Author Spotlight: Rajani LaRocca

It’s time for an Author Spotlight again, and I am so excited to be interviewing Rajani LaRocca, the brilliant and prolific author who is taking the kidlit world by storm. Rajani has published six books since her debut in 2019 in both middle grade and picture book categories.

Rajani, I am thrilled to be chatting with you today! I was originally introduced to your writing when I reviewed Bracelets for Bina’s Brothers, but you have so many other titles! Would you mind introducing yourself to Mutually Inclusive’s readers and tell us a bit about the kinds of books you write?

Thanks so much for having me! I was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now live in the Boston area, where I practice medicine and write books for young readers. I’ve always been an omnivorous reader, and now I’m an omnivorous writer of fiction and nonfiction, novels and picture books, in poetry and prose. I’m inspired by my childhood and background, science and math, nature, cooking, and just about everything I see. 

Your latest picture book, Where Three Oceans Meet, is being released this month. Can you tell us a bit more about the book?

Where Three Oceans Meet is about a little girl named Sejal who travels to the tip of India — Kanyakumari, where they say three oceans meet — with her mom and grandmother. It’s a fun road trip, where the three women see interesting sights, visit people they care about, and eat delicious food. And Sejal discovers what’s at the “end of the earth” is what she’s had all along: the love between mothers and daughters, love that transcends distance and transcends time.

What inspired you to write Where Three Oceans Meet?

I was inspired by a trip I took when I was a kid with my family, including my mom and grandmother, through South India to Kanyakumari. I thought about all the beautiful things we saw on that trip, and how what I treasured most was the little moments we spent together along the way.

If young readers only take away one thing from Where Three Oceans Meet, what message would you most want them to walk away with?

Even if they are far away, the people we love are still with us, giving us strength and joy.

Title: Where Three Oceans Meet
Author: Rajani LaRocca
Illustrator: Archana Sreenivasan
Publisher: Abrams Books For Young Readers
Published: August 24, 2021
Format: Picture Book

All of your books seem to have mathematical themes, and I was so glad to see the pattern continue with the theme of three in Where Three Oceans Meet. Was there any significance to the number three, or was it a stylistic choice?

I hadn’t really thought about the fact that there was a number in this book, but now that you point it out, of course there is! Three is an important number which symbolizes unity in many cultures. Because this book was inspired by a trip to Kanyakumari, where three oceans meet — The Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean — I decided to craft the story about three women in a family making a journey together. I also use the metaphor of a braid, which involves three strands of hair woven together, to symbolize the characters’ relationships. 

Archana Sreenivasan created such beautiful illustrations to match your gorgeous story of love and family. This is your second book to be illustrated by Archana. Did the process differ between Where Three Oceans Meet and Seven Golden Rings?

I first worked with Archana for my debut picture book, Seven Golden Rings: A Tale of Music and Math, which was published by Lee & Low Books in October 2020. That book is set in ancient India and involves a math puzzle and an explanation of binary numbers in the author’s note. It won the Mathical Award for Grade 3-5!

The process was very similar for both books in that I had minimal involvement while Archana was doing her work! Archana is such an incredible artist, and her sensibility for each book was perfect—which is even more impressive, since the styles of these books are very different. In Seven Golden Rings, her style is more cartoon-like, and Archana illustrated the math puzzle and the thinking that went into it in the most precise and ingenious way! The writing in Where Three Oceans Meet is more lyrical and emotional, and Archana’s style and use of color matches  perfectly. I know that Oceans reminded her of her own family—especially her grandmother—and this shines through in all the little details she included to make this family seem real.  

Do you have a standout spread that is your favorite? If so, which one?

I love ALL the spreads—they are overflowing with love and joy! My favorite is about three fourths of the way through the book, when Sejal isn’t feeling well and overhears her mom and grandmother talking about how much they miss each other, since the grandmother lives in India and Sejal and her mom live in the U.S. Archana depicts memories and longing and love so beautifully on the page that it brings me to tears.

Where Three Oceans Meet is your fifth release in 2021! I’m blown away at the amount of work you can produce in a year, especially considering your job as a doctor and role as a wife and mother. Do you have any advice for writers (like myself) who struggle to keep producing new work consistently?

