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An Interview with AlphaBot Author and Illustrator Vicky Fang

 

RAJANI LAROCCA INTERVIEWS VICKY FANG,

AUTHOR AND ILLUSTRATOR OF

ALPHABOT

(MIT Kids Press/Candlewick Press; 14.99, Ages 3-7)

AlphaBot cover mix and match robots

PUBLISHER SUMMARY:

Found your circuit-board head? Your voice-control torso? Your hydrojet feet? Hooray! You’ve made one of the 729 mix-and-match robots that are possible with this innovative flip-flap book. Alongside the bright and cheery illustrations of robot parts is a basic alphabetical listing of terms—from android to gearsneural network to program, wheels to Z-drive—and a basic definition of each. With a concealed spiral binding and sturdy card stock pages to hold up to enthusiastic flap-turning, AlphaBot is full of appeal for young robot lovers, preschoolers who love machines, and anyone looking for STEM books for the younger set. Back matter includes a brief explanation of the three key abilities of robots: to sense, think, and act.

INTERVIEW:

Rajani LaRocca: How did you come up with this idea?

Vicky Fang: ALPHABOT actually started off with the title! As a former designer of robots for kids, I think about robots a lot, haha. Once the title and the idea of a robot alphabet book were in my head, I knew I wanted to make something interactive. I thought about different novelty formats (flaps, cutouts, etc.) until I had the idea for mix-and-match flaps. This meant kids would be able to mix-and-match the A-Z robotics terms to create their own robots. How fun and exciting! I spent a long time thinking about what terms would work and making paper dummies to prove out the concept.

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RL: What kind of challenges did you face coming up with a novelty book idea like this?

Alphabot int2 circuit fan treads
Interior illustrations and text from AlphaBot written and illustrated by Vicky Fang, MIT Kids Press ©2023.

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VF: This book was definitely a puzzle to put together! I have several paper dummies where I was working to make sure I could make all the terms work together. Once I had a working dummy, it was also challenging to sell the book! Novelty books are expensive to construct, so even though several editors were interested, it took time to find a publisher that could figure out how to make the numbers work. I’m so glad that MIT Kids Press/Candlewick found a way and I’m so happy with the quality of the book!

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RL: I see a strong parallel between this book and your debut, INVENT-A-PET. What do you see as the similarities and differences between them?

VF: I love introducing kids to STEM concepts, but really, I want kids to be creative problem solvers. This is at the heart of both books! Even though INVENT-A-PET is a fiction story about a girl inventing fantastic pets and ALPHABOT is about non-fiction informational book about creating robots, you can see that both books invite kids to be inventive! Maybe the different approach will appeal to a different kid, but hopefully, all kids find a way to engage their imagination from the STEM content in these books.

AlphaBot int1 gears hydrojets
Interior illustrations and text from AlphaBot written and illustrated by Vicky Fang, MIT Kids Press ©2023.

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RL: I loved the mix of familiar and not-so-familiar terms in this book! Was it hard to come up with a concept for each letter of the alphabet?

VF: There were letters that were more challenging than others, especially to make sure they would work in their positions in the book (head, torso, or feet.) I tried several different options, as well as shifting which flaps the letters would fall on. But since I was also illustrating, I was able to think creatively about how these robot parts might work and all fit together!

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RL: What do you hope kids get from this book?

VF: Well, of course, I hope they understand robots a little bit better! The back matter is a pretty simple explanation of the capabilities of robots and came from my engineering partner, Chaitanya Gharpure. Hopefully, kids understand a little bit more about how robots work and what kinds of parts they might have!

But ultimately, as I was saying before, I want kids to have fun and be creative, I hope that this book sparks their imagination and gives them the confidence to create.

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RL: What’s next for you?

VF: I am very excited about my next early reader series, BEST BUDDIES, illustrated by Luisa Leal, which is releasing in October with Scholastic. It’s about a dog named Sniff and a cat named Scratch who are best friends and get into mischief at home. It’s been fun to explore themes of friendship and teamwork with these two characters who approach things differently, but together.

After that, I have many more books coming! I’m currently working on a new early chapter book series, AVA LIN, about a relatable and funny 6-year-old Chinese-American girl with a knack for getting herself into—and out of—trouble. Keep an eye out for it, launching with Candlewick in June 2024!

