Today I get to talk to the extraordinary Rajani LaRocca again about TWO of her most recent picture books.

Rajani_LaRocca__Author 3Rajani LaRocca, MD, was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now lives in the Boston area with her wonderful family and impossibly cute dog. She has visited my blog a couple of times now.  Can you believe that she spends her time writing novels and picture books, practicing medicine, AND baking too? She is the author of 8 novels and 11 picture books so far! You can learn more about her at her website or follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Today we’re going to talk about two of her most recent picture books.  Both of them have a theme of medical topics and really, who better to write them?  Yet each is also beautifully unique.

Screen Shot 2023-04-01 at 5.33.24 PMA VACCINE IS LIKE A MEMORY is a book all about the history of vaccines.  Not only is it a fascinating look at how they have been developed in the past or what important events have occurred around vaccines, but it’s written in a completely kid friendly way.  I can’t imagine breaking down such a complicated topic into such an approachable book!

Screen Shot 2023-04-01 at 5.35.59 PMRajani does this very thing in YOUR ONE AND ONLY HEART as well, but in this book, we get poetry.  Poetry about the heart and how it works in our body.  This is not only a stunning collections of poetry that makes you think about the heart in ways I certainly never have before, but it’s also a great STEM guide to how vital it is in the body.  I’m absolutely agog at how she accomplishes all of this in one book.  You simply must read these to see what I’m talking about.

Welcome back Rajani!

Me: As someone who practices medicine and witnessed the last few years of pandemic, A VACCINE IS LIKE A MEMORY seems like a perfect project for you.  What gave you the idea?  What made you want to write this particular book?

Rajani: I was inspired to write this book in the days after getting my first COVID-19 vaccine. After spending a devastating year contending with the virus and seeing it affect my community, my patients, and my own family, the vaccines provided a much-needed ray of light in a difficult time. As a doctor, I’ve always been a proponent of vaccines, but I was grateful in particular for these vaccines that had been developed so quickly to fulfill an urgent need. It got me researching the history of vaccine development—it was fascinating! I quickly came up with the analogy of “a vaccine is like a memory of a disease you never had” and that was my theme as I drafted the book. Vaccines are like memories in how they protect us, and we as a society should not forget what the world was like before vaccines. 

Me: This story has so many facts about what a vaccine is, how they were discovered and developed, and why they are important. I loved that you included the 1925 Alaska serum race to Nome as well.  How long did it take you to research all the different facts that went into your story?  Can you tell us a bit about your research process?

Rajani: I drafted the book very quickly, but it took a me a few weeks to fully research the history of vaccines. Most of my research was online. I learned the story of Onesimus, an enslaved person who contributed significantly to the history of vaccines in the US, through editorial feedback from my publisher. And when I came across the story of the Alaska serum run (to squash a diphtheria outbreak in Nome), I really wanted to include it—I didn’t know that this was the origin of the Iditarod Dogsled Race! I came across many interesting tidbits, but I had to make tough decisions about which ones to share to keep the book a reasonable size. 

As a doctor, I already knew a lot about the various organisms that vaccines can protect us from, but I went to the CDC website to double-check my facts and to try to be as comprehensive as possible in the back matter.

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Me:  The illustrations by Kathleen Marcotte are perfect for this book.  I adore the chalkboard look.  Were there any illustration surprises for you?  Any favorite illustrations?

Rajani: Kathleen did such an incredible job with the illustrations! Her style is sweet and cozy but also expresses the book’s message in a powerful way. I particularly love how she uses dotted lines to convey that a character is protected from disease by a vaccine.

I love that Kathleen created a dog friend for our main character as she moves through the world. The dog’s expressions are priceless!

My favorite spread is the one in which our main character does a chalkboard drawing that depicts everything that’s involved in the human immune system, including the tonsil, lymph nodes, spleen, and bone marrow. What a fantastic way to explain this to kids!

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Me: YOUR ONE AND ONLY HEART is another incredible picture book teaching young readers about the science surrounding their hearts.  What gave you the idea to write a picture book about our hearts using poetry?

Rajani: Ever since I learned about the heart and how it works in medical school, I’ve been fascinated by this most vital organ. I wrote a first draft of this book way back in 2013 (!), and it was called “The Hardest Working Muscle.” It was written in prose and was over 800 words long. But it didn’t have a unifying theme or a hook.

I worked on this book on and off (mainly off) for years, but I couldn’t figure out how to write it. Then one day in 2018, I had a breakthrough: to write about contrasting characteristics of the heart! That was the theme I wanted to carry through. Then I quickly decided to write about these contrasting characteristics in poetry. This made sense because to me, the beauty of poetry reflects the beauty of the human body.

Me: What is your favorite scientific aspect of the heart?  Were you able to include that in your book?  Were there facts you had to cut out? 

Rajani: I think my favorite aspect of the heart is how it works nonstop from before we are born through our entire lives. I included that on the very first page.

I also loved considering how we all refer to the heart as the organ where our emotions originate—which is not true, of course. But we feel this way because our hearts are very sensitive to our thoughts, speeding up or slowing down depending on what we are thinking . . . or feeling.

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Me: The illustrations for this book by Lauren Paige Conrad are pitch perfect.  They almost feel like illustrations in a pamphlet.  Were there any illustration surprises here for you?  Any favorites?

Rajani: When Lauren was proposed as the illustrator for this book, I loved her cut paper collage work. But I wasn’t sure how it could work for a topic that required “anatomical” precision. But then Lauren came up with the idea of using a different color of the rainbow for each set of paired poems — ingenious! And when I saw her preliminary art, it was more beautiful (and accurate!) than I could have ever imagined. I absolutely love the kid characters in this book, and I think young readers will, too.

The art is so gorgeous that it’s hard to choose a favorite spread, but my top two are the opening spread, “Singular,” of a little girl starting as a baby and growing to a venerable age. It is so beautiful and poignant to me. My other favorite is “Muscular,” showing a fist (your heart is the size of your fist) next to a racket and a boy in a wheelchair playing hoops. It’s so dynamic and perfectly captures the muscular aspect of the heart!

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Me: I love that.  Writers are often told to “write what you know” and I can’t imagine a more apt writer for topics such as these than you, someone who practices medicine. These are incredibly complex subjects that you made very accessible for young readers.  Why was that important to you? 

Rajani: I think the workings of the human body are endlessly fascinating and beautiful, and I want to spread that message of wonder and joy to kids.

When I was a kid, an illustrated book called Ouch! All About Cuts and Other Hurts got me interested in medicine. I hope my nonfiction medical books do the same for young readers today.

I bet they will!  Thank you for stopping by my blog again today Rajani.

Dear readers, while both of these books come out this summer, only A VACCINE IS LIKE A MEMORY has been released so far (June 20th).  YOUR ONE AND ONLY HEART isn’t released until August 15th.  Be sure to check out both of them.  They are well worth the read to see how such complex topics can be broken down for picture books in such wonderfully accessible ways AND with artful finesse.

2 thoughts on “Simply 7 with Rajani LaRocca: A VACCINE IS LIKE A MEMORY & YOUR ONE AND ONLY HEART

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