I always recommend that people find ways to write in the “nooks and crannies” of their days. We don’t need to write for hours at a time; sometimes writing for a few minutes is all we can do, and that’s fine! As a working mom, I have written in my car (while parked!) and at piano lessons, early in the morning and late at night, on my laptop, scrawled on napkins, and dictated into my phone. It’s important to catch the muse while you can and to put in the time even when the muse is in hiding! 

I also find that setting small goals helps me, as well as making lists of current projects and their statuses.

Can you tell us what is next for you? Do you have any upcoming 2022 release we should know about?

After Where Three Oceans Meet, I have two more picture books coming in 2021! My Little Golden Book About Kamala Harris will release on August 31, and I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to have written a Little Golden Book about our wonderful Vice President!

The Secret Code Inside You: All About Your DNA releases September 14! This is my first nonfiction picture book (and the first picture book I ever drafted!), written in rhyming verse and explaining the basics of genetics to kids. It also touches on the limits of our genes and how our actions also determine who we are.

In March 2022, I have a picture book coming with Candlewick called I’ll Go and Come Back. This story of my heart is about a girl who visits her family in India and feels lonely and homesick. Then her grandmother makes her feel better through play and reading and food. When the grandmother visits the girl in the U.S. and feels homesick herself, her granddaughter makes her feel better. The story is built around a phrase people use in Tamil: they never say “goodbye,” but instead “I’ll go and come back,” which holds the promise of return.

My second middle grade novel with HarperCollins comes out in fall 2022. It’s called Switch, and it’s about musical twin sisters who grow apart, impersonate each other at their summer camp on a dare, and find that music helps them find their way back to each other. 

Is there anything else you’d like to share with Mutually Inclusive’s readers?

These past two years have been so hard for so many reasons. That makes the stories we tell, the art we create, more important than ever. But it’s also important that we practice self-care and give ourselves a break, too. Take the time to bring yourself small moments of joy, and remember that reading and thinking and spending time with loved ones nourishes the creative spirit. 

That is such a great reminder, and one I really need to hear. Thank you for that, and for taking the time to answer all my questions!


To learn more about Rajani and her work, you can visit her online at www.RajaniLaRocca.com and on Twitter @rajanilarocca and Instagram @rajanilarocca.

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Author Spotlight – Sarah & Ian Hoffman

It’s time for another Author Spotlight! Today, I am chatting with Sarah and Ian Hoffman, the authors of the beloved (and banned) Jacob series, about their most recent release: Jacob’s School Play: Starring He, She, and They. I am so excited for this interview, so let’s jump right in.

First of all, I want to thank you both for taking the time to do this interview with me! I am thrilled to talk to you about your latest release Jacob’s School Play: Starring He, She, and They, but first, would you mind introducing yourselves to Mutually Inclusive’s readers? 


Hi! We’re Sarah and Ian Hoffman. We’re authors, we’re married, and we have two kids, Sam and Ruby. We live in San Francisco in an old Victorian house with the kids, 3 chickens, 2 rabbits, 1 cat, and +/- 30,000 bees. The two of us have been working together on all kinds of projects for the last 25 years. 

Jacob’s School Play is the third installation in the Jacob series, and each title focuses on gender nonconformity and the diversity of gender expression. Can I ask what drew you to write about the experiences of gender-nonconforming children?


When our son, Sam, was two, he started to be interested in things traditionally considered “girl things,” like fairies and Disney princess. He started wearing pink t-shirts and growing his hair long. At school, he only played with the girls. By the time he was four, Sam was wearing a tutu at home every day after preschool, and going to ballet class. Every day at preschool he wore the princess dress-up costume. One day, he asked us for a dress that he could wear “for real.” Sam knew that kids at school would make fun of him, but he wanted to wear a dress more than he wanted not to be teased. After that day, he started wearing a dress to school every day.

Sam was the only dress-wearing boy in our community, but we knew he wasn’t the only dress-wearing boy in the world. So we looked for books where Sam could see other kids who were like him. And we discovered there were none! Our desire to help our son see himself reflected in a book inspired us to write one. That was Jacob’s New Dress, which is about a little boy who likes something that’s outside of typical gender roles. Just like a little girl in pants would have been 100 years ago.

