Rajani LaRocca’s latest middle-grade book Red, White and Whole is a beautiful novel-in-verse about Reha, an Indian-American girl straddling cultures in the 80’s. Until her mom gets sick — and her world is changed forever.
I chatted to Rajani LaRocca about this book, family, the 80’s and balancing her career as an internal medicine physician with writing books for children. We also talk about a character whose eyes remind her of her husband’s 😉 Enjoy!
Hi Rajani! I’m honored to be chatting with you about Red, Whole, and White! I’m not a fan of magic stories so I was always a little sad that I’d never read anything from you. I was overjoyed to hear of this novel in verse. What inspired you to write Reha’s story, and why in verse?
Red, White, and Whole is set in 1983 and is about 13-year-old Reha, the child of Indian immigrants, who is torn between two worlds: one with her parents and immigrant community, and one with her friends at school and 80s pop culture. But then her mother becomes sick with leukemia, and Reha is torn in a different way.
The book involves the interplay between heritage and fitting in, science and poetry, 80s pop music and Hindu mythology. It’s about being caught between here and there, before and after, and finding a way to be whole.
The idea for Red, White, and Whole came to me as a metaphor. I thought of the idea of blood, and all that it means in terms of biology, heredity, and culture, and the story began to take shape from there. The line, “What happens when your own blood betrays you?” showed up in my head, and I wanted it to have two meanings in the story.
I also wanted to explore the immigrant experience from the inside—especially the personally resonant feeling of wondering whether you truly belong anywhere. The title refers to red and white blood cells and whole blood; the connotations of the colors red and white in Indian and American culture; and the colors of the American flag.
I loved reading about Reha’s parents and thought it was so lovely that you managed to weave in their story and so many details into a verse novel. Why did you want to write about her parents and their lives and culture?
Some of the main conflict in this story is between Reha and her mother and their differing views on what constitutes appropriate behavior. But even though they disagree at times, Reha adores her parents and wants them to be proud of her. This story isn’t just about Reha—it’s about her whole family and how they band together and survive a very difficult time. So Reha’s parents’ stories were important, too.
That final letter from Reha’s mother made me tear up. Why was it important to include that — for you and for Reha?
In a family where there was so much love but so many things were left unsaid, I felt that letter was important to give Reha a sense of closure and to help her understand that her mother saw who she was and was proud of her. I wanted readers to realize that those we love, and those who love us, often understand us better than we might imagine.I wanted readers to realize that those we love, and those who love us, often understand us better than we might imagine. – @rajanilarocca Click To Tweet
And honestly, that letter was from future (adult) me to child me, telling my past self that all the conflicting feelings I had when I was a kid were normal, that it would work out, and that I didn’t have to choose between identities—that I could be all of them at once.
I just loved sweet Pete and his whole family and the way they supported Reha. I’m curious as to whether Pete is inspired by anyone in particular?
Pete is a completely fictional character, but his eyes were 100% inspired by my husband’s eyes. When I first met him and realized they changed color depending on what he was wearing, I could not stop looking at them! I still can’t ☺
Reha is straddling cultures in the 1980’s. She enjoys pop music on the radio and even gets made a mixtape. What are some of your favorite memories from the 80’s?
Much like it is for Reha, 80’s pop music was the soundtrack to my teen years. I have fond memories of listening to songs on the radio, taping songs off the radio (I would get so angry if the DJ talked over the end of the song!), making mix tapes, and listening to music on a Walkman once I finally got one. I thought I was so cool! And MTV and music videos really were magical thing for me and my friends.
What else did I love about the 80s? The big hair, of course! I still have big hair. ☺ And I loved the fashions, especially the short skirts and leggings—which are back in fashion!
I also loved the movies in the 80s, from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi to Footloose to John Hughes films to E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark and Back to the Future. I’ll stop there, but you get the idea!
You’re also a doctor! Which kind of doctor are you, and how do you balance medicine and being such a prolific children’s fiction author?
I’m a primary care internal medicine doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital. I love medicine and writing, and I feel that writing makes me a better doctor, and practicing medicine makes me a better writer.
Both of my careers revolve around people—people who can be brave, who can make terrible choices, who can be wonderful and awful and everything in between. And people are always telling stories—to each other, of course, but also to ourselves. My job as a writer and a doctor is to care about and tend to my fellow human beings, to listen to their stories, to tell my stories as honestly as I can.Both of my careers revolve around people—people who can be brave, who can make terrible choices, who can be wonderful and awful and everything in between. Click To Tweet
And in terms of balance, well, when you are obsessed with something (like I am with writing), you always find time to do it. I can’t help myself!
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I love to read all kinds of books (even adult books!), travel (when that is allowed), cook, and bake. I love playing cards and board games with my family, and we are pretty awesome scavenger hunt players (we’ve never lost!) and escape room participants (we’ve escaped every time!).
Which excellent middle-grade novels have warmed your heart recently? I would love some more verse novel recommendations, especially.
I was lucky enough to read an ARC of Chris Baron’s forthcoming middle grade novel in verse, The Magical Imperfect, and I loved it—it’s set in San Francisco in 1989 and it’s about a boy and a girl who are outcasts who become friends and help each other.
I also read an ARC of Unsettled, a lovely middle grade novel in verse by Reem Faruqi, about a girl who immigrates to the U.S. from Pakistan. It’s a gorgeously written story about moving to a new land and finding a way to put down roots.
I know you have another forthcoming title this year (whew!) What’s it about? Are you currently working on a new middle-grade novel? Can you tell us what it’s about?
In addition to three picture books, I have another middle grade novel, Much Ado About Baseball, coming on June 15! A companion novel to my debut, Midsummer’s Mayhem, it’s about Trish and Ben, 12-year-old math competition rivals who end up on the same summer baseball team. They can’t stand each other but need to find a way to work together for the good of their team. Then they encounter some interesting things: a strange snack shop that claims to have food that makes people better at sports, and mysterious math books full of puzzles that are supposed to lead to the “ultimate answer.” Told in dual POV, this book is a twist on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing set in the magical world of Midsummer’s Mayhem.
I’m currently working on my next middle grade with Quill Tree/HarperCollins. I can’t say too much about it, but I will say it involves sisters, music, prose, and poetry!
Thank you so much, Rajani!
Thanks so much for having me, Afoma!
Buy Red, White and Whole
Meet Rajani LaRocca
Rajani LaRocca was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now lives in the Boston area, where she practices medicine and writes award-winning novels and picture books, including Midsummer’s Mayhem (2019), Seven Golden Rings (2020), Red, White, and Whole (2021), Bracelets for Bina’s Brothers (2021), Much Ado About Baseball (2021), and more. She’s always been an omnivorous reader, and now she is an omnivorous writer of fiction and nonfiction, novels and picture books, prose and poetry. She finds inspiration in her family, her childhood, the natural world, math, science, and just about everywhere she looks. To connect with Rajani and learn more about her books, visit her website or Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Linkedin.