Posts Tagged Rajani LaRocca

The Kids in Mrs. Z’s Class: An Interview with Kate Messner & Rajani LaRocca

A new chapter book series just launched. Written by eighteen authors and starring a class full of third graders (each book focused on a different student), The Kids in Mrs. Z’s Class books will be a fun series for kids to dive into. They will get to know about each student in the class—how fun is that? I got a chance to interview the authors of the first two books: Kate Messner, author of Emma McKenna, Full Out (book #1 in the series) and Rajani LaRocca, author of Rohan Murthy Has a Plan (book #2 in the series).


About the Books

In Emma McKenna, Full Out, Emma is thrilled to start third grade at the brand-new Curiosity Academy. She’s excited for interesting new classmates, a cool teacher, and best of all, a fresh start after a second-grade talent show disaster at her old school left her with an unfortunate nickname. But then Lucy shows up—Lucy, her ex-best-friend, who gave Emma that awful nickname and spread it around school. Emma decides the only way to save the school year is to make fast friends with everyone before Lucy can tell them about the nickname. She sets out to be friendly and beloved, just like her favorite animal, the capybara. When the class gets riled up over choosing an animal for the new school mascot, Emma vows to keep quiet and not take sides. But what if speaking up is the thing that finally helps her connect with her classmates and saves her from third-grade doom?

In Rohan Murthy Has a Plan, Rohan Murthy is a visual thinker who wants to help improve the world—and right now, he wants to help raise money for his school’s new garden. He comes up with the idea of starting a pet care business, but his parents won’t let him do it unless he proves he can be responsible for an animal first. So, Rohan volunteers to bring home Honey, the class guinea pig, for the weekend. And then, disaster strikes! This is a story about overcoming fear, asking for help, and thinking of options when your first idea doesn’t work out.


About the Authors

How did each of your writing journeys begin? Have you held any other interesting jobs?

Kate Messner (KM): Writing has always been a part of my life, from the time I could hold a pencil. I played with poetry, stories, and research papers (I was the youngest of four kids and endlessly jealous that my older siblings got to spend hours at the library!). My undergraduate degree is actually in journalism, and I spent seven years as a TV news reporter and producer before going back to school for a masters degree in education. I taught middle school English for fifteen years, and my first published books were written while I was still in the classroom. 


Rajani LaRocca (RL): I’m a doctor, but I came back to writing in 2011, taking classes online and really loved it. I realized I wanted to write for kids and began to work toward publishing novels and picture books. Eventually I found an agent, and ROHAN MURTHY HAS A PLAN will be my 17th book! 



You’ve both written so many wonderful, award-winning books (books by Rajani LaRocca) (books by Kate Messner). Tell us about one of your favorite books you’ve written.

KM: Gosh, that’s a tough question! I’ve written more than sixty books for kids, and when I do school visits, I explain to readers that asking me to choose a favorite is a little like asking parents to choose a favorite kid. But I will say that for elementary school chapter book readers, in addition to THE KIDS IN MRS. Z’S CLASS, I’ve loved sharing my RANGER IN TIME books. 

RL: I’LL GO AND COME BACK is a picture book that came out with Candlewick in 2022. It’s a story that’s dear to my heart – about a girl who visits her grandmother in India. She feels lonely and homesick even though she’s surrounded by family and her grandmother helps her by playing and eating. Then her grandmother visits her in the United States and she’s also homesick, and her granddaughter helps her. This was the first book we sold, even though it was my 8th or 9th to come out. It’s a story that exemplifies who I am as a writer because it’s all about family and love that stretches across the world. 


Writing a Book in a Series

The books in The Kids in Mrs. Z’s Class series are each written by a different author. I’m curious about what parameters were given to the authors.

KM:  We have an extensive series bible that includes all of the details about Curiosity Academy, where all of our characters go to school, and the town of Peppermint Falls. Each author began by filling out a character worksheet with pages of details about their character, and then everyone on the team was given access to all of those character worksheets. So we all started writing our stories with the setting and much of the cast already in place. 


In each of the books in the series, the main character has a secret. Did you ever experience anything similar to your character’s secret?

KM: Oh, gosh yes. Without giving too much away, I’ll share that Emma’s secret involves friend troubles, and I think that’s emotional territory that we all remember navigating when we were growing up.

RL: Absolutely! Rohan secretly had an encounter with a cat that didn’t go well and he didn’t want to tell anyone. The same thing happened to me when I was visiting a friend and a friendly cat was rubbing up against my leg. When I reached down to pet it, it bit me on the thumb! 


Kate, I know you have written three series: Ranger in Time, Marty McGuire, and Fergus and Zeke. Can you share any tips for writing a series? 

KM: Honestly, I think the real trick to coming up with a series is to be sure you’ve chosen a premise that you’re excited about, because when a series takes off, it means that you’re committed to that setting and those characters for a long time. Be sure that you feel excited about it – not just for the first few books but in the long term. 


I read the Publishers Weekly article “Multi-Author Series Spotlights the Fun and Foibles of Third Grade” by Sally Lodge. It explained how the authors were encouraged to communicate with one another because each protagonist in one story appears as a secondary character in the other authors’ books. Usually authors don’t get to collaborate like this! What were some positives and negatives to this approach? 