BUY THE BOOK:

Support a local independent bookstore and get a signed copy. (Please type in the comments how you’d like the book inscribed): https://www.lindentreebooks.com/alphabot.html

Also: https://vickyfang.com/books/alphabot/

AUTHOR BIO:

Vicky Fang is a product designer who spent 5 years designing kids’ technology experiences for both Google and Intel, often to inspire and empower kids in coding and technology. She started writing to support the growing need for early coding education, particularly for girls and kids of color. She is the author, and sometimes illustrator, of nineteen new and upcoming books for kids, including the Layla and the Bots series, Invent-a-Pet, I Can Code board books, Friendbots series, and the forthcoming Ava Lin series, Best Buddies series, AlphaBot, and The Boo Crew Needs You!. You can visit Vicky at vickyfang.com.

 

SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS:

Twitter (X): https://twitter.com/fangmous

IG: https://www.instagram.com/fangmousbooks/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/fangmousbooks

INTERVIEWER BIO:

Rajani LaRocca was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now lives in the Boston area, where she writes award-winning books for young readers, including the Newbery Honor and Walter Award-winning middle-grade novel in verse, Red, White, and Whole. She has always been an omnivorous reader, and now is an omnivorous writer of novels and picture books, fiction and nonfiction, in poetry and prose. You can learn more about her atwww.RajaniLaRocca.com.

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An Interview with Rajani LaRocca, Author of Your One and Only Heart

DARSHANA KHIANI INTERVIEWS RAJANI LAROCCA,

AUTHOR OF

YOUR ONE AND ONLY HEART

ILLUSTRATED BY LAUREN PAIGE CONRAD

(Dial BYR; $18.99, Ages 5-8)

 

Your One and Only Heart Cover

 

 

PUBLISHER SUMMARY:
A lyrical introduction to the many wonders of the human heart, from award-winning author and practicing doctor, Dr. Rajani LaRocca

In this stunning non-fiction picture book, poetry and science come together with playful cut-paper illustrations to create a moving ode to the human heart and all that it does. Complete with illustrative diagrams and copious backmatter, this is a one-of-a-kind non-fiction picture book that gently guides readers through the various systems make up our most vital organ.

 

INTERVIEW:

Darshana Khiani: YOUR ONE AND ONLY HEART is amazing in how it takes a complex organ and breaks it down into chunks. What inspired you to write about the heart?

Rajani LaRocca: Ever since medical school, when I learned about the heart and how it works, I’ve been fascinated by this most vital organ. I wrote a first draft of this book way back in 2013 (!), and it was called “The Hardest Working Muscle.” It was written in prose and was over 800 words long. But it didn’t have a unifying theme or a hook.

I worked on this book on and off (mainly off) for years, but I couldn’t figure out how to write it. Then one day in 2018, I had a breakthrough: I discovered the theme I wanted to carry through the book. I realized I wanted to write about contrasting characteristics of the heart! Then I immediately decided to write about these characteristics in poetry—with several sets of paired poems. This made sense because to me, the beauty of poetry reflects the beauty of the human body.

 

DK: Well, you are one of the hardest-working writers I know. You do an amazing job at getting the main ideas across without getting bogged down in details. How did you master that balance? Also, the nerd in me wants to know why larger organisms have slower heart rates. I was surprised to learn that a mouse’s heart beats 310-840 beats/min while an elephant is only 30!

RL: I tried to focus on keeping the poetry simple enough for young kids to understand, yet interesting enough to capture their attention. There are plenty of facts that I reserved for the back matter so that the poetry could shine.

In terms of the answer to your question, are you ready to nerd out a bit? Smaller animals have higher surface area to volume ratio than larger ones. Because of this, smaller animals (especially warm-blooded animals like mammals and birds) lose heat much more quickly than their larger counterparts. So their hearts (which are smaller, too) need to beat faster to circulate more blood to offset the heat loss and maintain their body temperatures.

 

YOUR ONE AND ONLY HEART Int1 Your heart is Singular
Your One and Only Heart written by Rajani LaRocca and illustrated by Lauren Paige Conrad, Dial BYR ©2023.

 

DK: Wow! Thank you for geeking out with me. Surface area … never would’ve guessed that. The book is divided into 15 poems, 7 pairs of antonym poems (yup, I made that up), and then a final stand-alone one. It is a unique structure, one I can’t say I’ve seen before. At what point in the writing process did you decide to organize the poems in this way?

