STEM Tuesday– Math– Interview with Author Rajani LaRocca

STEM Tuesday–Math– Interview with Author Rajani LaRocc

Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview, a repeating feature for the last Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math!

Today we’re interviewing Rajani LaRocca, author of Much Ado About Baseball. The book is told in alternating voices. Trish pitches for her team and worries about her future until she is sent a mysterious book filled with math puzzles. Ben is a former pitcher who now plays first base but is a math nerd at heart. They are math rivals at school competitions but now must form an alliance to solve the mysterious puzzles. They’re rewarded with magical results but soon they reach a puzzle that is the hardest of them all.

Kirkus Review said, “A moving tale of baseball, magic, and former rivals who come together to solve a problem.” (Fantasy. 8-12) Starred review.

Author Brad Thor’s review on The Today Show called it one of the best middle grade books he’d read as an adult.

 * * *

Christine Taylor-Butler: Rajani, you are a prolific writer for both children’s fiction and nonfiction. Many people in are unaware of how many women in our industry have STEM backgrounds. For example, you have both an undergraduate and a medical degree from Harvard University. Was it always a dream to go into medicine?

Rajani LaRocca: I knew I wanted to study medicine as far back as elementary school. But I was also a huge reader. In high school I told my creative writing teacher I was going to be a doctor and he said, “Who said you have to choose?” He gave me books written by doctors. It blew my mind. Even so, I wrote a lot of personal essays in college but no fiction. I didn’t start writing for children until much later. I love what I do and I still have an active practice in Internal Medicine/Primary Care.

CTB: How did you get the idea for this book?

MidsummersMayhemRajani: It started when I wrote my first book: Midsummer’s Mayhem. It takes the magical people from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and puts an Indian family at the center of the action. I thought, “What would fairies like Tatania and Oberon be doing if they were living in today’s world and interacting with modern kids?” The answer is they would be fighting and it would embroil a number of people. I tried to figure out what fairies might fight over and what the consequences would be. I decided they would be fighting over something ridiculous and petty like sweet things vs. salty things. So Tatania, queen of the fairies, opens a bakery and Oberon, king of the fairies, opens a snack shack. Whoever made the most money would win. Then I realized, not only could Tatania be the patron of sweet things, but also other things like cooking and music and literature. I imagined that this might be why there are so many famous writers in Concord, Massachusetts. Oberon, on the other hand, would be the patron of math, science and sports. So the first book is from the perspective of “team sweet.”

Much Ado about Baseball is from the perspective of “team salty.” But it’s still about fairies being petty in their rivalry.

Much Ado BaseballCTB: We always suggest aspiring writers spend time observing kids to lend authenticity to their work. Did you have any real life inspirations for the story?

Rajani: My daughter is inspiration for one of the characters. But for Much Ado About Baseball, my son is the inspiration. He’s been a math kid from the day he was born. He understood multiplication and the power of two at a very young age. When he was 3 years old he was trying to figure out analog clocks so my husband taught him the power of five. After a while my son would quiz me too. He was on the math team in school and was always working on all these puzzles. He has just graduated from Williams College with a degree in statistics.

CTB: There’s so much detailed information about baseball and the math involved. How much research did you have to do to understand the game?

Rajani: My son played baseball from the age of five so that’s how I know so much about the game. I’m a mom that lived with baseball and knew there was a lot of math involved. It’s very much a summer activity. So I thought it would be fun to write a book from the perspective of kids who were math rivals playing on the same baseball team. And when they team up, magical things happen. I was inspired by Shakespeare’s play, Much Ado About Nothing.

TrishCTB: You wrote the book in alternating voices, Trish and Ben who don’t start out as friends. Was that hard?

Rajani: This book almost broke my brain :-). It was my sophomore novel and I was wondering how to write in dual point of views in such a way that each advances the plot. I had to balance competing motivations since the character’s didn’t know what was going on in the other person’s head.


CTB: So in a way that puts the readers at an advantage over the characters.

Rajani: Exactly. The reader is in on the secret. They can know and see things the characters can’t see.

