Top 20 Student Favorites & A Conversation with Rajani LaRocca: Books Between, Episode 74

Episode Outline:

Listen to the episode here!

Intro

Hi everyone and welcome to Books Between – a podcast for educators, librarians, parents, and everyone who loves middle grade books!  My goal is to help you connect kids between 8-12 with fantastic reads because I believe that a book can change the trajectory of a child’s life.  And I want to help you introduce kids to those amazing, life-shaping books and bring you inspiring (and fun!) conversations with the authors and educators who make that magic happen.

I’m your host, Corrina Allen – a mom of two tween girls, a 5th grade teacher, and finally beginning my summer vacation!! Before we begin, I have a few quick announcements!

First – a reminder that Monday nights are the #MGBookChat Twitter chats with some really amazing topics coming up this summer like STEM in Middle Grade, Inspiring Kids to Write, Grief in Middle Grade, and several Open Chats where you can bring your own topic to discuss. So if you are like me and have a tendency to forget those sort of things, set a reminder on your phone for Mondays at 9pm EST and check out #MGBookChat on Twitter.

Second – I will be at NerdCampMI this July 8th & 9th – so if you are headed that way this summer, please please do say hi.

And finally – I am really excited to tell you that I will be rejoining the All the Wonders team as their Podcast Network Developer to produce a new array of shows cultivating a wider variety of perspectives and stories in the world of children’s literature. First up is All the Wonders This Week –  a brief, topical show released every Tuesday where a guest and I will chat about all things wondrous and new in the world of children’s literature. So stay tuned for that this summer!

But – no worries – Books Between isn’t going anywhere!This is episode #74 and today’s show features the top 20 books that my students loved this year, a reflection on what went right and what went wrong for me this last school year, and then I’ll share with you a conversation with Rajani LaRocca – author of Midsummer’s Mayhem.

This is episode #74 and today’s show features the top 20 books that my students loved this year, a reflection on what went right and what went wrong for me this last school year, and then I’ll share with you a conversation with Rajani LaRocca – author of Midsummer’s Mayhem.

Top 20 Student Favorites

Let’s start with the top 20 books that my 5th grade students loved and recommended this school year. Because it’s one thing for an adult to enjoy a book, but for it to really make an impact, it has to connect with its intended audience. There have been plenty of books that I loved, but for some reason didn’t seem to resonate with middle grade readers.  Honestly, I think THIS list is way more valuable than ANY list that any adult puts out.

I couple notes before we begin. My students have pretty much free choice to read what they want in class and for homework at night, but we did have two book clubs this year – one in the fall featuring immigrant and refugee experiences and then we just wrapped up our fantasy book clubs. So that context likely influenced what books they had most exposure to. Also – our four main read alouds this year were Home of the Brave, a non-fiction title called When Lunch Fights Back, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and The Thief of Always.  Only two of those made it into this Top 20.

And there are only six graphic novels on this list, which might surprise some adults who like to complain to me that “all kids read these days are those graphic novels”. (Can you hear my eyes rolling?)

I also want to be transparent about how I calculated this “Top 20”. So, at the end of the year, we did various wrap-up and reflection activities. In mid-June, I send out a quick survey one morning asking them for their top reads of the year. They also worked on an end-of-the-year reflection celebration slideshow and one slide was devoted to sharing their favorite books. Also, each student worked on a “Top 10 List” (or” Top 5 List” or whatever – an idea I got from Colby Sharp) listing their most highly recommended books of the year – recommended for their current class and to be shared with the incoming 5th graders. So… I tallied up each time a title was mentioned in any of those places. And here are the top 20 titles my 5th graders loved and recommended.

20. Amulet by Kazu Kibuishi

This graphic novel is still a strong favorite with my fifth graders. Maybe slightly less so this year, but I think that’s because a LOT of them already read it in 4th grade.

19. Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney

Still going strong! Admittedly, not every mention was book one, but the series is a perennial favorite among my students and one that they love to reread in between other books.

18. Ghost by Jason Reynolds

The Track Series has gained a lot of momentum this year – and mainly through word of mouth. It was one of our school’s ProjectLIT selections so there was some buzz around that, but only one of my students was able to make it to those meetings so the popularity of this title is due strictly to kids recommending it to other kids.