RL: I designed those first 14 poems as “antonyms” or paired poems from the moment of that epiphany in 2018! When the book got acquired and my editor contacted illustrator Lauren Paige Conrad, Lauren came back with the incredible idea of using shades of different colors for each pair of poems. For example, “Singular” and “Cooperative” are in shades of red; “Simple” and “Complex” are in shades of orange; “Energetic” and “Relaxed” are in shades of yellow, and so on, resulting in a rainbow of colors! The back matter is also “color coded” to link back to the appropriate pages! Lauren works in cut paper collage, and it blows my mind how beautifully and precisely she depicted so many aspects of the heart with her art.

There are two poems at the end, and the very last poem brings everything together by restating the contrasting characteristics of the heart and noting that kids share the same characteristics themselves!

 

DK: I must admit the last poem took me by surprise since it is so matter-of-fact. I could almost hear the EKG flatline as I read the last words. Did you always know you wanted to end the story with this poem?

RL: Years ago, when I was at a writing retreat, I shared this manuscript with renowned nonfiction author Elizabeth Partridge. She loved it and advised me that I absolutely needed to include what happens when the heart stops beating. She said that death is something that children are curious about, and that by including it in a nonfiction book about the heart, I could demystify it and put it in perspective for kids from a scientific point of view. It took me a while to figure out how to write that poem; Lauren Paige Conrad’s illustration on that spread is absolutely perfect.

 

DK: Smart suggestion, and you presented it in such a matter-of-fact way. You’ve authored two novels-in-verse, MIRROR-TO-MIRROR and RED, WHITE, and WHOLE, and a rhyming non-fiction picture book, The SECRET CODE INSIDE YOU. Do you have any tips for writers who want to write lyrically?

RL: My first tip would be to understand what you want to say—for novels in verse, that means knowing at the very least the broad outlines of the plot and emotional arcs. And for nonfiction, that means compiling all the information you want to convey.

Next, I recommend getting in a “poetic mindset” by going out into nature, reading poetry, and/or listening to music.

And then you should just try writing the poems! Don’t worry too much about whether they’re any good.

When it’s time to edit: avoid cliches, use powerful words, condense and eliminate as much as possible, and endeavor to convey your message in a fresh or different way. I always read my poetry aloud in revision, because sometimes our ears are better than our eyes at noting when something isn’t quite right.

 

YOUR ONE AND ONLY HEART Int2 Your Heart is Muscular
Your One and Only Heart written by Rajani LaRocca and illustrated by Lauren Paige Conrad, Dial BYR ©2023.

 

DK: What’s up next for you?

RL: YOUR ONE AND ONLY HEART is my fourth out of six books releasing this year!

Next up is THE SECRET OF THE DRAGON GEMS, an epistolary novel that I co-wrote with my friend Chris Baron. It’s about Tripti and Sam, two kids who meet at summer camp and find some unusual silvery rocks, which they each take home to California and Massachusetts. Then they start communicating via letter, email, texts, and video chats, because strange things keep happening, and they begin to wonder whether the rocks are more than just rocks. THE SECRET OF THE DRAGON GEMS releases on August 29!

My picture book MASALA CHAI, FAST AND SLOW, beautifully illustrated by Neha Rawat, releases on September 5. This is a story about a boy who likes to go fast and his grandfather, who likes to take things slow. Every day, they make masala chai together. One day, the grandfather sprains his ankle and can’t make masala chai, and the grandson decides to make some to cheer up his beloved grandfather . . . and hilarity ensues. This story is about learning to slow down and enjoy moments with those we love.

And next year on March 12 comes the release of my first middle grade fantasy, SONA AND THE GOLDEN BEASTS! Set in an Indian-inspired fantasy world, this story involves music and magic, and animals, but also contends with colonialism and who gets to tell history. I can’t wait to share it with the world!

DK: Yay for more books! We’ll be keeping a look out for them.

 

 

Author Rajani LaRocca headshot
Rajani LaRocca Photo Credit ©Carter Hasegawa

AUTHOR BIO:

Rajani LaRocca was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now lives in the Boston area, where she practices medicine and writes award-winning books for young readers, including the Newbery Honor-winning middle grade novel in verse, Red, White, and Whole. She’s always been an omnivorous reader, and now she an omnivorous writer of fiction and nonfiction, novels and picture books, prose and poetry. She finds inspiration in her family, her childhood, the natural world, math, science, and just about everywhere she looks. Learn more about Rajani and her books at www.RajaniLaRocca.com. She also co-hosts the STEM Women in KidLit Podcast.