CTB: This month’s theme is math. And while we usually cover nonfiction, books, we realized that sometimes people have a hard time getting their head around the idea that STEM can be embedded in speculative fiction for kids. You created a book about baseball that included a book of magical puzzles but also embedded so many facts about the game and math in general. It’s seamless.

baseball diamond

Photo by Haniel Espinal on Unsplash

Example: “Twelve-year-olds like me play Little League on a sixty-foot diamond, with forty six feet between the pitchers mound and the plate. But in the spring, we move up to the big diamond, which is the size of a Major League infield – ninety feet between bases, and sixty feet six inches from the pitcher’s mound to home plate.”~ Trish

Rajani: Trish is a math kid but it also fuels her secret sadness. When you move up to the bigger field it’s a long way to throw a ball. Those kids are still kids but in a year they’ll be stronger and bigger. But Trish is a girl and she’s thinking that the boys are going to get stronger faster. She’s worried she can’t do baseball anymore but is trying to make the math work of moving up to a bigger baseball diamond. So the book looks at both STEM and character growth.

CTB: When I was writing the Lost Tribes Series I had to balance puzzles needed for the characters to advance in the plot with the real science of the places and problems they encountered. How hard was it for you to embed the science and create the puzzles at the center of your plot?

Rajani: The Math Puzzler team (the imaginary math team in the book) was about these kind of puzzles. They’re the same type of activities my son was doing in the school math contests. The problems are not just straight math. The goal was to get as many right as you could. So the lead up to the competition was practicing different types of puzzles. It takes too much time to “brute force” the answers so the students were constantly thinking of multiple ways to arrive at an answer in the least amount of time.

I observed my son and thought “How would I solve this myself?” These were upper elementary kids learning the process. I wanted to put that in the book as well. The idea that math could be fun and joyful. It’s just a puzzle to solve.

CTB: You’ve written other books that are more directly about STEM. For example: The Secret Code in You – All about your DNA. and A Vaccine is Like A Memory.

Secret Code Inside You

Rajani: The Secret Code Inside You: All about your DNA was the first picture book I ever wrote. It’ a non-fiction science book in rhyme. I tried hard to change it to prose but it didn’t work. The nucleotide base pairs line up every time so it fits the same pattern as a rhyme.

vaccine is like a memory

I wrote A Vaccine is Like a Memory after I got my first Covid-19 vaccine. I wanted to show how vaccines occurred and the science behind it. But also what the world was like before vaccines were invented. It’s like a memory of a disease you’ve never had. I loved the metaphor: at the end, we have to remember. We can’t forget that people once died of diseases we don’t have anymore. An example would be measles. We have to remind people what it was like back then. Polio in the US is another great example. Until recently, young people have never experienced those desperate times. We need to ask the question – do we want to go back to those times? No. Many diseases were particularly deadly to young children.

One of the things I discovered in my research was that a slave named Onesimus taught a minister, Cotton Mather about smallpox and how to people in Africa inoculated other people from getting sick. Doctors in the Boston area turned up their noses at the the suggestion except one: Zabdiel Boylston. The people he inoculated died at 1/6th the rate of the general population. Later, Edward Jenner realized that cowpox was a milder disease but gave people an immunity against smallpox. This concept of giving people a mild infection to prevent them from getting sick had been known for thousands of years in China, Africa and India.

spread from vaccines

That’s how I came to the title. Vaccines are our body’s way of “remembering” a disease it might not have actually had so it can fight the illness the person is infected later. Aside from water and food sanitation, vaccines are one of the greatest advancements in public health.

One and only heartCTB: So the book about vaccines will be out in June 2023. Is there any other book we should look forward to seeing?

Rajani: I wrote “Your One and Only Heart.” It’s a picture book written in poetry. I love this book so much. It will be out August 2023. The book is about anatomy and physiology.


CTB: One last thing. Many people might not know that you produce the STEM Women in Kidlit podcast with the amazing Artemis Roehrig. It rates a 5 out of 5 on What was the inspiration for this.