17. Escape from Aleppo by N. H. Senzai

This title was one of the immigrant /refugee themed book club selections from the fall and even though just four kids read it in that club, it was quickly passed around after that. If you know children who enjoyed books like Refugee or Amal Unbound, Escape from Aleppo is a great next book to introduce them to next.

16. Ghost Boys  by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Every child that picked this book up and read it, ended up calling it a favorite.

15. The Books of Elsewhere by Jacqueline West

This title was one of our Fantasy Book Club options and it really lends itself to fabulous discussions if you’re looking to round out that genre.

14. Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder

I will admit – I was totally surprised this made the top 20. Not because I don’t like it – I LOVE this book, but I didn’t really witness it being read or talked about a lot past September or October. But clearly it made a lasting impact on those that did read it.

13. Dog Man by Dav Pilkey

In the same vein as Diary of a Wimpy Kid, this series of books are the go-to rereads when a student isn’t sure what they want to read next. It’s one of those comfort reads that always winds up back in their book boxes.

12. Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol

This graphic novel was passed from kid to kid this year with so many of them reading it multiple times.

11. Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin

Which was a second shocker to me because this novel is a class read-aloud in 3rd grade. So all the love for this one came from students who remembered it fondly and reread it. Maybe because I happened to have a few copies in our room? Which reminds me to make sure to have those previous year’s titles available in our classroom library.

10. Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins

Another one of our hot fantasy book club picks – this series is a winner. Year and after kids fall in love with the characters! And it will make you fall in love with a cockroach. That’s some powerful writing!

9. Smile by Raina Telgemeier

Still…. after all these years. This book has that special spark.

8. Crush by Svetlana Chmakova 

When this graphic novel came out in this past October, I bought one copy and immediately the kids grabbed a pen and paper and started their own waiting list.

7. The Strangers by Margaret Peterson Haddix 

The credit for this book’s popularity falls squarely to a book trailer that our school librarian showed our class. It got us all sooo hooked that I splurged a bit and bought three copies for our classroom. And it just took off from there. In fact, I haven’t even read the darn thing yet because I could never get my hands on a copy. And actually, I think it’s the only title on this list that I haven’t read.

6. Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson

Because…. of course!  And actually, our classroom copy of this book didn’t even make it past March. The spine cracked and then the pages started falling apart, so I’ve got to get another copy for the fall. It was clearly well-loved.

5. Blended by Sharon Draper

Whoa did this novel take my class by storm!  And it wasn’t part of a book club, it wasn’t a read aloud, it didn’t have a snazzy book trailer – it just really resonated with kids. And they just kept recommending it to each other.

4. Front Desk by Kelly Yang

This was THE hot title this fall!  It was one of the choices for our immigrant/refugee book clubs but unlike some of the other titles, this one had a huge resurgence after the clubs ended with kids rereading and passing it along to their friends all through the year. It was constantly in someone’s book box.

3. The Unicorn Rescue Society by Adam Gidwitz & Hatem Aly

This was another fantasy book club option. And I think, the popularity of this book is really due to the fact that it had a phenomenal book trailer that hooked kids with it’s humor. It was also a shorter book with lots of great illustrations so kids quickly finished it, passed it along and were on to the next in the series. 

Okay – we are down to the top two. And not surprisingly, they are both class read alouds. It makes sense that the books every child read or listened to would be high on a list of class favorites. But as I said before, two of our read alouds didn’t make the cut so these two truly did connect with the class.

2. The Thief of Always by Clive Barker

Oh my word is this book amazing!  And for many students – it’s their first foray into horror. The chapter illustrations are gruesome and disturbing and wonderful…. If you know kids that like scary books with that paranormal twist… who like something a little weird – this book is perfect!  And it makes a really great read aloud.

1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

I added this one as a read aloud this year since it was the 20th anniversary, and I honestly wasn’t sure if the kids were going to like it.  That first book does have a slow start, but it was by far their top rated read aloud and the title most frequently found on their favorites lists and their recommended lists.  Harry’s still got the magic.

Reflection

One of the most important aspects of our last few weeks together at school is time for student reflection and feedback for me and my own reflection on what went well this past year and… what did not. 