BUY THE BOOK: 

https://www.rajanilarocca.com/picture-books/your-one-and-only-heart/

LINKS TO SOCIAL MEDIA:

INTERVIEWER BIO:

Darshana Khiani is an author, engineer, and advocate for South Asian children’s literature. She is infinitely curious about the world and enjoys sharing her findings with young readers. If she can make a child laugh even better. Her debut picture book, How to Wear a Sari (Versify), was an Amazon Editors’ Pick. She enjoys hiking, solving jigsaw puzzles, and traveling. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family and a furry pup. You can visit Darshana here.

 

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An Interview by Rajani LaRocca with I’m an American Author Darshana Khiani

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH DARSHANA KHIANI

ABOUT HER NEW PICTURE BOOK

I’M AN AMERICAN

ILLUSTRATED BY LAURA FREEMAN

(Viking BYR; $19.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

I'm An American cover flags diverse children

 

 

PUBLISHER’S SUMMARY:

 

INTERVIEW:

Rajani LaRocca: What was the inspiration for this book?

Darshana Khiani: My initial inspiration came in the Summer of 2017, I watched a YouTube video of a White man conversing with an Asian man about being American. Even though the Asian man answered every question with an answer that was similar if not the same as the White man’s answers, it didn’t matter. The White man would not “see” the 4th generation U.S. born ethnically Chinese man as an American. I was flabbergasted. When is one considered an American? Initially, I wrote a narrative story about a biracial child questioning his identity. Unfortunately, the draft didn’t feel like a picture book and had veered from the heart which was “If America is your home and you believe in the ideals/values of this country then you are American, regardless of color, ethnicity, or even citizenship.”  From a conference critique, I received a suggestion to create a concept book with layered text, set in a diverse classroom. The American values would be prominently featured in the main text with the student’s family backstory in the secondary text.

 

I'm an American int1 classrom
Interior spread from I’m an American written by Darshana Khiani and illustrated by Laura Freeman, Viking BYR ©2023.

 

RL: What kind of research did you do? How did you decide which people/which stories to include?

DK: Since this book covered immigration history at a higher level, I first started with a middle-grade nonfiction text on immigration history and then dug deeper into specific events and facts delving into topic-specific books.I wrote copious notes of whatever details were significant or interesting to me. I created a spreadsheet with all the different values and then marked which groups had stories or experiences that could help showcase that value. This was important since I wanted to capture as much diverse representation as possible from older immigrant stories to newer ones, immigrants from different regions of the world, as well as those groups who are non-immigrants. 

 

I'm an American int2 MexFilipAmer
Interior spread from I’m an American written by Darshana Khiani and illustrated by Laura Freeman, Viking BYR ©2023.

 

RL: Laura Freeman’s art is stunning! Was there a lot of revision once the illustrations came in?

DK: There was plenty of revision of the text for a few of the vignettes for accuracy and sensitivity reasons, and even some shuffling around of page spreads for story flow. All good stuff. There weren’t any changes needed as a result of the art. I agree Laura’s art is breathtaking and I do hope she gets some professional recognition for it. I don’t think this was an easy book to illustrate.

 

RL: What do you hope young readers get from this book?

DK: No matter who you are or how you came to the United States, if you believe you are an American then you are. Also for people who’ve been here for generations, to realize that the reasons people immigrate today such as the need for safety or basic human rights is no different than the reason people immigrated in the 17th through 19th centuries. Despite our differences and challenges as a nation is it our values that we continuously strive and try to uphold that make us American.

 

BUY THE BOOK:

Click here to purchase I’m an American.

LINKS TO SOCIAL MEDIA:

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D Khiani headshot by Lisa Noble
Darshana Khiani  – Author Photo ©Lisa Noble.

AUTHOR BIO:

Darshana Khiani is an author, engineer, and advocate for South Asian children’s literature. She is infinitely curious about the world and enjoys sharing her findings with young readers. If she can make a child laugh even better. Her debut picture book, How to Wear a Sari (Versify), was an Amazon Editors’ Pick. She enjoys hiking, solving jigsaw puzzles, and traveling. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family and a furry pup. You can visit Darshana here.

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INTERVIEWER BIO:

 

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Darshana Khiani Interviews Mirror to Mirror Author Rajani LaRocca

 

 

DARSHANA KHIANI INTERVIEWS RAJANI LAROCCA,

AUTHOR OF

MIRROR TO MIRROR

(Quill Tree Books; $19.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

MirrortoMirror cover twin sisters scaled

 

SUMMARY:

Rajani LaRocca, recipient of a Newbery Honor and Walter Award for Red, White, and Whole, is back with an evocative novel in verse about identical twin sisters who do everything together—until external pressures threaten to break them apart.