KM: Well, the down side of all this collaboration is that it’s a huge logistical challenge to keep track of everything and ensure consistency from book to book. But that concern is absolutely eclipsed by the up side – the joy we’ve all found collaborating along the way. 

RL: I really loved the Google doc where we all shared our characters and what they were about. It was an absolute delight! 



Something I personally struggle with is writing a classroom scene since there are so many characters. Any tips to make this manageable?

KM: Because we’re working with a full third grade classroom (18 kids!) we knew this would be a challenge. One thing that helps keep larger casts from being confusing is making sure that each character is truly unique – not just in their appearance but in their personalities and speech patterns. Our team of authors did an amazing job with this, so it made writing the books an absolute joy. While many books mention all eighteen kids at some point, the books in this series tend to focus primarily on the main character along with just a few others who interact with them regularly in the story. This, too, helps the large cast from feeling overwhelming or confusing for readers. 


For Teachers

Do you have a curriculum guide or discussion questions posted online?

KM: Yes! We have an extensive teaching & discussion guide that also includes a character worksheet so readers can brainstorm their own characters to join Mrs. Z’s class. Teaching and Discussion Guide

How can we learn more about you? [website, social media, etc.]


Just for Fun

Returning to your third-grade selves (and related to each of your books) . . . What would you choose as a cool school mascot?

KM: Sharks!

RL: Wolves! 


What business would you have wanted to start and why?

KM: I desperately wanted to babysit, long before I was old enough. 

RL: I’d like to start a chai stand! 


Thanks for your time, Kate and Rajani.

Check out the first two books in The Kids in Mrs. Z’s Class series: Emma McKenna, Full Out and Rohan Murthy Has a Plan, which are both newly released.

WNDMG Wednesday — The Walter Awards 2022

We Need Diverse MG Logo hands holding reading globe with stars and spirals floating around
We Need Diverse MG Logo

Illustration by: Aixa Perez-Prado

The Walter Award 2022 Winners and Honorees

Congratulations to this year’s Walter Award winners and honorees.

graphic with photos of winners and honorees and the WNDB logo


Red, White, and Whole by Rajani LaRocca (Quill Tree Books)


Borders by Thomas King and illustrated by Natasha Donovan (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
Root Magic by Eden Royce (Walden Pond Press)

An Integral Part of the Mosaic

The We Need Diverse Books Walter Award, also sometimes referred to as The Walter, is named after prolific author Walter Dean Myers (1937-2014), who was a prominent and early voice in the push for more diverse children’s publishing. According to We Need Diverse Books, the award’s founding organization,  “The​ ​Walter​ ​Awards​ commemorate ​Myers’​ ​memory​ ​and​ ​his​ literary legacy,​ ​as​ ​well​ ​as​ ​celebrate​ ​diversity​ ​in​ ​children’s​ ​literature.”

In 2014 before he passed away, Myers wrote in an op ed in the New York Times, ” I didn’t want to become the ‘black’ representative, or some shining example of diversity.  What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.” (New York Times, Opinion Section, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?”, by Walter Dean Myers, March 15, 2014)

((Read More About We Need Diverse Books Here))

Red, White, and Whole

Today, because of Myers and We Need Diverse Books, and other committed voices pushing for better representation, that mosaic is more vibrant and visible than ever. This is evidenced by the fact that this year’s winners include middle-grade and picture book writer Rajani LaRocca, who is also a 2022 Newbery honoree. It’s an exciting intersection; she appears to be the first to receive both Walter and Newbery distinction in the same year.

Dr. LaRocca told MUF: “RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE is a story of my heart into which I poured so many emotions from my own childhood, and I’m thrilled and humbled to see it recognised in this way. When I was a kid, I never saw myself in the pages of a book — not in the U.S., and not in India — but I loved the characters I read about, and learned more about the world through them. I hope my book allows readers to see themselves in its pages, whether or not they share the characters’ experience or background. I hope that by reading about my characters’ lives, they learn something about their own.”

But even as more established literary awards (Newbery turns 100 this year!) do better at amplifying and honoring diverse voices, vaulting them into the canon of prized literature, awards like the Walter will still be important because of their singular focus on diversity. Myers himself would probably look forward to a time when that becomes an outdated need, but we’re not there yet.

CCBC Choices List 2022

childrens cooperative book center logo bright red with ccbc in white letters

Oh MG News Critter Logo

The CCBC: (Children’s Cooperative Book Center) has released its 2022 choices list. The wide-ranging list has 273 best-of-the-year choices in books including non-fiction, poetry, picture and early readers, middle grade and young adult.

childrens cooperative book center logo bright red with ccbc in white letters

MUF is delighted to recognize on this list so many authors we’ve had a chance to chat with here on our blog:

fanned out books in different colors of the CCBC Choices lists form previous years

Congratulations to all of the creators on the list!

The Children’s Cooperative Book Center is a noncirculating library that is part of the school for education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Among their annual reports, CCBC librarians release their Choices list and a deeply-researched assessment of diversity in publishing.