are things that I want to say about being a fat girl in high school. Things I want to say about feeling kind of helpless. These are all things that I’m exploring with my other stories.”