 

INTERVIEW:

Darshana Khiani: What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

MIRROR TO MIRROR Title PageRajani LaRocca: Mirror to Mirror started with a single poem. In April 2020, I took an online workshop with renowned poet Lesléa Newman in which she talked about several types of formal poetry, including the ghazal—a poetic form, often set to music, that is popular in South Asia and the Middle East. Inspired by the workshop, I wrote a ghazal about a twin lamenting that her sister had changed and the two were no longer close.

So then I started thinking: why did these two grow apart? What happened to them? And I started to create the characters. Because ghazals are often sung, I knew that the twins would be musical. I also thought that one would be hiding a secret that was eating away at her—and that secret would be the heart of her separation from her beloved twin.

 

DK: What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?

RL: One challenge I faced was the same one I always face when writing a dual-POV book: how do I make the voices distinct from one another? How do I make sure each one moves the story forward? At first, I wrote Maya’s voice in poetry and Chaya’s in prose, but that felt jarring. When my editor suggested I change it so that both voices were in poetry, that felt much better, but I still had to work hard to make the voices different from one another using the content and attitude in the poems, as well as structure, imagery, and word choice. The book starts with a couple of short paired poems, each titled “She’s the One,” where the twins express how they think about each other. These poems were drafted during that first revision, and I thought they vividly set the tone of the book and established the viewpoints of each twin.

MIRROR TO MIRROR Page3

I interviewed several sets of identical twin sisters for this story, and it was fascinating! Not only were they closer than other siblings, but some described each other as “soulmates.” They told me stories about eerie connections they had, and how no matter what else was going on in their lives, their bond was unshakable.

 

MIRROR TO MIRROR Page 4 continuation of poem

 

But there is room for misunderstanding even in the closest relationships. I tried to create a story where each twin thinks she’s doing something to help the other, but instead drives a wedge between them.

2020-2021 were difficult years for me and my family. Thanks to the pandemic, we had to contend with separation, illness, anxiety, and death. It was challenging to write a book at this time, but I had to keep going.

 

DK: What do you hope young readers get from this book?

RL: I wanted to explore anxiety and mental health in a poetic way. I wanted to show that people can struggle not only with symptoms but also with telling others, even those who know them, that they are struggling. I wanted to depict the helplessness we can feel when someone we love is going through something hard.

I hope that young readers understand that we all go through difficult times, even when we are surrounded by friends and family. I hope they learn that although we may sometimes struggle with anxiety and depression, we don’t have to deal with these feelings alone, and it’s important to share with those we love and trust because only through sharing can we start to get help.

 

MIRROR TO MIRROR Page5

 

 

DK: You are a doctor and a prolific award-winning writer, so clearly you’ve got this writing thing figured out. What do you feel are the key ingredients to keep the writing flowing?

RL: You’re too kind, Darshana! I feel very fortunate to be writing books for young people today. Here’s my advice:

  • Write what you love, what you’re interested in, what makes you happy. Don’t worry about what anyone else is writing.
  • Write a lot! I always try to have multiple projects going.
  • Figure out what’s most challenging for you to do, and work on that when you’re at your best. For example, drafting (as opposed to revising) novels is challenging for me, so when I’m working on drafting a novel, I make sure to devote time to this in the morning when I’m refreshed and less likely to get interrupted. In contrast, I find that I can draft a picture book or revise something (long or short) at just about any time. 
  • Live your life! It’s important to do things other than write to feed that writing soul. Spend time with family, friends, and in nature.
  • Support your friends and other creators. 
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself. In publishing, there are only so many things we can control—including making our books as good as they can possibly be.
  • Have fun! I always try to write from a place of joy.

 

BUY THE BOOK:

The Silver Unicorn Bookstore: https://silverunicornbooks.com/events/23095

Link to Publisher page including activities, discussion topics, etc.
An educator’s guide is forthcoming.

Purchase Mirror to Mirror on Rajani’s website.

 

Rajani LaRocca Author Photo Credit Carter Hasegawa
Author Rajani LaRocca Photo Credit: Carter Hasegawa

AUTHOR BIO:

Rajani LaRocca was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now lives in the Boston area, where she practices medicine and writes award-winning books for young readers, including the Newbery Honor-winning middle grade novel in verse, Red, White, and Whole. She’s always been an omnivorous reader, and now she an omnivorous writer of fiction and nonfiction, novels and picture books, prose and poetry. She finds inspiration in her family, her childhood, the natural world, math, science, and just about everywhere she looks. Learn more about Rajani and her books at www.RajaniLaRocca.com. She also co-hosts the STEM Women in KidLit Podcast.

