Diversity

South Asian Storytelling: Author Interview with Rajani Narasimhan LaRocca, and Giveaway

              

Today, I am delighted to welcome Rajani Narasimhan LaRocca to Mixed-Up Files to talk about her experience writing RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE ( Harper Collins, 2021).

  1. Tell us about your latest book, “Red, White, and Whole”. What inspired you to write this book?

Red, White, and Whole is set in 1983 and is about 13-year-old Reha, the child of Indian immigrants, who is torn between the worlds of her parents and immigrant community and her friends at school and 80s pop culture. But then her mother becomes seriously ill, and Reha is torn in a different way. The book involves the interplay between heritage and fitting in, science and poetry, 80s pop music and Hindu mythology. It’s about being caught between here and there, before and after, and finding a way to be whole.

The idea for Red, White, and Whole came to me as a metaphor: blood, and all that it means in terms of biology, heredity, and community bonds. I wanted to explore the immigrant experience from the inside—especially the personally resonant feeling of wondering whether you truly belong anywhere. The title refers to red and white blood cells and whole blood; the connotations of the colors red and white in Indian and American culture; and the colors of the American flag.

  

  1. How does your professional experience as a doctor inform you in your own writing?

Because of my background in science, I love incorporating STEM topics into my writing. My debut picture book, Seven Golden Rings (Lee & Low, 2020), features a math puzzle and an explanation of binary numbers. My second picture book, Bracelets for Bina’s Brothers (Charlesbridge, April 2021), involves very early math—pattern making. Another forthcoming picture book, The Secret Code Inside You (Little Bee Books, September 2021), explains the basics of DNA. And my third middle grade novel, Much Ado About Baseball (Yellow Jacket/Little Bee Books, June 2021), features kids who must solve math puzzles that may or may not be magical.

As I’ve already mentioned, the concept of blood is a major element in Red, White, and Whole. In the story, Reha’s mother is diagnosed with a blood cancer—acute myeloid leukemia, or AML. I did a lot of research into the disease and the treatments available in 1983, and I worked hard to make sure the medical aspects of the book were understandable to non-medical people. But the story doesn’t only explore illness. It also considers the normal functions of blood—to nourish, to heal, to protect—as a metaphor for Reha’s relationship with her mother.

  1. What was your writing process like for this story?

The writing process for this book was different from any of my other novels. I knew the general outline early on. I wanted to write this story in verse because that format, with its layers of imagery, sparse language, and use of metaphor, would allow me to tackle emotional topics without being too heavy-handed. I hoped that leaving more white space on the page would allow more room for readers to process what happens.

I had never written a novel in verse, so I read every verse novel for young readers that I could get my hands on. And in February 2019, I was lucky enough to attend a novel in verse workshop taught by Elizabeth Acevedo at the NY SCBWI conference. She gave the attendees some great tips, and we spent time analyzing excerpts from verse novels and doing a writing exercise. And a line from that exercise made it into the final version of my book!

Red, White, and Whole spent a long time in my head before I really got down to writing it. It became my “Friday night date” when I allowed myself to think about it while I worked on finishing another other novel.

Once I started writing Red, White, and Whole in December 2019, the story poured out of me in about six weeks. I was obsessed: I woke up thinking about it, and got flashes of inspiration in the middle of the night or when I was driving and had to dictate into my phone before the ideas disappeared. I had some topics that I knew would be poems from the beginning, and then I thought of other images and ideas that I wanted to explore, so I made a big list and wrote the poems as inspiration took me. Over time, I went back and put them in an order that made sense and filled in spots as needed. I asked a few trusted readers give me feedback. And then in mid-February 2020, I felt the novel was done and sent it to my agent.

  1. You have written for many different age levels from picture books to middle grade. Is there any age group you have most enjoyed working on the most? If so, why?

I’ve always been an omnivorous reader—even as a kid, I loved novels, nonfiction, comic books, comic strips . . . nearly everything. So it’s no surprise that now I’m an omnivorous writer, writing fiction and nonfiction, novels and picture books, poetry and prose.

I particularly love middle grade because the books I read from those years are the ones that have stayed in my heart. Middle grade readers are at such an important point in their lives: they seek connection with family and friends, strive to make a difference in the world, and care deeply about fairness and justice.

But I also love writing picture books—which are for children, of course, but also for the adults who read to them. And the final product, when a gifted artist illustrates your words, is nothing short of magical.

