Posts Tagged #mgkidlit

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

 

Stella: Interview with McCall Hoyle

November is National Epilepsy Awareness Month, and one of the Epilepsy Foundation’s goals for this month is to get more people talking about epilepsy. So, with that goal in mind, I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to talk with award-winning author McCall Hoyle about her upcoming book STELLA and her writing process.


Please tell us a little bit about STELLA.

STELLA is a hopeful story about a retired working beagle who must find the courage to overcome her fears and use her special nose to save a girl’s life.

The story is told from the beagle, Stella’s, point of view. I love stories like A DOG’S PURPOSE and THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN that are told from an animal’s point of view.

I can’t wait for readers to experience life through a Stella’s eyes, ears, and, especially, her nose.

 

 

 

You started your career as an author writing Young Adult (THE THING WITH FEATHERS and MEET THE SKY). What got you interested in writing Middle Grade? How does writing it differ from writing YA?

Mostly, I just want to write the story that is calling to me at the moment. Someday, I might write an adult novel. Thankfully, I have an agent who nurtures my creativity and encourages me to write whatever is calling to me at the moment.

Plus, I really wanted to write something that my son and sixth-grade students could enjoy. And of course, I just love middle grade fiction.

I feel like writing for middle grade is a lot about discovering where you belong in your family and in a smaller “world”. To me YA feels more like an exploration of where you belong in the world at large.

Many of the themes I come back to in everything I write involve family and those relationships, so middle grade feels like a good fit.

 

What inspired you to write this story and/or these characters?

I was suffering a serious case of writer’s block after the release of my second YA novel and couldn’t motivate myself to write anything. My YA novels weren’t appealing to my fifth-grade son, so I decided to write something specifically for him with zero intention of pursuing publication.

We both love dogs, and I’m an amateur dog trainer. Plus, our little beagle Sophie was getting on up in years. She was mostly deaf and blind, but she made up for these weaknesses with her super sniffer. Up until her final days, she was playing scent games and loving them.

So I wrote Stella one chapter at a time for my son and as a tribute to Sophie. I read the story aloud to my son and husband one chapter at a time. Anyone who’s taught elementary or middle school knows that kids are super honest. They don’t pretend that they like something just because you’re their mom or their teacher. My son loved Stella!

So I got my nerve up to tell my agent that I had this middle grade manuscript narrated from a dog’s point of view that I wanted her to read. I expected some pushback, but she never missed a bit and read it quickly. She told me she cried, which coming from her is a huge compliment.

Then one thing lead to another, and Stella is going to be a real book. And I couldn’t be more excited to share the book of my heart with the world.


November is National Epilepsy Awareness Month. Both THE THING WITH FEATHERS and STELLA deal directly with epilepsy. What would you like our readers to know about epilepsy?

It’s not so much about what I want readers to know about epilepsy as it is that I want to remind readers that we cannot tell what is going on inside of a person just by the way they look on the outside. Epilepsy is a frequently invisible and misunderstood neurological disorder.

Both the THE THING WITH FEATHERS and STELLA include girls that deal with epilepsy in their own ways. Emilie in THE THING WITH FEATHERS has a golden retriever who is her best friend and a trained seizure response dog. Stella is not a trained seizure response dog, but because of her close connection to her girl, Cloe, she learns to pick up on the chemical changes taking place in Cloe’s body.

As a dog lover, I am fascinated by this special connection between humans and dogs and will never tire of writing about it.

You refer to one of my all time favorite quotes in STELLA:  Eleanor Roosevelt’s  “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” Can you tell us why you included this particular quote in STELLA and what it means to you?

I wrote a biographical report about Eleanor Roosevelt when I was in middle school, which was several  decades ago. I’ve always been attracted to real life stories of intelligent female leaders. The First Lady’s words have sort of been a mantra for me most of my life.