LINKS TO SOCIAL MEDIA:

INTERVIEWER BIO:

Darshana Khiani is an author, engineer, and advocate for South Asian children’s literature. She is infinitely curious about the world and enjoys sharing her findings with young readers. If she can make a child laugh even better. Her debut picture book, How to Wear a Sari (Versify), was an Amazon Editors’ Pick. She enjoys hiking, solving jigsaw puzzles, and traveling. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family and a furry pup. You can visit Darshana here.

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An Interview with Author Rajani LaRocca

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH

RAJANI LAROCCA

AUTHOR OF

WHERE THREE OCEANS MEET

(Abrams Books for Young Readers; $17.99, Ages 4 to 8)

MY LITTLE GOLDEN BOOK ABOUT KAMALA HARRIS

(Little Golden Books; $5.99, Ages 2 to 5)

THE SECRET CODE INSIDE YOU: ALL ABOUT YOUR DNA

(Little Bee Books; $17.99, Ages 4 to 8)

 

 

SHORT SUMMARY:

Where Three Oceans Meet coverWhere Three Oceans Meet, written by Rajani LaRocca and illustrated by Archana Sreenivasan

A child, mother, and grandmother travel all the way to the end of the earth in this picture book that celebrates multigenerational love—perfect for fans of Drawn Together and Alma.

“I want to see what’s at the end of the earth!”

Sejal, Mommy, and Pati travel together to the southern tip of India. Along the way, they share meals, visit markets, and catch up with old friends.

For Pati, the trip retraces spaces she knows well. For Mommy, it’s a return to the place she grew up. For Sejal, it’s a discovery of new sights and sounds. The family finds their way to Kanyakumari, where three oceans meet, and delight in making it to the end of the earth together.

This own voices picture book celebrates the beauty of India and the enduring love of family.

 

SHORT SUMMARY:

Kamala-Harris LGB coverMy Little Golden Book About Kamala Harris, written by Rajani LaRocca and illustrated by Ashley Evans

Help your little one dream big with a Little Golden Book biography all about the first female Vice President Kamala Harris! The perfect introduction to nonfiction for preschoolers!

 

This Little Golden Book about Kamala Harris–the first woman, first African American woman, and first Indian American woman to be elected Vice President of the United States–is an inspiring read-aloud for young girls and boys.

 

SHORT SUMMARY:

The Secret Code Inside You coverThe Secret Code Inside You: All About Your DNA, written by Rajani LaRocca and illustrated by Steven Salerno

Learn about the secret code that is DNA in this vibrant and informative picture book!

Why can’t humans breathe underwater? Why are some people tall and others short? Why do we resemble our parents and grandparents? This book explores all this and more in flowing, rhyming text, explaining cells, DNA, and genetics in a way that is simple and easy for children to understand. Colorful and brilliantly illustrated, The Secret Code Inside You illustrates that while DNA may be the blueprint for how a person looks, what you choose to do with your body is entirely up to you!

 

INTERVIEW:

Colleen Paeff: Rajani, congratulations on an incredible three years! As a big fan of your work––and of you as a person––it has been such a joy to watch your career take off. You burst onto the kidlit scene in 2019 with your deliciously fun middle-grade novel Midsummer’s Mayhem and followed it up with the picture book Seven Golden Rings in 2020. Now, in 2021, two more highly acclaimed MG novels, Red, White, and Whole and Much Ado About Baseball, and two wonderful picture books, Bracelets for Bina’s Bothers and Where Three Oceans Meet, have already hit bookshelves. Plus, two additional picture books, My Little Golden Book About Kamala Harris and The Secret Code Inside You: All About Your DNA are coming out in the next few weeks! You are a book-making machine, Rajani! But, seriously, are you a book-making machine? 

Rajani LaRocca: Haha, not really! I do love writing, and I try to write a lot. But having six books come out in one year is mainly due to a combination of good luck and coincidence. Some of those stories I wrote quickly, and others took years. Of my books publishing in 2021, two were sold in 2018, two in 2019, and two in 2020! I’m incredibly fortunate!

 

OCEANS Illustration 1
Interior spread from Where Three Oceans Meet written by Rajani LaRocca and illustrated by Archana Sreenivasan, Abrams BYR ©2021.