Among the unexpected things we discovered while raising a gender nonconforming son was the challenge of public bathrooms. It wasn’t safe to send Sam by himself into any public bathroom, including playgrounds, stores, restaurants—even his own school! Talking with the parents of other kids like Sam, we learned their kids were suffering the same as ours. It looked like the world needed a book about bathrooms, so we got back to work.  Our second book, Jacob’s Room To Choose, tackles the subject of kids being allowed to use the bathroom that’s right for them, whatever their gender. 

Our third book, Jacob’s School Play: Starring He, She, and They! (which came out in May of this year), is about the next subject we wanted to talk about: pronouns!

Title: Jacob’s School Play: Starring He, She, and They
Author: Sarah Hoffman and Ian Hoffman
Illustrator: Chris Case
Publisher: Magination Press
Published: May 4, 2021
Format: Picture Book

Fans of the series will see familiar faces like Jacob, Sophie, and Ms. Reeves, but in Jacob’s School Play we meet a new character named Ari, who uses they/them pronouns. Throughout the book, you present identity in such a beautifully simple way, with an emphasis on trusting people’s ability to correctly identify themselves. What was the research process like for Jacob’s School Play? How did you land on this honest and simple representation of pronoun options?


Our research process was messy, broad, and open-ended. We knew what we wanted to write about—pronouns. We also knew that pronouns are in flux and there aren’t many settled rules. So we decided to have a lot of conversations with people—many of them strangers—about potentially uncomfortable topics. Basically we said, “Hey, our kid’s gender nonconforming, and we know what our world is like.  But we don’t know anything about you or your world. Do you mind if we ask?” That led to a lot of unexpected and enlightening discussions. There are a lot of people who don’t fit into the boxes society has created. 

Eventually we took what we’d learned and turned it into a story. Which was its own messy, broad, and open-ended process. At some point in the writing we started to think about the kind of questions that Jacob would have. Then we thought about how his teacher would respond. Imagining the conversation between those two characters led to a simple explanation of pronouns options. You can explain most topics to a curious 5-year old, if you can distill them down to their essence.

I really like that the focus of the series shifted from learning about Jacob to Jacob learning about other children’s perspectives in Jacob’s School Play. Was it difficult as writers to shift the focus away from Jacob’s experiences toward Jacob’s education around other children’s perspectives?


Now that the book is finished, it seems like a natural and obvious progression. During the writing, it took a while to figure out what we were trying to say, how to say it, and from whose point of view. Writing is just as messy as real life. Surprise!

In the big picture, we’re interested in building a culture of kindness. We hope that when our books are taught, it’s not just to support the kids who are different. We hope our books allow the kids who don’t see themselves reflected in the book to think, “Oh, look. There’s another way of being a kid.” We’re trying to open the doors to new perspectives.

What is the most important message you want young readers to take away from Jacob’s School Play?


The message of all our books is: there’s all sorts of ways to be a kid. So be yourself, be open to new ideas, and don’t hurt anybody else.

Kids are very accepting of new ideas. We’ve noticed that kids are very comfortable with ideas about gender and pronouns. It’s usually the adults who are struggling. 

Jacob’s New Dress is one of the American Library Association’s most banned titles of the decade. How does it make you feel to know that there are folks out there who are attempting to ban the books you’re creating?


How does it make us feel? Like we’re doing the work that needs to be done.

We raised a gender non-conforming boy. We are well aware there are people who are uncomfortable that kids like our son exist. We also know that in unsupportive environments, LGBTQ+ kids are teased, ostracized, bullied, and brutalized. We want to try to prevent these behaviors—before they start—by building a culture that tolerates, values, and celebrates difference. 

If our book is getting banned, that means people are actually seeing it in libraries and schools. For every adult trying to ban it, there are even more kids reading it. Those kids are getting the message that it’s ok to be like Jacob, or Sophie, or Ari. There’s nothing we could be prouder of then throwing a lifeline to child who needs it.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to parents of gender non-conforming children? 


First, find support—for both yourselves and your children. Join a support group of like-minded parents; bring your child to a group for gender-nonconforming or trans kids. Enlist thoughtful, supportive family and friends to buoy and celebrate your child and your efforts to make their world safe. Read books about parenting gender-creative children, and fill your child’s library with books that reflect gender diversity. Ask your school to be proactive about anti-bullying programs in general and gender education in particular (and if asking doesn’t work, demand it). Educate everyone you can. Gender diversity is a new concept for most people; ignorance and prejudice are deeply ingrained. Even people who love your children—like grandparents—often need time to adjust. See each interaction as an opportunity to educate someone else about the many forms of gender expression.