You don’t think you can finish a marathon. You must do the thing you think you cannot do. You can’t quit your job in finance, go back to school and become a teacher. You must do the thing you think you cannot do. You don’t think you can write and publish a book. You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

I taught high school for several years and was frequently surprised by what teenagers thought they could not do. Often, a well-meaning adult had unintentionally spoken words that lead to these doubts. If just one young person reads STELLA and internalizes Eleanor Roosevelt’s words, all the hard work that went into writing the book will be worth it.

 

We at Mixed Up Files love teachers and librarians, and I know you do too. Could you tell our readers about a teacher or a librarian who had an effect on your reading or writing life?

My fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Turner, sat on the floor and read aloud to us even though we were perfectly capable of reading to ourselves, and she was probably too old to sit comfortably on the floor. She made reading seem fun and made us feel like a community of readers.

Stories brought us all together–no matter how different our home lives were. It was a good feeling that stuck with me.

 

I know you are a dog lover (like me). Would you tell our readers about your favorite dog(s).

Oh my goodness! That might truly be the toughest author interview question ever and the first question I’m not sure I can answer. I really like smart, eager-to-please dogs, whether they’re purebred golden retrievers or the rescued mixed-breed that adopted my family when I was eight. These are the dogs that make you feel like a good dog trainer and good about yourself.

But then sometimes, I’m drawn to the challenge of a dog that seems too fearful or too aggressive to learn. The same philosophy that applies to my classroom teaching applies to my dog training. All kids can learn. All dogs can learn. And it’s our job as teachers and dog trainers to facilitate the learning.

Can I say, “I like all dogs?”

 

McCall Hoyle lives in the foothills of the North Georgia Mountains with her husband, children, and an odd assortment of pets. She is a middle school teacher and librarian. When she’s not reading, writing, or teaching, she’s probably playing with or training one of her many dogs. You can learn more about her at mccallhoyle.com

 

 

 

STELLA will be available in bookstores everywhere on March 2, 2021. In the meantime,

Head over to Goodreads for a chance to win a copy of STELLA.

And, be sure to pre-order a copy of STELLA from your favorite independent bookstore.

 

Diversify Your Summer Reading

Here’s a Summer Reading Challenge from your book-loving friends at The Mixed-Up Files:

Diversify Your Reading!

Something about the way the modern world works has a tendency to create silos or echo chambers in which are our tastes, desires, and beliefs reverberate back to us from like-minded sources. Ultimately, that kind of intellectual isolation isn’t good for any of us. Books are one of the best ways to broaden your perspectives, but only if you diversify your reading.

Several readers have written about how their lives were changed by changing the way they read. Instead of sticking to the tried and true genres or authors that they knew and loved, these women actively sought titles outside of their usual selections. Kelly Jensen decided to only read women authors for a year, Sunili Govinnage chose to focus on writers of color, and K. T. Bradford excluded books by cis, white men from her list. Each one was surprised at the shift in her perspective after a year of focused reading.

Gene Luen Yang, the current National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, has launched a program with the Children’s Book Council called Reading Without Walls to encourage similarly adventurous reading among kids and teens. You can download an Activity Guide here. Even better, you can play Reading Without Walls BINGO! The BINGO cards are available through the American Bookseller’s Association and at many independent bookstores. I got mine at Roundabout Books in Bend, Oregon!

Here is a list of The ABC Group 2017 Summer Reading Program suggestions to get you started:

  • A book about a character who doesn’t look like you
  • A book about science
  • A book with a differently-abled character
  • A book in verse
  • A book about personal identity
  • A graphic novel
  • A biography about someone who lived long ago
  • A book about a young girl
  • A book about civil rights
  • A book about a young boy
  • A book by someone with a different religion than yours
  • A book about something you know nothing about
  • A book about a character who doesn’t live like you do
  • A book about technology
  • A book about a character like you
  • A book about history
  • A chapter book
  • A book about sports
  • A book written by a woman
  • A book written by a man
  • An award-winning book
  • A book published before you were born
  • A memoir or autobiography
  • A picture book

If you need suggestions for specific titles, We Need Diverse Books has aggregated a wonderful selection of diverse book lists here.

All of us here at The Mixed-Up Files hope that you’ll share youR new favorite books with us!

Happy Diverse Reading Everyone!