 

CP: Ok. So you’re mortal like the rest of us. In that case, what would you say are the five most important productivity tools, mindsets, or life hacks that enable you to be such a prolific writer while also working as a primary care physician? 

RL: Ooh, this is such an interesting question! I would say:

  1. Write a lot. Capture ideas when they come to you, and when you feel like writing, do it—even if you only have a few minutes. I like to have multiple projects at various stages going at once so when I’m “stuck” on one thing, I can move forward on something else. Productive procrastination!
  2. Figure out what’s hard for you, and save your “clear head” time for that. I find writing novel first drafts challenging, so I try to work on my drafts in the morning, before I get caught up with work and email and my brain turns to mush. But I’ve found that I can revise at almost any time, including the evening and late at night. And I can also work on picture book manuscripts at any time.
  3. Give yourself time if you need it. Some stories need years to take shape … and that’s ok!
  4. Set deadlines for yourself. This can be as simple as an upcoming critique group meeting you want to submit something for, or a workshop or conference that you need to prepare for.
  5. Exercise, walk, shower, meditate, and do other things that get your subconscious mind going. That will help you figure out your stories!

 

CP: That’s all such great advice. Thank you! So, what does a typical day look like for you? 

RL: It depends on whether I’m in the office seeing patients. On those days, I try to get up early, write or exercise (depending on what’s more urgent), head to work, and then squeeze in some writing after dinner. On days I’m not in my office, I try to write early, then walk the dog, exercise, and keep writing in between checking messages for work and doing other errands, cooking, etc. 

 

CP: In the author’s note for Where Three Oceans Meet, you mention that, though the book is fiction, it was inspired by a childhood trip you took when you were visiting extended family in Bangalore, a city in Southern India. What was it like to see such a deeply personal story come to life through Archana Sreenivasan’s illustrations?

RL: Archana lives in Bangalore, where most of my extended family lives! She is such an incredible illustrator — from her first sketches, I knew she was the perfect person to illustrate this book! As a South Indian woman, she was able to depict the clothing, the scenery, and the food in such an authentic way.

She put a lot of details about her own grandmother into the art, so this is a very meaningful book to both of us. 

 

Kamala LGB spread 4
Interior spread from My Little Golden Book About Kamala Harris written by Rajani LaRocca and illustrated by Ashley Evans, Little Golden Books ©2021.

 

CP: It sounds like you were both really lucky to come together on this project. It was clearly meant to be! I grew up with Little Golden Books (The Poky Little Puppy was my favorite!), so I was really excited to see you’d written a Little Golden Book about Kamala Harris. What was your favorite Little Golden Book and how did the Kamala Harris book come about?

RL: I grew up on Little Golden Books — The Poky Little Puppy was my favorite, too! I love that generations of readers have grown up reading these stories.

I was so thrilled to be able to write a Little Golden Book about our remarkable Vice President! When the publisher approached my agent in November 2020, I had to say yes! But they needed my draft the next month, so it was an extra fun challenge to research and write a book in that time frame. They signed on the incredible illustrator, Ashley Evans, and then the book came together very quickly! 

 

CP: How amazing that it all came together so fast! In another one of your picture books, The Secret Code Inside You: All About Your DNA, you explain DNA to the youngest readers––which already sounds tricky––but you do it in rhyme. What an impressive feat! Tell me about the process of writing this book. Was it a rhyming text right from the start?

RL: This was the first picture book I ever wrote! It was always in rhyme, which is not easy, especially with a nonfiction book explaining the basics of genetics to young readers! I tried very hard to un-rhyme it, but the book persisted (and perhaps insisted?) on staying in rhyme. It wasn’t until years later, after the book had been sold, that I realized why my brain insisted that the book be written in rhyming verse. DNA nucleotides always pair up in the same way: adenine with thymine, and cytosine with guanine, which is similar to the “pairing” that occurs with rhyming words! 

The Secret Code Inside You: All About Your DNA explains the basics of genes and chromosomes and discusses why baby animals look like their parents and we look like our family members. But it also touches on the limits of DNA, and how our choices also determine who we become. It contains back matter with more DNA facts and an experiment that kids can do at home!

 

SECRET CODE Illustration 5
Interior spread from The Secret Code Inside You: All About Your DNA written by Rajani LaRocca and illustrated by Steven Salerno, Little Bee Books ©2021.