  1. What has writing this story taught you about yourself?

I knew Red, White and Whole was an ambitious project, and there were times when I was full of doubts. Did I know how to write a story in verse? Was it okay to set the novel in the 1980s? I’d put my heart and soul into this book, but would anyone else be interested in reading it?

But I couldn’t help myself—I had to write this story. And so I persevered through my doubts and allowed myself to be more vulnerable than ever before in my writing. Reha’s story is fictional, but some of the situations and many of the emotions in this book came straight from my own life.

And when I sent this book to my agent and we then sent it to editors, it became clear that this story did resonate with others—even those who don’t share my background or experiences. At its heart, this story is about love and family, friendship and belonging, and feeling pulled in different directions—and these are universal feelings, especially during adolescence.

So what did writing this book teach me? That it’s okay to be ambitious about a project. That I have the right to tell stories that are deeply meaningful to me. That baring my heart on the page can translate so that others feel it, too.

  1. What would you like to say to writers who are reading this interview and wondering if they’re good enough, or if their voices and stories matter?

There are stories that only you—you, with your own experiences, perspective, and skills—can write. So write them. Write them first for yourself, and don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Because the more specific and emotionally true a story is, the more universal it can become. And there are people who need your stories, even if they don’t know it yet.

 

Enter the giveaway for a copy of RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE by leaving a comment below.  You may earn extra entries by blogging/tweeting/facebooking the interview and letting us know. The winner will be determined on Monday, February 8th, 2021, and will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (US/Canada only) to receive the book.

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. 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. To connect with Rajani and learn more about her and her books visit her at https://www.rajanilarocca.com/ or TwitterFacebookInstagram or Linkedin

 

Meet Virginia…again

I had the opportunity to meet and speak with Kwame Alexander prior to a Toledo-Lucas County Public Library event several years ago. His eyes lit up when I shared Ohio University Press was publishing my biography of Virginia Hamilton for younger readers. I mean, LIT UP! We spoke about Virginia’s incredible body of work, awards, accolades. And of course, being the poet he is, Kwame was curious about how Ms. Hamilton’s husband, poet and teacher Arnold Adoff, was doing, and trying to figure out a way he could make it down to Yellow Springs on his tour for a visit.

Virginia Hamilton: America’s Storyteller. Buy here.

During the Q & A session, an attendee asked about the need for diverse works for younger readers. In a tip of the hat to Virginia, Kwame offered that yes, we need to continue to work toward providing new titles authored by diverse writers. But, Kwame said, we also need to take a look at what is already on our shelves.

Virginia Hamilton is the most honored author of children’s books. She was the first African American to win the Newbery Medal in 1975, for M.C. Higgins, the Great. This incredible story of a young man in Appalachia, facing the loss of his home, went on to also win the National Book Award and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, the first book to win all three awards.

M.C. Higgins, the Great. Buy here.

Prolific Author

Virginia wrote forty-one books for children throughout her career. Beginning with her first, Zeely, a story that features a Watutsi queen, published in 1967, to Wee Winne Witch’s Skinny: An Original African American Scare Tale, illustrated by Barry Moser, published by Blue Sky Press posthumously in 2004. It received Hamilton’s final starred review from Kirkus. She received 16 of the coveted Kirkus starred reviews in her career.

Zeely cover

Zeely. Buy here.

Awards and Accolades

Look up any major award for children’s literature, and you will find Virginia Hamilton among the recipients. The John Newbery Medal, The Hans Christian Andersen Medal, the International Board on Books for Young People Honour Book Award, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for her body of work, Regina Medal of the Catholic Library Association, and the Coretta Scott King Award recognition a number of times. That’s just the beginning of the list. Virginia was the first children’s book author to receive the MacArthur Fellowship, otherwise known as the “Genius Grant.”

The Virginia Hamilton Conference on Multicultural Literature for Children was established at Kent State University in 1984 and the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement is given every other year to a children’s book author or illustrator.

Have you read Virginia Hamilton’s books?

Yet, when I talk about Virginia during school and library visits, very few hands go up when I ask if children, educators, and library media specialists have read her works. On a certain level, I get it. Sadly, Virginia died in 2002, after a private ten-year battle with breast cancer. It has been 17 years since her last work was published.

