Welcome Back to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!
Today we’re chatting with Rajani LaRocca, the author of
RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE
Reha feels torn between two worlds: school, where she’s the only Indian American student, and home, with her family’s traditions and holidays. But Reha’s parents don’t understand why she’s conflicted—they only notice when Reha doesn’t meet their strict expectations. Reha feels disconnected from her mother, or Amma, although their names are linked—Reha means “star” and Punam means “moon”—but they are a universe apart.
Then Reha finds out that her Amma is sick. Really sick.
Reha, who dreams of becoming a doctor even though she can’t stomach the sight of blood, is determined to make her Amma well again. She’ll be the perfect daughter, if it means saving her Amma’s life.
Let’s talk to this fantastic author about her amazing book!
This is Rajani. Everyone say, “Hi, Rajani!”
Welcome back to Kick-Butt Kidlit, Rajani! Why don’t we start with some introductions for our new readers – tell us about yourself!
Hi Casey! It’s so great to be back here! I was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now I live in the Boston area, where I practice medicine and write books for kids! I’ve always been an omnivorous reader, and now I’m an omnivorous writer of novels and picture books, fiction and nonfiction, in poetry and prose.
What was the inspiration behind RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE?
RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE is a novel in verse set in 1983 about 13-year-old Reha, who feels torn between the worlds of her immigrant parents and her friends at school. But then her mother is diagnosed with leukemia, and her life turns upside down. Reha becomes convinced that if she can just be the perfect daughter, the daughter her parents want her to be, she can somehow save her mother’s life.
The idea for RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE started as a metaphor: the metaphor of blood, and all that it means in terms of biology, family, and community. While the plot of the book is fictional, many of the emotions in it are ones I experienced as a kid growing up as the child of Indian immigrants.
RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE is a novel in verse. What was the creative process for that like? Was it very different from your other novels? What kind of challenges did you run into?
Because RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE is very interiorly focused and emotional, I thought that verse would be the perfect way to write it. However, I didn’t know if I could write a novel in verse. So I read every novel in verse for young readers that I could get my hands on, and just tried.
I spent a long time thinking about this book before I wrote any of it. I had a rough outline, but then I just sat down and wrote poems. The first poem I wrote became a kind of “keystone” poem that became the central poem of this book — and in the final book, it’s just about at the halfway point.
Then, instead of scenes and chapters, I thought of each poem as a snapshot—of a single moment, or a single thought, image, or concept. I wrote poem after poem, and I sometimes wrote them in pairs when a piece of imagery changed over the course of the novel. I found myself dictating into my phone on my commute and waking in the middle of the night to jot notes. Before writing, and while writing, I listened to a never-ending playlist from 1983-1984, and I created my own playlist for songs I featured in the book—because Reha loves pop music as much as I did when I was her age. Unlike my prose novels, where I usually write scenes and chapters in order, I wrote the poems for RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE in any order I wanted, and figured out the “right” order to put them in during revision.
Here’s a link to the RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE playlist: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/5XAcxzLHYS4Y4gLAgHZeLK?si=50c9baec83784a7d
Oh, wow! What a fascinating process! And a playlist is always fun! 😀
You also have another middle grade novel that just came out last month! MUCH ADO ABOUT BASEBALL is the companion novel to your debut, MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM. What was it like continuing with a new story in the same book world you’d created? Did you always know that you were going to write a follow-up book? Since it’s a companion novel, will readers get to see much of the characters from the first book?
I really enjoyed returning to the magical world of MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM! MUCH ADO ABOUT BASEBALL is set in the same town (Comity, MA) during the same summer as the first book but follows a different set of characters — both human and magical. A few of the characters from MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM are mentioned, but we don’t see any of them in this book. I came up with the idea for this book a long time ago, but it took me a while to figure out what exactly the story should be and how it should be told.
If you could transport any of your characters across book dimensions, which book would you most like them to end up in and why?
It might be fun to see the regular kids from Comity plopped into one of Shakespeare’s plays—perhaps A Midsummer Night’s Dream—and see what happens!
That sounds like a recipe for shenanigans!
Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?
The middle grade years are such an incredible time in kids’ lives, when they are still close to their families but are also forming important friendships and becoming more autonomous, as well as learning about what they are interested in and thinking about what values they hold dearest. Middle grade readers are smart and care about fairness and justice. They love to have fun. And they still believe in magic.
The books I remember the best, the ones that made the biggest difference in my life, were ones I read during my middle grade years. And I’m so humbled and honored to be writing books for middle grade readers today.
Any hints about your next book project?
I have three more books coming this year—all picture books. WHERE THREE OCEANS MEET, coming August 24 from Abrams, is about a girl who travels with her mother and grandmother to the tip of India, and what she learns along the way about the love and strength mothers and daughters share. MY LITTLE GOLDEN BOOK ABOUT KAMALA HARRIS, a picture book biography of our amazing vice president, releases August 31. And THE SECRET CODE INSIDE YOU comes out September 14 from Little Bee Books. It’s a nonfiction book told in rhyming verse that explains the basics of genetics, but also touches on how our choices also make us who we are.
In terms of middle grade, my next MG novel is coming fall 2022 from Quill Tree/HarperCollins. It’s a dual-POV book about identical twin sisters who grow apart but find their way back to each other through music.
So exciting! Can’t wait for more Rajani books!
What has been the most surprising part of your publishing journey?
I never expected to meet some of my best friends in my 40s and beyond…but I have, thanks to writing.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading a lot of adult mysteries and YA fantasy.
What’s your favourite piece of kick-butt advice?
Be kind to yourself. There are times when the writing flows, and times when it doesn’t. Sometimes you have to push through even when the writing is hard. But sometimes it’s a signal that you need a break.
A very important reminder!
Thank you so much for joining us, Rajani!
Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE (and MUCH ADO ABOUT BASEBALL)! They’re both on shelves now!
Click here to enter to win a copy of RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE!
Contest ends Friday, July 30th at 11:59 pm EST
Thanks for reading!