This year has been an abundant one for Rajani LaRocca: by the end of 2021, she will have published six new books: Red, White, and Whole (Quill Tree, Feb.), Bracelets for Bina’s Brothers (Charlesbridge, Apr.), Much Ado About Baseball (Little Bee, June), Where Three Oceans Meet (Abrams, Aug.), My Little Golden Book About Kamala Harris (Golden Books, Aug.), and The Secret Code Inside You (Little Bee, Sept.). Among other things, LaRocca credits her training in science—she is a practicing primary care physician and an academic—with her bounty of children’s books. “Part of what you do in science is to be willing to try and fail,” she says. “With writing, too, you have to put yourself out there and be vulnerable and just be willing to try it in order to get anywhere with it.” PW spoke with LaRocca about the similarities between writing books and the scientific process, her many inspirations, and her 2022 releases.
You have a wide variety of writing interests: STEM, cross-cultural narratives, Shakespeare. Where did these stem (pun intended) from?
One of the things that I tell kids during school visits is that none of us is one thing. As children, we have lots of interests. We’re obsessed with one topic and then we kind of go to another topic, but we still love that [first] thing. The unfortunate part of growing up is that sometimes the world tells you that you need to focus on one thing and only love that. When I was growing up, I loved math and science, but I also loved reading and writing. There weren’t a whole lot of books about people like me [in the ’80s and ’90s], but I saw myself in other characters. I would also go to India and read Amar Chitra Katha comics, and they were amazing too. They gave me insight into where I was from, but they weren’t exactly me either. I write the things I do now because I had this confluence of different influences throughout my life. One of the joys of writing for kids is that I get to now say, “Well, wow, I love all of these things.” They all play a role in my stories.
Do you work on multiple projects at a time? How do you create the time and space to switch from one project to the next?
I only work on one novel at a time, though I may be thinking about another novel and taking notes about it. Picture books are a good break for me. When I’m too tired to work on a novel, a picture book idea will come to me and I can just draft it in a half an hour or 45 minutes, and then set it aside. Picture books are great practice because I know that I’m going to rewrite it many times; the stakes of a first draft are not that high.
Red, White, and Whole is a novel in verse. What are the joys and challenges of writing in this form?
I wrote it in verse because that was how the story came to me—as a metaphor of blood and all that it means in terms of biology and heredity and family and community. I knew that this story was going to be very emotional and I knew that it was going to be very interior. I knew [the reader was] going to stay in the main character Reha’s head the whole time.
I’d never written a novel in verse before. I read every verse novel I could get my hands on and learned a lot from that. I also lucked out and attended a first novel workshop with Elizabeth Acevedo. She gave us pointers to think on when writing in verse. We did poetry writing exercises, and a revised version of a poem [I wrote in that workshop] is in Red, White, and Whole. I wrote the book in six weeks. It just poured out of me. Verse is particularly suited to very emotional topics. Because of the [visual] space on the page, it leaves space in the reader’s mind for emotions. You can tackle subjects that might otherwise be heavy with a light hand so that people can experience the depth of emotion.
What was the inspiration for your latest picture book, When Three Oceans Meet?
When Three Oceans Meet was inspired by a road trip that I took with my family when I was a kid. I was born in India and immigrated to the U.S. as a baby. Every few years, we would go back and see my relatives in India. We took this trip with my mom and my grandmother. I was the only kid. We meandered all through South India. At the end of the trip, we went to Kanyakumari, which is the very southern tip of the country where three oceans meet—the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean. I don’t know whether it was my imagination or if it’s actually true, but I remember standing there seeing three different colors of water. I use the idea of three oceans meeting to tell a story about a girl, her mother, and her grandmother. There’s a scene in the book where the grandmother feeds the girl mosambi, which is a citrus fruit, [which] happened to me on this trip. I will never forget the tenderness in that moment. This girl wants to see the end of the earth, but she realizes that the most important thing is something she already has.
The Secret Code Inside You is about DNA. What do you hope young readers learn from this book?
When I first learned about DNA and genes, I realized that all these things were happening inside [our bodies] at every moment, and that it wasn’t just us. It was every living thing. I was so blown away with wonder. As I learned more about [the subject], and learned that about genomic maps, it opened the door to understanding so many things, not just about disease, which is of course interesting for people in medicine like me, but also human behavior and what makes us tick as organisms. That is fascinating to me. Part of what I’m trying to convey is that wonder. A baby dog is a puppy, and puppies grow up to look like their parents. And humans look like their parents! But why? Our genes are different, yes, but there is also a limit to what our genes determine. We make choices that also determine who we are. That is so important for people to know. Being a child is a wonderful thing, but it’s also challenging. Someone is always telling you what to do when you’re a kid! I want kids to understand that the choices that they make determine who they are, that it’s not all written in their genes.
What did you like most about writing My Little Golden Book About Kamala Harris?
It was a real challenge. I’d never written a picture book biography before. I knew how many pages it had to be. I had a structure, which was helpful. I had to narrow it down to what things about Kamala Harris’s life I thought were most important, and appeal to the interests of a young kid. She’s the first in so many ways and that’s a theme in this biography. I also included what she likes to cook and about her Chuck Taylor collection. The neatest part of writing was tracing where she came from and how that influenced everything about her today.
Can you tell us about your 2022 titles, I’ll Go and Come Back and Switch?
I’ll Go and Come Back is based on my own relationship with my grandmother. It’s a story about a girl who goes to India and feels lonely and homesick because her cousins go to school and she has no one to hang out with all day. Her grandmother sees this and connects with her through play and reading and food. When it’s time to [return to the U.S.], the girl doesn’t want to leave. Her grandmother reminds her that in Tamil, you never say goodbye. You say, “I'll go and come back.” There’s always this promise of return. I just love that. It’s built around that Tamil phrase, which is in the book.
The Switch is about twin sisters who are both very musical, but one of them has a problem that she doesn’t want to get help with. Her twin sister gets so frustrated that she changes the kind of music she plays. A rift forms between them. They make a bet with each other: at music camp, they’re going to impersonate each other and play each other’s music and whoever does the best and lasts the longest without being discovered wins. They end up finding their way back to each other because of music.
How has your work as a doctor informed your work and your writing practice?
Writing and medicine have a lot in common. The heart of both professions is a fascination with and love for people. Listening is an important skill in both writing and medicine. As physicians, we have to observe with all of our senses and make assessments of what is going on with someone. You can be the most amazing clinician, but if you don’t listen to what your patient is saying, you’re going to miss what they’re worried about or what they need to hear or understand in order to feel better.
One of the things that I bring from medicine to my writing practice is repetition of a skill. When you learn a skill, you basically just have to keep repeating it, usually at first under the guidance and supervision of somebody else. Then after a while, you have to practice it on your own until you’re good at it. To get even better at what you’re doing, [you have] to try and teach somebody else how to do it, because if you can teach someone else, then that means you’ve mastered it. The other thing is goal setting. Because of my years of having to pass exams and stuff, I set goals. Also, with science in general, you get used to just doing what you need to do in a certain order so you don’t forget something. And that helps with writing too. When I’m not inspired, I ask myself what are the steps that I have to take to make sure that I get to the next point in my story. And I just make myself do it, even when it doesn’t feel good. And eventually I get back into the groove.
The Secret Code Inside You: All About Your DNA by Rajani LaRocca, illus. by Steven Salerno. Little Bee, $17.99 Sept. 14 ISBN 978-1-4998-1075-2