The 2022 Walter Awards & Symposium will be held on Thursday, June 23 at 10:30 AM, both in-person and via livestream. For event details, go here.
By Nawal Qarooni
Today we’re honored to welcome Rajani LaRocca to the WNDB blog to discuss Red, White, and Whole, for which she is a 2022 Walter Winner in the Younger Readers category.
This interview has been edited and slightly condensed for clarity.
What inspired you to write this story? Tell us about this book’s journey.
I got this idea in early 2019—it was basically a metaphor, of blood and all that it means in terms of biology and family and community. And this story took shape in my head about a girl who feels caught between the worlds of her family and community and her friends. And I knew this would be a love story between a girl and her mind, and her mom got sick, bringing into focus the sharp struggles she was facing.
Since it came to me in a metaphor, I thought it should be written in the form of poetry. I had signed up for a workshop with Elizabeth Acevedo on writing verse novels at SCBWI! She was so lovely and such a friendly person, and she’s also a teacher, so she taught us how to think about verse novels. The bottom line is she made it feel like everyone could write a verse novel. We looked at examples and thought about how it’s constructed. She told us to write and then worry about the rest in revision. And a line I wrote in that workshop ended up in the book!
I read all the children’s verse novels I could get my hands on and that was my research.
Because I was writing another book, I didn’t have a ton of time, so I had a Friday night date with myself to write it. I listened to ’80s music and it was my secret project. It gave me a lot of happiness. It poured out of me in six weeks once I gave myself the time. I didn’t write it in order; I figured out later where each part would go. I would be driving to work and dictating in my phone; I would wake up in the night thinking about parts. It HAD to come out of me.
How much of the book was personal?
I had to do some research on blood cancer and contacted an oncologist but a lot of it was easy because I lived it. I tried to make the medical stuff clear but not too clinical. It’s from the point of view of a family member’s perspective, not a doctor. Reha is 13 years old in 1983; that was me. I tell kids when I talk about this book that the story is fiction but the feelings are real, from a time when I actually felt it. I wanted to tell a story about a girl who grew up in my exact situation almost—and felt loved and supported in two kinds of communities, but still felt different. What you feel inside that may or may not have a direct correlation to how people are treating you still feels like people can’t possibly feel ALL of it. Not only do people belong in one place or another, but do you belong anywhere? Is there a place where people get who you ARE?
When I went to India (my family is South Indian), I love my extended family, but oh my goodness was it clear that Indians didn’t consider me Indian either. What was this in-between place?
My mother didn’t have cancer but she had this traumatic brain injury when I was in my teens. I had always wanted to go into medicine…
The 80s, music, food, and culture also converge—it’s all such a big theme from almost every book I write. Music transcends culture. The food is so special. There’s something about the food your mom made when you were growing up.
What does it mean to you to be honored with the Walter Award?
I’m just so honored. It’s kind of hard to believe sometimes. It’s been a wild ride. The Walter Award was a big one. I burst into tears on that Zoom call.
We Need Diverse Books is such an amazing organization so it was a big deal to be recognized by them. My mom has been in and out of the hospital, not with COVID, but the repercussions of a brain injury from a car accident she had been in in her 30s. She has since gotten out and is doing so fantastic but I just needed good news.
I grew up as an Indian American in the ’70s, in the ’80s. I grew up in Kentucky where there was a small Indian community and I LOVED books. I didn’t read about anyone like me. I empathize with all kinds of characters and learned a ton about the world, and that was okay. But when I went to India and read about Indian characters, those characters weren’t like me either. There was huge pressure to assimilate and be American all the time, especially as a kid. Amar Chithra Katha comic books had different illustrators and were amazing; I learned a ton from those stories about Indian history, literature, and mythology. Nowhere did I see myself exactly, and I didn’t really miss it until I was an adult and I read about someone like me.
Was it Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake? That book altered my life too!
Yes! At that moment, I felt seen. It was kind of earth-shaking to me. I didn’t start writing seriously until about eleven years ago. I took some classes, made some friends, wrote some stories—but all of the stories had to do with people like me. Now, I think one of the most amazing things about last year, I had six books come out, I thought look at all these covers with different representations of people like me. How cool is that? People who are not Indian American still find ways to relate to this book. Anyone whose family is from a different culture. Anyone who has felt out of place in a setting for any reason, cultural or not. It is so important to have diverse books in the world, certainly for the people who see themselves reflected in the pages, but to learn about others AND to learn about yourself. I read books about people not like me and I loved them. But to read a book and see yourself is precious beyond measure. And why shouldn’t every child feel that way?
When I wrote this book it meant so much to me. There’s a kind of desperation. What if the rest of the world reads it and doesn’t care about it? I was terrified that my agent wouldn’t like it; he loved it. I’m so grateful. I’m so humbled. There are so many beautiful books that fit the characterization as diverse that came out last year. So it was particularly special and heart-warming; I can’t even express that enough.