First, let me share with you 5 things that stood out in my students’ final feedback survey. And yes, this is information from a particular class, but I think you’ll find something useful to take away from their responses as well.

  1. When asked what they liked most about class, the top responses were Flash-light Fridays (where we turned off all the lights and they got to read with flashlights anywhere in the room), the read alouds, all the Harry Potter activities (house sorting, trying Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, I sent them acceptance letters to Hogawarts, etc.), and doing the one-pagers.
  2. When asked what changes I should make for next year, they suggested more book clubs, students getting to vote on our read alouds, and… many of them said they don’t like sitting in groups. That they wanted to be spread out more and have their own space. (Which is interesting – because a couple years ago I came REALLY close to doing away with individual desks and switching to tables and mainly flexible seating options that have been very popular and whenever I have brought that up, my students have consistently told me – they like their own desk and their own space.)
  3. When asked “Did you read more or less than last year?”, 33% said a little more and 50% said a lot more. And only one child said that they read less this year. 
  4. When asked how I could be a better teacher, the most common responses were to give more reading time, read more books aloud, and a suggestion to ask kids to read even more each night.
  5. When asked what books we should have more of in our classroom library, they wanted more scary books, more books with magic, more books in a series, more poetry, and of course, more graphic novels.

So those were some big takeaways from the feedback from my students. And of course, as I reflect and revise and look for professional development opportunities over the summer, I pair their feedback with the things I saw going well and also things that did not. Here are some “wins” and some “fails” from this past year.

  • A win – the book clubs centered around immigrant and refugee stories. Students learned a lot, had a new perspective on events they may see in the news, and bottom line – just really enjoyed those books.  Since many students requested more book clubs, I am considering adding another round or two – perhaps centered around neurodiversity and understanding ourselves and others. 
  • A fail – not reading nearly enough poetry and nonfiction. So if I think about expanding book clubs, perhaps shifting a little to a poetry reading club or clubs that want to explore a particular nonfiction topic might be a way to go. 
  • A win – read alouds kicked butt this year.  After three times reading aloud Thief of Always, I had the voices down, and I finally felt like I knew that story inside and out and could take them places this year that I never would have even realized the first time we read it together. That just reinforces to me how much can be gained be rereading a text multiple times.   
  • A fail – not reading enough shorter texts – picture books and short stories. And also, every single one of our read alouds this year featured a male protagonist. And I am NOT letting that happen again next year. Or ANY year! Nooo way!
  • A win – when a student told me she wanted to read books with gay, trans, and queer characters, within 3 minutes I was able to gather a huge stack from our classroom library to plop on her desk so she could find something that might appeal to her. 
  • A fail – she didn’t know we had that many titles! I had book-talked many of them, but next year – maybe I’ll have a “Read with Pride” bin to rotate some of those titles in and out.  I want to be careful to not “other” those stories and separate all of them, but I do want students to be able to find them easily. 
  • A win – students read far more diversely this year than any prior year. And I had many, many boys who without much reservation read Baby Sitter’s Club books, and books about girls getting their periods, and other novels with female protagonists that in year’s past might be met with push-back and laughter.  I am maybe seeing a possible cultural shift there. Maybe. I’m hoping. 
  • A fail – not taking enough time to explicitly explore bias and structural racism, the impact of social norms and honestly – all the things that are tricky to talk about but that NEED to be talked about.  And that was better this year, but still not enough.

And I know this is not the work of a summer but the work of a whole career, a whole lifetime. And as always, we are learning together so I’d really love to hear from you about any feedback you received from the children you work with, what your successes and misses were this past year, and what books your kids loved. You can connect with me on Twitter or Instagram – our handle is @books_between or email me at booksbetween@gmail.com and I’d love to share your ideas.

Rajani LaRocca – Interview Outline

Joining me this week is debut author Rajani LaRocca! We chat about baking, Shakespeare, the novels that influenced her as a child, writing ideas for kids, her unparalleled skill at finding the perfect GIF, and  of course – her debut novel Midsummer’s Mayhem!

Take a listen…

Midsummer’s Mayhem

For our listeners who have not yet read Midsummer’s Mayhem – what is this story about?