STEM Women podcastRajani: I was at the Kindling Words children’s literature retreat eating a meal and Artemis said “You know, we both have STEM backgrounds and I’ve been asking around. You wouldn’t believe how many women in this room also have STEM backgrounds. She said “We should do a podcast.” There’s a lot of giggling because working together is so much fun. We started in 2020. There are so many links between STEM and writing for kids. So many authors draw inspiration from their experiences and training.

I wanted to highlight women’s voices. The world rejoices about men’s contributions in children’s literature and in science. As a result, people believe that what they’ve been taught about history is all there is to know. Our podcast celebrate the contributions of women. Also, I’m heartened about the number of biographies coming out about the significant contributions made to the field by women. I happy to see the industry changing.

CTB: Thanks for joining our blog this month, Rajani. I would like to urge readers to look at Rajani’s substantial body of award winning work. She covers topics in a way that is both joyful and accessible. It’s a great way to help encourage young readers to learn about the world and how they can create their contributions or solve problems. And most importantly? STEM is just puzzles scientists like to solve.

LaRocca book banner



Rajani LaRocca


Rajani LaRocca is the award-winning author of books for young people. Her work includes novels and picture books, fiction and nonfiction, written in both prose and poetry. Her middle grade novel in verse, Red, White, and Whole, won a 2022 Newbery Honor, the 2022 Walter Dean Myers Award, the 2022 Golden Kite Award, and the 2021 New England Book Award, as well as other honors. She is the author of numerous other acclaimed novels and picture books, including Midsummer’s Mayhem, Seven Golden Rings, and more. She also co-hosts the STEM Women in KidLit Podcast. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Medical School, she’s been working as a primary care internal medicine physician since 2001. She lives in eastern Massachusetts with her family and impossibly cute dog. Follow @rajanilarocca on Twitter and @rajanilarocca on Instagram.


author christine Taylor-butler

Photo by Kecia Stovall

Your host is Christine Taylor-Butler, a graduate of MIT and author of The Oasis, Save the… Tigers, Save the . . . Blue Whales, and many other nonfiction books for kids. She is also the author of the STEM based middle grade sci-fi series The Lost Tribes. Follow @ChristineTB on Twitter and or @ChristineTaylorButler on Instagram. She lives in Missouri with a tank of fish and cats that think they are dogs.

STEM Tuesday– Math– Writing Tips and Resources


Paradigm Shift

Did you see it? The National Council of Teachers of English recently issued the “Position Statement on the Role of Nonfiction Literature (K–12).” I’ll be honest and say that when I was growing up, I never thought of nonfiction as literature. To me, nonfiction was an encyclopedia, a text book, or one of those really dry library books that you checked out when you had to do a report on a cheetah. Sure the cheetah was cool, but the book about it? I had to crawl my way through all of the dusty dry to find the fascinating facts.

Look how far we have come… This month we are looking at the literary craft of not just nonfiction, but math nonfiction! And that’s because the world of publishing has opened their arms to cool, crafty, creative presentations of information. And I for one am giddy over it. In fact, NCTE, this group of professional English teachers is proposing “a paradigm shift for teaching and learning with nonfiction literature in K–12 education.”

Drop the mic! Nonfiction is coming into its own!

So, how exactly do we spur on this paradigm shift? We can start by studying the craft of informational books. We can articulate new language to help us describe unique attributes of nonfiction. We can search out the devices used by nonfiction authors. We can compare/contrast, discuss/evaluate, and weigh the pros and cons. In other words, we can have informed opinions.

One Way to Start

Melissa Stewart (author of over 100 nonfiction books for children) and Dr. Marlene Correia (an educator of 30 years) have written a book entitled 5 Kinds of Nonfiction: Enriching Reading and writing Instruction with Children’s Books. Check out this article ( in the School Library Journal and Melissa’s blog post (  They propose that much of today’s nonfiction can be categorized as one of the following:

  • Active – books that get kids doing something, i.e, Klutz Books for Kids
  • Browseable – open to any page and find chunks of facts, i.e., Nat Geo Weird But True World
  • Traditional – provide a broad survey of a topic, i.e. Rattlesnakes
  • Narrative – provide a narrative arc, i.e.  Radiant Child The Story of Young Artists Jean-Michel Basquiat
  • Expository Literature – non-narrative books that present a narrow topic in a creative or unique way, i.e. Summertime Sleepers: Animals that Estivate!

