Simply 7 with Rajani LaRocca: SUMMER IS FOR COUSINS

Summer is almost here.  Today’s picture book is a celebration of summer, fun, and family.

Rajani_LaRocca__Author 3Rajani LaRocca visited my blog back in 2020 and has since published numerous books (picture books and middle grade) and won many incredible awards (including the Newbery Honor Award).  She was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now lives in the Boston area, where she also practices medicine while writing award-winning books for young people.  You can learn more about her at her website or follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Screen Shot 2023-04-01 at 5.31.10 PMSUMMER IS FOR COUSINS is a picture book about a young boy named Ravi who is eager to spend time with his cousins at a special family gathering at a lake house.  Yet he is also a little anxious that too much time has passed and maybe his older cousin Dhruv won’t remember that they shared a favorite flavor of ice cream.  There’s a delicate balance here of the sheer joy relishing in the summer fun and the deep emotional depths of wishing to have the same relationships with relatives we don’t always get to see regularly.  Rajani manages to pull off that balance, tug at your heart strings, and pack a memorable story all into sparse text.  This is one you definitely won’t want to miss.

Welcome back Rajani!

Me: I adore this story of summer spent with cousins by a lake.  What gave you the idea?  Was it based on real visits? 

Rajani: I wrote this story because my agent (and friend) asked me to write a picture book about summer (because he loves summer). So I thought about my favorite summer memories, and many involved summers I spent visiting my cousins in India. I have ten cousins (all but one are boys), and it was often chaotic when we were together, but always fun! I also drew upon memories of summer trips with my kids and their cousins to Cape Cod. I wanted to convey the feeling of a big, bustling family doing all kinds of summer activities and eating all kinds of food.

Me: This story has so much emotional depth and yet the text is incredibly sparse.  WOW!  Was it always like this from the beginning?  If not, how many revisions did it take to get to this state?

Rajani: Thank you! The text was always sparse, but the original story was told from the point of view of an older sister who knows her brother is yearning for his favorite flavor of ice cream, but he won’t tell her what it is. When we sent it to my wonderful editor, Courtney Code at Abrams, she made some suggestions to revise and resubmit, including focusing the story more on the cousin relationship. Her input really resonated with me, and inspired me, so I revised the story, and she loved it!

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Me:  The illustrations by Abhi Alwar are perfect for this book.  I adore the busy scenes in every family spread and the multitude of expressions.  Were there any illustration surprises for you?  Any favorite illustrations?

Rajani: I absolutely love Abhi’s illustrations! I’m amazed at how she took such a huge cast of characters and turned them into identifiable individuals. My favorite spreads include the ones with the whole family together but doing different things—arriving at the house, at the beach, and eating. Abhi suggested having one of the characters (the main character Ravi’s older sister) with a polaroid camera. The endpapers feature “shots” with that camera, and they are the perfect combination of hilarious and sweet.

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Me: I love those!  This is a story with a multitude of characters.  Is there one character you identify with the most in this story?  Is there a favorite character amongst the crowd?

Rajani: The main character Ravi is definitely the one I identify with the most. In the story, Ravi loves his yearly trip to the beach and lake with his cousins, but this year, his oldest cousin, Dhruv, has changed a lot — he’s taller, with a deeper voice. Ravi worries that Dhruv has forgotten all the things they used to do together, including sharing a favorite flavor of ice cream.

When I was a kid and I saw my cousins in India again after a few years, they had always changed a lot—and I worried that they had forgotten about all the things we used to share. But like Ravi, it soon became obvious to me that no matter how much time has passed, and how we have grown and changed, cousins still share love. 

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Me: I love that.  What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?

Rajani: This story feels very specific and personal to me since it’s inspired by my own own experiences and feelings. But based on early reviews, I’m surprised to see that the notion of summer with cousins is universal, and many people from many different backgrounds feel that this story resonates with them.

Me: You have written many novels and picture books while maintaining a medical practice.  Would you share a bit about your writing routine with us?  How do you make it all happen?

Rajani: I try to plan to do the tasks that are most challenging for me at the time of day that is best for me. For example, I find that novel first drafts are hard, so I try to dedicate time first thing in the morning, before email and other obligations distract me, to novel drafting. In contrast, I can revise or write picture books at almost any time of day.

Me: You have quite a few books coming out this year alone.  Can you tell us a bit about some of them?

Rajani: MIRROR TO MIRROR is my dual-POV novel in verse that released in March. It’s a story about identical twin sisters, Maya and Chaya, who are very close and love each other very much. But Maya hides a terrible secret—serious anxiety that causes her a lot of pain, but she doesn’t want to tell anyone about, especially her parents. Chaya tries to help her twin, but soon realizes she’s out of her depth and tries to tell their parents. Maya stops her, and then shuts her out. Then Chaya wonders whether Maya’s anxiety is because of her, so she changes the way she looks, putting in a pink streak in her hair, and trades classical piano for show tunes and modern music so Maya doesn’t feel like she’s the competition. But instead of bringing them closer together, it pushes them further apart. In the last part of the story, the twins make a bet to switch places, pretending to be each other and playing each other’s music. Whoever lasts the longest without being discovered gets to decide what they do about high school, something they’ve been arguing about. Pretending to be each other teaches each sister about her twin . . . and about herself.

A VACCINE IS LIKE A MEMORY, beautifully illustrated by Kathleen Marcotte, releases June 20. It’s a picture book explaining the history of vaccines, how they work, and why they’re important. As a physician, I wanted to explain this important bit of science to young people.

YOUR ONE AND ONLY HEART, gorgeously illustrated by Lauren Paige Conrad, releases August 15. This is a nonfiction picture book explaining the biological wonders of the human heart in paired poems.

MASAL CHAI, FAST AND SLOW, with lovely illustrations from Neha Rawat, releases September 5. It’s a picture book about Aarav, a boy who loves to go fast, and his thatha, or grandfather, who likes to take things slow. But every afternoon, they meet and make masala chai together. When Thatha sprains his ankle and can’t make chai, Aarav tries to make some for him, with hilarious results.

THE SECRET OF THE DRAGON GEMS, cowritten with my great friend Chris Baron, releases August 29. It’s an epistolary novel about Tripti and Sam, two kids who meet at summer camp when they find two interesting-looking rocks and take them home to their homes in Massachusetts and California. Then they start corresponding via letter, email, text, and video chat, because strange things keep happening, and they start to wonder whether the rocks might be something other than rocks.

Wow!  What an incredible year for you.  I’m excited to read all of these.  Thank you for stopping by my blog again Rajani.

Dear readers, SUMMER IS FOR COUSINS was released into the world just yesterday.  It’s a sweet picture book worth studying. I don’t know how Rajani was able to write a story with so many characters and yet bring such heart warming depth to the main character.  Trust me when I say that this is a story you won’t want to miss.

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