Remember that your responsibility is to your child, not to manage the discomfort of adults. Walk away from judgment, and shield your child from it as best you can.  And when you can’t shield them, teach them to manage it. Teach them the historical context for overcoming bias. When Sam was in kindergarten, we taught him about Rosa Parks and Harvey Milk—regular people who stood up to bias against them and changed the world. Tell your child that the world will change. That it is changing. And that they are helping to change it, just by being themselves.

And lastly: breathe. When you’re the parent of a kid who’s different, it’s easy to overthink everything you do, tempting to try to interpret the significance of everything your kid does, and appealing to try to predict the future. Our job is to accept our kids for who they are, and to protect them from harm. We can’t know who or what our children will evolve into as they grow up. We had no idea that one day Sam would put on pants and cut his hair short (as he did at age 11) and be happy with that choice. We had no idea if he would grow up to be straight, gay, bi, gender-queer, trans, or his own special something—in fact, we still don’t. Sam, like all of us, is a work in progress. All we as parents can do is support our children unconditionally, and be open to who they become.

As a married couple and co-authors, how is it writing with each other? What does a typical workday look like, and how does your creative process work together?


We are very, very lucky to work together. We have the same core values, but very different skills. Sarah thinks fast and big-picture. Ian thinks slowly and resonates with the details. Once we figured out how to interact over work—as opposed to as a couple—we saw that our complimentary skills brought a lot of depth to our work life. 

Our writing process is like our parenting process is like our life process—we don’t really separate them. One of us has an idea, and we talk it over to see if it’s a good one. If it is, then someone starts the project. With writing, one of us will generate a first draft, then turn it over to the other for editing/comments/revision. Then it goes back and forth between us until it’s ready. Nowadays we have two very insightful teenagers in our house, and we seek out their opinions. They’re an unexpected bonus!

What should we expect to see from you in the future? Are there more adventures for Jacob on the horizon?


Yes, there are! Right now we’re working on a book about holidays. Jacob and his friends are such a great crew, we feel like they’re ready to handle another broad, messy, open-ended topic that’s rich in meaning. 

Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers of this blog?


We just want to thank you for the work that you do to bring inclusive and engaging books to kids. We love the positive energy you bring to the field. Thank you for including us!

Thank you both so much for your time, and for creating books that radiate warmth, love, and inclusion. 

You can find Sarah and Ian online on Instagram (@sarahandianhoffman), Twitter (@SarahHoffman101), and at their website sarahandianhoffman.com.

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Author Spotlight – Norene Paulson

I am thrilled to announce another additional feature here on Mutually Inclusive! Today marks the very first Author Spotlight, which will be a weekly introduction to the authors behind some of my favorite titles, both new and old. Today I am honored to share an interview with Norene Paulson with you all.

Norene Paulson is a former middle school language arts teacher who loves words. She is the author of Benny’s True Colors, and her articles have also appeared in several children’s magazines including Highlights. Norene lives with her husband on a country acreage in Iowa.

Norene has joined me today to chat about her newest title: What’s Silly Hair Day With No Hair? released by Albret Whitman on March 23rd. What’s Silly Hair Day With No Hair? follows a young girl named Bea, who has alopecia areata, as she figures out how to participate in Silly Hair Day without any hair.

First, thank you for agreeing to take part in this interview! I really appreciate you taking the time to answer all my questions. To get started, could you tell me and my readers a bit about yourself, and your latest title What’s Silly Hair Day With No Hair?

Thank you for featuring me, Devyn. I’m thrilled to share with your readers a little about me and my writing journey, including my latest title What’s Silly Hair Day With No Hair?

I’ve been writing kidlit for literally decades. I started writing kids’ nonfiction (now known as STEM) articles for children’s magazines when my boys were small (and they are both in their 30’s now) and was relatively successful in that market. However, the more Berenstain Bear and Little Critter books I read to them, the more I decided I wanted to try my hand at writing picture books. Well, I spent a lot of years perfecting my skills and FINALLY in 2018 I connected with my agent, Naomi Davis of BookEnds Literary Agency, through a #PBPitch Twitter party. About six weeks later, we sold my debut book, Benny’s True Colors to Imprint/Macmillan.

