I’ve had the great pleasure of attending two of Rajani LaRocca’s book launches – in person for MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM, her award-winning debut middle grade novel – and via Zoom on October 27th for her delightful debut picture book, SEVEN GOLDEN RINGS: A TALE OF MUSIC AND MATH. Whether you’re introduced to Rajani through her books, this interview, or her physician’s practice, you’re guaranteed to be wowed by her exceptional warmth, multi-faceted talent, and effervescent spirit.
SEVEN GOLDEN RINGS is a gorgeously written and illustrated picture storybook set in ancient India. Bhagat, a poor but very brave boy, dreams of joining the rajah’s musical troupe as a singer and improving his small family’s life. When a sign proclaims that auditions are being held, he journeys to the city bearing the last tiny golden rings from his mother’s wedding necklace and a single rupee coin. As he awaits a chance to audition, Bhagat uses binary logic to make the connected rings last for seven nights – a feat that impresses the staunchest sari-flinging skeptic – and leads to him saving more than just his family.
#1: Rajani, thank you for joining us on Writers’ Rumpus today. Congratulations on your well-deserved success! When did the writing bug first bite you? Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
I’ve been obsessed with books for as long as I can remember. I read novels, nonfiction, comic books, comic strips, cereal boxes, receipts…anything I could get my hands on when I was a kid.
I’m not sure how old I was when I wrote and illustrated my first picture book, about little black and white birds I’d seen running around in a field. I don’t remember anything about the plot, but I remember loving that little story. In second grade, I wrote and illustrated a story called Run for Your Life, which I assure you was terrible.
In middle school, high school, and college, I wrote poetry and plays, essays, and short stories.
But when I went to medical school and then residency, I stopped writing creatively. It wasn’t until years later, around 2011, when my kids were in school and I was established in my medical practice, that I decided to take writing classes again. And so I took online classes, and then in-person classes, made writer friends who became my critique partners, and then there was no looking back. I had to keep writing.
#2: We’re all so grateful you reclaimed your creative writing mojo and found such supportive critique partners! What inspires you to write stories for children? And how in the world to you find time to write when you’re a doctor, wife, mom of two beautiful children, and dog mom too?
I write for children because the books I read and loved as a child are still the ones that had the biggest influence on me to this day. I’m honored to write for young people, because they are curious, feel strongly about fairness and justice, and still believe in magic.
As a working mom, I’m used to multitasking. When my kids were little, I wrote in every room of my house, in parking lots and at piano lessons, in planes and trains and cars (but not when I was driving). And you know that when you’re obsessed with something, you always find time for it—even if there’s a cute little dog trying to distract you.
#3: I don’t know how you get anything done with that adorable face staring at you! But now back to my questions: SEVEN GOLDEN RINGS looks and reads like an old Indian fable. What was your inspiration for this charming story? Did you have any input in choosing the wonderful illustrator?
When I was a kid, my family loved riddles and puzzles. SEVEN GOLDEN RINGS sprang from a logic puzzle my uncle told me and my cousins when I was little; I took that puzzle and made it more complicated, then dreamed up a character who needed to solve that puzzle for an important reason. My son also loved music and math from a very young age. As a four-year-old, he adored ONE GRAIN OF RICE, which involves the powers of two. Because of that book, he memorized the first thirty powers of two! He made me realize that there could be picture books that dealt with sophisticated mathematical concepts. And so SEVEN GOLDEN RINGS is dedicated to him.
I was lucky enough to see my editor in person at a conference the day after she made the offer, and she suggested Archana Sreenivasan as the illustrator. Once I looked at Archana’s website, I agreed she’d be the perfect illustrator for this project. . . and she was!
#4: I adore that anecdote about your son: I was so impressed when he joined your book launch from his college dorm! And I completely agree that Archana was the PERFECT illustrator for this book. As an oboe and piano player, I adore that music plays a supporting role in both SEVEN GOLDEN RINGS and MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM. What role does music play in your own life?
Many of my books feature music in one way or another! Music has clearly played a very important role in my life: I played the piano and sang as a kid and all the way through medical school, and I’ve always loved pop music—especially since I grew up in the 80s! My husband is also musical, and we raised two very musical kids, and we’ve been known to sing together for hours on road trips. My current MG WIP has music in a starring role as well!
#5: That’s awesome! Moving from music to math…you presented main character Bhagat’s mathematical dilemma so clearly and compellingly, and your Author’s Note about binary machine language (bits) is illuminating. How many drafts did it take to get all that just right and whose idea was it to include the Author’s Note?