 

CP: I LOVE that experiment and I can’t wait to try it and that makes perfect sense about why it had to rhyme! You host a fabulous podcast with Artemis Roehrig called STEM Women in KidLit which has featured Melissa Stewart, Vicky Fang, Kirsten Larson, Jennifer Swanson, Stacy McAnulty, and so many more incredible authors! Have you noticed any similarities between all these STEM-focused women?

RL: Thanks so much! Artemis and I have had such a wonderful time doing the STEM Women in KidLit Podcast and talking to a wide variety of women with STEM backgrounds who write or illustrate books for kids. One of the common themes we’ve noticed among these creators is that they all have a sense of wonder about the world we live in and how it works, and they feel compelled to share this wonder with young readers. Another common theme is that these creators are willing to try different things and risk failure—because hypothesizing, experimenting, and learning from failure are all part of the STEM process as well.

 

CP: Of course! That makes perfect sense. At the start of this interview, we talked about making room for the different parts of your work life. I wonder if you’d mind talking about making room for different parts of your emotional life, as well. I know you lost a beloved family member to Covid-19 and it happened at a time when you were having so much success in your writing life. It must have been difficult to balance the sorrows and joys brought on by two such wildly contrasting life events. What helped you through it? 

RL: This has been such a difficult time for the entire world. All I can say is that there is still joy to be found in the midst of sorrow, and the people we love stay with us long after they’re gone. One side effect of all this time spent at home with family is that we try to enjoy the little moments and live in the present. It’s not always possible, but we keep trying.

 

CP: Thank you, Rajani. What powerful reminders. So, what’s next for you?

RL: I have a picture book and another middle-grade novel coming in 2022!

I’ll Go and Come Back will be published by Candlewick on March 29, 2022. It’s a picture book about a little girl named Jyoti who visits her family in India and feels lonely and homesick. Then her grandmother makes her feel better through play and reading and food. When the grandmother visits the girl in the U.S. and feels homesick herself, Jyoti makes her feel better. This story, which is close to my heart, is built around a phrase people use in Tamil: they never say “goodbye,” but instead “I’ll go and come back,” which holds the promise of return. It’s the first book I sold, way back in March 2018.

 My next middle-grade novel with HarperCollins comes out in fall 2022. It’s called Switch, and it’s about musical twin sisters who grow apart, impersonate each other at their summer camp on a dare, and find that music helps them find their way back to each other.

 

CP: Those sound terrific! I can’t wait to add them to my growing Rajani LaRocca collection. Thanks for making time to chat and best of luck with all your upcoming books!

RL: I loved chatting with you, Colleen! Thanks so much for having me and for asking such great questions!

 

Rajani LaRocca Author 3
Photo credit: ©Carter Hasegawa.

BRIEF BIO:

Rajani LaRocca was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now lives in the Boston area, where she practices medicine and writes award-winning novels and picture books, including Midsummer’s Mayhem (2019), Seven Golden Rings (2020), Red, White, and Whole (2021), Bracelets for Bina’s Brothers (2021), Much Ado About Baseball (2021), and more. She’s always been an omnivorous reader, and now she is an omnivorous writer of fiction and nonfiction, novels and picture books, prose and poetry. She finds inspiration in her family, her childhood, the natural world, math, science, and just about everywhere she looks.

 

 

 

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BUY RAJANI’S BOOKS HERE:

WHERE THREE OCEANS MEET

SEVEN GOLDEN RINGS

BRACELETS FOR BINA’S BROTHERS

MY LITTLE GOLDEN BOOK ABOUT KAMALA HARRIS 

THE SECRET CODE INSIDE YOU 

 

SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS:

Website: www.RajaniLaRocca.com

Twitter and Instagram: @rajanilarocca

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/rajanilaroccawriter

 

MORE ON RAJANI LAROCCA:

Writing Like a Doctor, Doctoring Like a Writer MG Book Village

SummerThyme Chocolate-Chunk Cookies with Citrus ZestThe Book Hive

Out to the Ballgame with Rajani LaRoccaKirkus Reviews Interview

How I Managed to Get Six Books Published in 2021Writer’s Digest

Reading with…Rajani LaRoccaShelf Awareness

One to Read: Rajani LaRoccaStory Monsters Ink

 

ABOUT INTERVIEWER COLLEEN PAEFF:

Colleen Paeff is the author of The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (available August 31, 2021, from Margaret K. McElderry Books) and Rainbow Truck, co-authored with Hina Abidi and illustrated by Saffa Khan (available in the spring of 2023 from Chronicle Books). Click here for more info.

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