Bea, the main character in What’s Silly Hair Day With No Hair?, has alopecia. What inspired you to write about alopecia?

I didn’t intentionally set out to write a story about alopecia. The inspiration for the heart of the story came about because as a former middle school teacher, I was always uncomfortable when events or activities were planned that left some students sidelined for whatever reason. Spirit Week was one of those events. The connection with alopecia was the result of my remembering a teaching colleague with alopecia who dressed up for all the Spirit Week Days except Silly Hair Day. That led me to “What if a student had alopecia, how could they join in the fun and not be sidelined?

What was the research process like for What’s Silly Hair Day With No Hair?

I started by simply learning more about the different types of alopecia by visiting websites such as http://www.naaf.org (National Alopecia Areata Foundation) and http://www.childrensalopeciaproject.org (Children’s Alopecia Project). From there I read personal experience stories and started to feel a connection to kids experiencing hair loss.

What is the key message you hope young readers take away from What’s Silly Hair Day With No Hair?

I hope Bea’s story empowers young readers to speak up when they witness someone being left out or sidelined. Everyone deserves the opportunity to participate in every activity every time, so be the problem-solver…be the changemaker. I also hope that adults charged with planning activities for kids will think twice about how they, too, can make their activities inclusive.

I also covered your debut Benny’s True Colors recently, and while the two books follow very different characters, they both have themes of acceptance and inclusion. Does your previous experience as a teacher influence the inclusive themes of your books?

Definitely. I write books about friendship, acceptance and inclusion because as a former middle school teacher I witnessed first-hand how difficult growing up can be particularly for those kids who for whatever reason don’t fit the mold. Lessons in kindness, friendship, acceptance and inclusion need to be introduced early in a child’s life and repeatedly reinforced.

What does your typical workday look like as a children’s book author?

The only thing typical about my writing workday is I try to do something writing-related every day. With two books released within four months of each other, a lot of my time now is spent on marketing and promotion. I didn’t realize the amount of time that requires. Plus, I am in two promo groups so enjoy spending time online promoting other authors/ friends.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

I love revising. A blank page (or screen doc) is intimidating. I struggle to get the first ideas written, but once there is a beginning, a middle, and an end, I love dancing with the text. Add in some feedback from my critique partners, and I’m Happy Dancing! Also, I love having a deadline. A procrastinator by nature, I can have an exciting story idea but find hundreds of reasons not to sit down and start writing. However, if I know I have to have something completed by a certain date, that deadline jumpstarts my creativity.

If you weren’t writing books, what do you think you’d be doing?

I’m sure whatever it was would involve books…maybe working in a library or bookstore. I did work in a library cataloging new books for a few years. I really enjoy working surrounded by stacks of books.

What can readers expect from you in the future? Will we see any more titles featuring Bea and/or Shaleah?

I have several manuscripts out on submission now, so keeping my fingers crossed that one or both catch the eye of an editor. I have several manuscripts in various stages of revision—neither to the point of sharing with my critique partners. As always, there are ideas swirling around in my head. I like to say they are percolating. As far as another story featuring Bea and Shaleah, I do have an idea percolating, but in publishing there’re no guarantees.

Anything else you’d like to share with Mutually Inclusive’s readers?

If something I’ve written has touched them in a positive way, I’d love for them to reach out. Knowing that someone has connected with my words warms my heart and keeps me writing. I can be found on Twitter @NorenePaulson or on Instagram @nrpaulson. They can also check out my website norenepaulson.com.

Thanks, Devyn! I’ve enjoyed chatting with you and your readers.

Thank you for joining us, Norene. I had a blast!

Don’t forget that you can pick up your very own copy of What’s Silly Hair Day With No Hair? wherever books are sold, including Bookshop and Amazon. (Please note: Some links provided are affiliate links. Affiliate links allow me to receive a small commission for recommendations at no cost to you. This commission is used to maintain this site and to continue bringing content to you. I always appreciate your support!)

I hope you all enjoyed this new feature, and I look forward to sharing many more author reviews with you soon!

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