Thank you! I wanted to make sure that Bhagat’s mathematical conundrum is explained in an engaging and logical way in the main text, and to demonstrate how his affinity for music led him to the leap that solve his puzzle. I added the author’s note at about revision 40 (out of the almost 70 revisions from first draft to submitting to editors!) when I realized it would help connect the puzzle in the story to math that is very relevant today. My editor and I worked the most on the author’s note—it was the most-revised part of the entire book! We wanted to make sure that the explanation of the math was clear to both those who are mathematically inclined and those who are not.
#6: You totally succeeded! Can you share any teasers about what’s in the publishing pipeline and books-in-process?
I have five books coming in 2021!
My next book is a middle grade novel in verse: RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE, coming from Quill Tree Books/Harper Collins on February 2, 2021. It’s set in 1983, and is about Reha, the daughter of Indian immigrants, who feels torn between the world of her parents and immigrant community and her friends at school and 80s pop culture. Then her mother falls ill, and Reha is torn in a different way. It’s a story of my heart about heritage and fitting in, science and poetry, Hindu mythology and 80s pop music, holding on and letting go.
In April, Charlesbridge will publish my next picture book, BRACELETS FOR BINA’S BROTHERS, illustrated by Chaaya Prabhat, as part of their Storytelling Math series. For the Hindu holiday of Raksha Bandhan, Bina is determined to make beaded bracelets for her brothers all by herself. She finds out which colors her brothers like and dislike and sets to work. Working with her every-other-one beading pattern causes Bina to discover something new about patterns—and her brothers.
In June comes my next middle grade, MUCH ADO ABOUT BASEBALL (Yellow Jacket/Little Bee Books). This is a companion novel to MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM about Trish and Ben, 12-year-old middle school math competition rivals who wind up on the same summer baseball team. They set aside their dislike for each other in order to help their team win, but the team is terrible. When a booklet of math puzzles claiming to reveal the “ultimate answer” arrives, Trish and Ben start solving them, and the team’s luck seems to turn around…or is that because of the unusual snacks they’re getting from the new snack shop in town, the Salt Shaker? When excitement then leads to tragedy, can Trish and Ben find the answer to the ultimate puzzle, or will they strike out when it counts the most? This companion novel to MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM combines math, baseball, food, and magic.
In September, Little Bee Books will publish THE SECRET CODE INSIDE YOU, illustrated by Steven Salerno—a rhyming picture book that introduces the concept of DNA to the youngest readers. It also notes the limits of DNA, and how our choices also make us who we are.
Also in 2021, Abrams will publish WHERE THREE OCEANS MEET, illustrated by Archana Sreenivasan, a picture book about Sejal, a girl who travels with her mother and grandmother to the southern tip of India, where three oceans meet. On this road trip, she learns about the strength and love that women pass to their daughters across distance and time.
#7: Can I just say WOW?!? Was your path to becoming a published author smooth, bumpy, short, or long? Did you always know you wanted an agent, or did you submit to editors, too?
I did submit directly to publishers early on, but I quickly realized I wanted to have an agent—to be able to submit more widely, to have someone with knowledge negotiate on my behalf, and to have a true advocate and publishing partner.
I put years of work into writing before I signed with my agent. I got “serious” about writing in 2013, worked on a bunch of picture book texts and started a novel. I finished that novel first draft in 2104, revised it over the next three years, entered Pitch Wars in 2017, and revised that novel once again and received multiple agent offers in November 2017. At that time, I had five picture book manuscripts I thought were “ready.” I signed with my wonderful agent, Brent Taylor of TriadaUS, in November 2017, and we’ve never looked back. That novel I first drafted in 2014 became my debut novel, MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM. Since then we’ve sold ten more books, all coming between now and 2023.
There is still plenty of rejection! I won’t say that it gets easier, but I’ve learned to get used to it.
#8: Inquiring Writers’ Rumpus readers want to know: you’re such a prolific writer, do you dream up complete plots in your sleep?
I wish! I will say that I like working on multiple projects at a time, so I can “procrastinate” with something useful while figuring out what to do next in a story. I like working on both novels and picture books, poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction. Each project presents a different kind of challenge.
#9: I think it’s wonderful that you write in so many different genres. What tips and/or advice can you share with other writers?
Read a lot, write a lot, read craft books and take classes to improve your craft. Draft like the wind and edit with precision and clarity. Lean into what makes you weird and put something of yourself into each story. Most importantly, surround yourself with people who support you, especially fellow writers, who will help you through the hard times and celebrate the good. Be kind to others and yourself. Fill your senses, heart, and soul with wonder and write what comes from that deep well.
#10: That’s all great advice! Personally, I need to heed your “draft like the wind” tip! How can people connect with you?
You can find my latest updates and sign up for my newsletter on my website: https://www.rajanilarocca.com/
You can also find me on Facebook:
And on Twitter and Instagram @rajanilarocca
Rajani, thank you for providing such thoughtful and helpful responses. I can’t wait to read your upcoming books and to attend more of your fabulous launches!