Doctor, podcast host and children’s author Rajani LaRocca talks about his year of six books

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Medicine and writing have a lot in common: years of training, teamwork towards a common goal, and a balance between science and art. But more importantly, both focus on people – people who can be brave and horrible, stupid and wonderful, and everything in between. My love for people is at the heart of both of my careers.

You have a total of six books to be published in 2021. How do you explain your desire and ability to write for children of all ages?

I love writing for mid-level readers because they learn what interests them, care deeply about family, friendship, and fairness, and still believe in the possibility of magic. And picture books are an incredible form of storytelling, where a few words accompanied by beautiful illustrations can tell remarkable stories. I write fiction and non-fiction because I love both and because children need a variety of books.

How do you choose your materials?

I have the impression that my subjects choose me! Story ideas often spring to mind when I do other things, like walking my dog, driving to work, or exercising. I almost always have multiple projects in the works, and I often switch between them, so when I’m stuck on one project, I can progress on another.

Rajani LaRocca’s latest book, “The Secret Code Inside You”Provided

“The Secret Code Inside You,” your introduction to DNA in a picture book, makes a case for both nature and education. What prompted you to explore this topic for children? And why did you write this book in verse?

I want readers to experience the wonder of how DNA works in their bodies and how it determines many of their characteristics. But as a doctor, I know that behavior can be more important than genetics, so I also want them to know that their choices and actions also determine who they are and who they will become.

This idea for a book came to me like a refrain and my first drafts were all in rhymed verse. At one point I tried to ‘de-rhyme’ the manuscript, but the book persisted in verse.

“Where the Three Oceans Meet” is a journey through a picture book to this magical place at the tip of southern India, where the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal meet. It reads like a love letter to India as well as a celebration of strong intergenerational family ties.

The book was inspired by a family trip through South India that I took as a child. It’s about a girl traveling with her mother and grandmother, and how she comes to recognize the love and strength shared by mothers and daughters that transcend distance and time.

One of your recent books is an Illustrated Biography of Vice President Kamala Harris, published as an iconic little guestbook. Why do you think it is important for very young children to get to know important people?

When young children learn about people doing important things – and especially women and people of color who are doing important and revolutionary things – they expand their sense of possibility.

“Bracelets for Bina’s Brothers”, part of the Storytelling Math series, celebrates a Hindu holiday where siblings give each other gifts and use math to solve problems. Why did you choose to highlight STEM topics?

I am biased because I love math and science and think they are inherently beautiful and fascinating. But I also know that they are everywhere and that we all use them on a daily basis.

You also published two highly acclaimed novels for middle school students this year: “Red, White, and Whole” and “Much Ado About Baseball”. What are the challenges and pleasures of writing for older children?

Intermediate level readers are growing and learning at an incredible rate. I create characters who demonstrate resilience and optimism in the face of difficult circumstances – like feeling torn between the world of immigrant parents and (mostly white) friends at school and struggling with a mother’s serious illness. – but always manage to find moments of joy. This is my favorite part of writing for college: showing that even in the darkest of times, there is hope.

LaRocca will appear as part of Bath Book Bash in Bath, Maine on Saturday, September 18, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. bainbookbash.org.

Betsy Groban is a columnist for Publishers Weekly Children’s Bookshelf and has worked in book publishing, public broadcasting and arts advocacy.


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