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.
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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?
Rajani: 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.
CTB: 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.
CTB: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
CTB: 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 Apple.com. What was the inspiration for this.
Rajani: 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.
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.
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.