To become more comfortable with this idea, open a math book and check out a spread. Which category might each fit into? Try these:


The Kitchen Pantry Scientist Math for Kids: Fun Math Games and Activities Inspired by Awesome Mathematicians, Past and Present; with 20+ Illustrated, by Rebecca Rapoport and Allanna Chung.




Just a Second, by Steve Jenkins






Dollars & Sense: A Kid’s Guide to Using–Not Losing, written by Elaine Scott, illustrated by David Clark.





Sir Cumference and the First Round Table , written by Cindy Neuschwander, illustrated by Wayne Geehan (you’re right, this one is not nonfiction!)




Just as all novels books do not fit neatly into one genre, nonfiction books don’t all fit neatly into these categories, but I bet you know a reader who LOVES one of these categories. What if we recommended books to readers based on this? What if we encouraged all readers to sample books from all of these categories?

This is a powerful new way to understand and nudge forward this paradigm shift for teaching and learning nonfiction!


Prepared by:


Heather L. Montgomery, author of 17 nonfiction books for kids.

STEM Tuesday– Math– In the Classroom


What’s the story of math? It’s more than logical equations, patterns, and exact answers. These STEM Tuesday books tell of math’s history, its use, and how it integrates into the lives of fictional characters. Bring the story of math into the classroom with these fun activities.

A Quick History of Math

by Clive Gifford, illustrated by Michael Young

This book chronicles the history of math, beginning with the Lebombo bone (the very first mathematical object in the world) all the way to the present day. Readers will learn how to count like an Egyptian using hieroglyphs and how to do matha-magic with magic squares. It’s fun and engaging, and also packed with jokes, graphics, and activities.


Classroom activity: Reenact the history of math with micro-performances in the classroom. Have students research a moment of math history from the book. Then ask them to create a little skit to act out that moment. Some examples could be:

  • An Ancient Egyptian store where the cashier adds up purchases using heiroglyphs
  • Be a Babylonian math teacher and teach the class to add
  • Host a Chinese magic squares game show
  • Stage a short counting story play using Mayan math

Encourage students to create visuals, add math jokes, and interact with their audience. See how creative they can be!

What’s the Point of Math? What's the Point of Math? by DK

by DK

What’s the Point of Math? not only highlights how math is all around us, but also,that math is fun. Through a slew of fun facts, magic tricks, and mathematical brainteasers, readers will be entertained while they learn. The book also touches on the history of math as well as bios of famous mathematicians.


Classroom activity: Pick a famous mathematician from the book to write about. Have students research their mathematician and write a short biography of that person. Ask them to find photos or images to go along with parts of their bios. Encourage students to write interesting hooks at the beginning of their bios and titles for their biographies.

Much Ado About Baseball

Much Ado about Baseball

by Rajani Larocca

Although this is fiction, Much Ado about Baseball is a stellar book. To be clear, it doesn’t specifically teach readers about mathematical concepts, but the narrative connects to math in many ways. For example, twelve-year-old protagonist Trish is able to solve tough math problems and loves baseball. When she moves and joins a new baseball team, they must solve a difficult puzzle or there will be tragic consequences.


Classroom activity: Part of writing fiction is developing characters. Ask students to develop a math-loving character. They should write descriptions of the character and how math is part of their lives. Pose these prompts: What kind of personality does this person have? What do they look like? What kind of math goals do they have? What are their strengths and weaknesses? Have students create posters with an image of their character, their character’s name, and a description of what they are like.


Karen Latchana Kenney loves to write books about animals, and looks for them wherever she goes—from leafcutter ants trailing through the Amazon rain forest in Guyana, where she was born, to puffins in cliff-side burrows on the Irish island of Skellig Michael. She especially enjoys creating books about nature, biodiversity, conservation, and groundbreaking scientific discoveries—but also writes about civil rights, astronomy, historical moments, and many other topics. Visit her at