Her amazing books were at risk of getting buried on the shelves, among the those that during visits to the library, Virginia would get “side-swiped every time by all those straight-back sentinels in long still rows. Short books and tall books, blue books and green books.”

Have no fear. Virginia’s works have a new, bright shiny light being shone on them.

Library of America to the rescue!

Virginia Hamilton: Five Novels. Buy here.

The Library of America is publishing a collection of five of Virginia’s novels, to be released in September 2021. Once again Zeely (1967), The House of Dies Drear (1968), The Planet of Junior Brown (1971), M.C. Higgins, the Great (1974), and Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush (1982), will be available to entertain, inspire and educate readers, of all ages.

So, there you go, Kwame. Both older and newer diverse works for children, featured prominently on those shelves for all to enjoy.

January New Releases!

Well, we made it! On this first day of 2021, let’s take a look at some new middle-grade releases coming out this January–from memoirs to graphic novels to youth immigration stories. Hope 2021 is filled with these and many other good books for you to read!

Oh My Gods! by Stephanie Cooke and Insha Fitzpatrick, illustrated by Juliana Moon; HMH Books, out on January 5

Oh My Gods!, the first in a new middle grade graphic novel series, reads as if Raina Telgemeier and Rick Riordan teamed up to write a comic, and offers a fresh and funny spin on Greek mythology. When an average girl moves to Mt. Olympus, she discovers her new classmates are gods and mythological creatures are actually real—as if junior high isn’t hard enough!

Karen is just an average thirteen-year-old from New Jersey who loves to play video games with her friends and watch movies with her mom. But when she moves to Greece to live with her eccentric, mysterious father, Zed, suddenly everything she thought about herself—about life—is up in the air.

Starting a new school can be difficult, but starting school at Mt. Olympus Junior High, where students are gods and goddesses, just might take the cake. Especially when fellow classmates start getting turned to stone. Greek mythology . . . a little less myth, a little more eek! And if Karen’s classmates are immortal beings, who does that make her?

 

The In-Between by Rebecca K. S. Ansari;
Walden Pond Press, out on January 26

A dark, twisty adventure about the forgotten among us and what it means to be seen, from the acclaimed author of The Missing Piece of Charlie O’Reilly.

Cooper is lost. Ever since his father left their family three years ago, he has become distant from his friends, constantly annoyed by his little sister, Jess, and completely fed up with the pale, creepy rich girl who moved in next door and won’t stop staring at him. So when Cooper learns of an unsolved mystery his sister has discovered online, he welcomes the distraction.

It’s the tale of a deadly train crash that occurred a hundred years ago, in which one young boy among the dead was never identified. The only distinguishing mark on him was a strange insignia on his suit coat, a symbol no one had seen before or since. Jess is fascinated by the mystery of the unknown child— because she’s seen the insignia. It’s the symbol of the jacket of the girl next door.

As they uncover more information— and mounting evidence of the girl’s seemingly impossible connection to the tragedy—Cooper and Jess begin to wonder if a similar disaster could be heading to their hometown.

Green Card Youth Voices: Immigration Stories from Upstate New York High Schools, edited by Tea Rozman Clark and Julie Vang; Green Card Voices, out on January 26

The Green Card Youth Voices series is a collection of books dedicated to sharing the immigration stories of young, new Americans from all over the country, with Rochester and Buffalo as our next stops. The upcoming “Green Card Youth Voices: Upstate New York High Schools” is a collection of personal essays written by 29 authors from Twelve Corner Middle School, Bilingual Language and Literacy Academy, Lafayette High School, and Newcomer Academy, and residing in New York State. The book includes a study guide, and a glossary to help teachers use the book as an educational resource when teaching about immigration. Included in the book are first perspective stories, full portraits, maps, 5-minute edited video links, a study guide, and a glossary which all adds a multimedia dimension to this already dynamic collection.

 

Clues to the Universe by Christina Li 
Quill Tree Books, out on January 12

This #ownvoices debut about losing and finding family, forging unlikely friendships, and searching for answers to big questions will resonate with fans of Erin Entrada Kelly and Rebecca Stead.

The only thing Rosalind Ling Geraghty loves more than watching NASA launches with her dad is building rockets with him. When he dies unexpectedly, all Ro has left of him is an unfinished model rocket they had been working on together.

