2021 has been a banner year for Rajani LaRocca. She’s published six new children’s books, including, this week, “The Secret Code Inside You,” a picture book introduction to DNA. LaRocca’s a practicing physician who was born in India and graduated from Harvard and Harvard Medical School. She’s a strong proponent of using STEM concepts (science, technology, engineering, and math) in her books. In her spare time, she bakes treats like double chocolate malted milk cookies and cohosts the “STEM Women in KidLit” podcast. We caught up with her at her home in Concord, where she lives with her family.
Medicine and storytelling for kids may not seem like the most natural pairing. What brings them together for you?
Medicine and writing have much in common: years of training, working in teams toward a common goal, and balancing science and art. But most importantly, both focus on people — people who can be brave and horrible, foolish and wonderful, and everything in between. My love for people is at the heart of both my careers.
You have a total of six books being published in 2021. How do you explain your desire and ability to write for kids of all ages?
I love writing for middle-grade readers because they are learning about what interests them, care deeply about family, friendship, and fairness, and still believe in the possibility of magic. And picture books are an incredible form of storytelling, where a few words accompanied by gorgeous illustrations can tell remarkable stories. I write fiction and nonfiction because I love both, and because kids need a variety of books.
How do you choose your subjects?
I feel like my subjects choose me! Story ideas often occur to me when I’m doing other things, such as walking my dog, driving to work, or exercising. I almost always have multiple projects going on, and I often shift between them so when I’m stuck on one project, I can make progress on another.
“The Secret Code Inside You,” your picture book introduction to DNA, makes the case for both nature and nurture. What made you explore this topic for kids? And why did you write this book in verse?
I want readers to experience the wonder of how DNA works in their bodies, and how it determines many of their characteristics. But as a physician, I know that behavior can be more important than genetics, so I also want them to know that their choices and actions also determine who they are and who they will become.
This book idea came to me as a refrain and my first drafts were all in rhyming verse. At some point, I tried to “de-rhyme” the manuscript, but the book persisted in verse.
“Where Three Oceans Meet” is a picture book journey to the magical place at the tip of southern India where the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, and the Bay of Bengal meet. It reads like a love letter to India as well as a celebration of strong intergenerational family bonds.
The book was inspired by a family trip through South India that I took as a kid. It’s about a girl traveling with her mother and grandmother, and how she comes to recognize the love and strength that mothers and daughters share that transcends distance and time.
One of your recent books is a picture book biography about Vice President Kamala Harris, published as an iconic Little Golden Book. Why do you think it matters that very young kids learn about important people?
When young children learn about people doing important things — and particularly women and people of color doing important, groundbreaking things — they expand their sense of the possibility.
“Bracelets for Bina’s Brothers,” part of the Storytelling Math series, celebrates a Hindu holiday when siblings give gifts to each other — as well as using math to solve problems. Why did you choose to highlight STEM topics?
I’m biased because I love math and science and think they are inherently beautiful and fascinating. But I also know that they are everywhere, and we all use them daily.
You’ve also published two highly acclaimed middle-grade novels this year: “Red, White, and Whole” and “Much Ado about Baseball.” What are the challenges and pleasures in writing for older kids?
Middle-grade readers are growing and learning at an incredible rate. I create characters who display resilience and optimism in the face of difficult circumstances — like feeling torn between the worlds of immigrant parents and (mostly white) friends at school and contending with a mother’s serious illness — but still manage to find moments of joy. That’s my favorite part of writing for middle grade: showing that even in the darkest times, there is hope.
LaRocca will appear as part of Bath Book Bash in Bath, Maine, on Saturday, Sept. 18, from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Learn more at bathbookbash.org.
Betsy Groban is a columnist for Publishers Weekly Children’s Bookshelf and has worked in book publishing, public broadcasting, and arts advocacy.