Benjamin Burns doesn’t like science, but he can’t get enough of Spacebound, a popular comic book series. When he finds a sketch that suggests that his dad created the comics, he’s thrilled. Too bad his dad walked out years ago, and Benji has no way to contact him.

Though Ro and Benji were only supposed to be science class partners, the pair become unlikely friends: Benji helps Ro finish her rocket, and Ro figures out a way to reunite Benji and his dad. But Benji hesitates, which infuriates Ro. Doesn’t he realize how much Ro wishes she could be in his place?

As the two face bullying, grief, and their own differences, Benji and Ro must try to piece together clues to some of the biggest questions in the universe.

 

The Sea in Winter by Christine Day
Heartdrum, out on January 5

In this evocative and heartwarming novel for readers who loved The Thing About Jellyfish, the author of I Can Make This Promise tells the story of a Native American girl struggling to find her joy again.

It’s been a hard year for Maisie Cannon, ever since she hurt her leg and could not keep up with her ballet training and auditions.

Her blended family is loving and supportive, but Maisie knows that they just can’t understand how hopeless she feels. With everything she’s dealing with, Maisie is not excited for their family midwinter road trip along the coast, near the Makah community where her mother grew up.

But soon, Maisie’s anxieties and dark moods start to hurt as much as the pain in her knee. How can she keep pretending to be strong when on the inside she feels as roiling and cold as the ocean?

 

Explorer Academy Future Tech: The Science Behind the Story by Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh; Under the Stars, out on January 5

You’ve gone on adventures with Cruz Coronado and his fellow recruits as they communicated with whales using the Universal Cetacean Communicator, camouflaged themselves using the Lumagine shadow badge, and deployed octopods to make speedy escapes. Now dive further into the near-future world of Explorer Academy by learning about the real-life scientific discoveries that inspired the gadgets. This cool book profiles real-life National Geographic explorers who devised innovations like RoboBees (Mell); it features cutting-edge tech that’s actually being developed, and provides empowering stories of how tech is enabling conservation successes. Fields of study cover wearable technology, submersibles, robotics, medicine, space farming, everyday technology, and the world of the future.

Every good explorer craves information, and now it’s time to amp up your technology knowledge. After all, the near-future world of Explorer Academy is just across the horizon, and much of its tech is already shaping the world we live in.

 

Pity Party by Kathleen Lane; Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, out on January 19

Discover an “absurd, funny, and thought-provoking” book perfect for “anyone who has ever felt socially awkward or inadequate” (Louis Sachar, author of Holes and the Wayside School series).
Dear weird toes, crooked nose, stressed out, left out, freaked out
Dear missing parts, broken hearts, picked-on, passed up, misunderstood,
Dear everyone, you are cordially invited, come as you are, this party’s for youWelcome to Pity Party, where the social anxieties that plague us all are twisted into funny, deeply resonant, and ultimately reassuring psychological thrills.There’s a story about a mood ring that tells the absolute truth. One about social media followers who literally follow you around. And one about a kid whose wish for a new, improved self is answered when a mysterious box arrives in the mail. There’s also a personality test, a fortune teller, a letter from the Department of Insecurity, and an interactive Choose Your Own Catastrophe.

Come to the party for a grab bag of delightfully dark stories that ultimately offers a life-affirming reminder that there is hope and humor to be found amid our misery.

 

While I Was Away by Waka T. Brown
Quill Tree Books, out on January 26

The Farewell meets Erin Entrada Kelly’s Blackbird Fly in this empowering middle grade memoir from debut author Waka T. Brown, who takes readers on a journey to 1980s Japan, where she was sent as a child to reconnect to her family’s roots.

When twelve-year-old Waka’s parents suspect she can’t understand the basic Japanese they speak to her, they make a drastic decision to send her to Tokyo to live for several months with her strict grandmother. Forced to say goodbye to her friends and what would have been her summer vacation, Waka is plucked from her straight-A-student life in rural Kansas and flown across the globe, where she faces the culture shock of a lifetime.

In Japan, Waka struggles with reading and writing in kanji, doesn’t quite mesh with her complicated and distant Obaasama, and gets made fun of by the students in her Japanese public-school classes. Even though this is the country her parents came from, Waka has never felt more like an outsider.

If she’s always been the “smart Japanese girl” in America but is now the “dumb foreigner” in Japan, where is home…and who will Waka be when she finds it?

 

These are just a few of many great books coming out in January. Happy reading everyone!