You novel has so many elements that I love – a bit of mystery, a dash of earthy magic,  – it’s like The Great British Baking Show meets Shakespeare! And the recipes are so mouth-watering, so unique! Did you actually make all of the recipes in the book?

Can we talk about Vik?!  I had no idea until the very end which way he was going to go. I love how you created this mystery surrounding him that was multi-sensory – not just visual, but musical, and the earthy scents of the forest….

Mimi is very inspired by Puffy Fay – her celebrity chef idol. Who is your celebrity writing idol?

A very important question – do you say “JIF” or “GIF”?   However you say it, you are the QUEEN of the Gif!!

Your Writing Life

You said recently, “Often when I sit down to write a chapter, something surprising happens, and things go in a completely different direction than I’d planned.”  What was one of those moments in Midsummer’s Mayhem?

My students and kids are always eager to hear writing advice from authors.  What’s a tip or trick that you’ve picked up along the way that has helped your writing? 

What are you working on now?

Your Reading Life

You’ve mentioned before that the books you read as a child helped shape who you are today. What were some of those books?

What are some books that you’ve read lately that you’d recommend to our listeners?

Thank You!

LINKS

Rajani’s website – https://www.rajanilarocca.com

Rajani on Twitter – @rajanilarocca

Rajani on Instagram – @rajanilarocca

Books and topics we chatted about:

A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L’Engle)

Meet the Austins (Madeleine L’Engle)

The Arm of the Starfish (Madeleine L’Engle)

The Westing Game (Ellen Raskin)

The Chronicles of Narnia (C.S. Lewis)

Amar Chitra Katha graphic novels

The Simple Art of Flying (Cory Leonardo)

Seventh Grade vs the Galaxy (Joshua Levy)

Caterpillar Summer (Gillian McDunn)

Planet Earth Is Blue (Nicole Panteleakos

Super Jake and the King of Chaos (Naomi Milliner)

All of Me (Chris Baron)

Closing

Alright – that’s it for our show this week. If you have a question about how to connect middle grade readers to books they will love or an idea about a guest we should have or a topic we should cover, I would love to hear from you. You can email me at booksbetween@gmail.com or message me on Twitter/Instagram at the handle @Books_Between.

Thank you so much for joining me this week. You can find an outline of interviews and a full transcript of all the other parts of our show at MGBookVillage.org.  And, if you are liking the show, please help others find us too by telling a friend, sharing on social media, or leaving a rating on iTunes or Stitcher.

Talk with you soon!  Bye!

CorrinaAllen

Corrina Allen is a 5th grade teacher in Central New York and mom of two tween girls. She is passionate about helping kids discover who they are as readers.

 

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A DOCTOR, A LAWYER, AND A COLLEGE PROFESSOR…WALK INTO A MIDDLE GRADE DEBUT GROUP: A Conversation with Rajani LaRocca, Josh Levy, and Chris Baron

Josh: I’m so excited about this—for so many reasons, including the reality that this is a conversation the three of us are always having, in one way or another: Why and how three people from such different professional backgrounds now find themselves on this journey together. There’s so much I want to know and share about why and how Rajani and Chris find themselves here. But we should probably begin with the most important thing: Our books. Rajani, wanna start us off?

Rajani: MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM (out June 4, 2019) is a middle grade mashup of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and competitive baking shows in which eleven-year-old Mimi dreams of winning a celebrity chef-judged baking contest, meets a mysterious boy in the woods, and stirs up all sorts of trouble with her baking. Squabbling sisters, rhyming waitresses, and culinary saboteurs all play a role in the story. In the process of setting things right again, Mimi learns that in life as in baking, not everything can be sweet.

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Chris, what about your upcoming novel? Can you tell us what it’s about?

Chris: Sure, my novel in verse, ALL OF ME (out June 11, 2019), is about middle schooler Ari Rosensweig who just wants to look in the mirror and not see a fat kid. Teased, bullied, and an outsider for most of his life, Ari is a geek who loves cryptozoology and role-playing games. He navigates the confusing worlds of his mother, a self-absorbed artist, and his father, a con man who disappears just as Ari prepares for his already-late Bar Mitzvah.

After a brutal bullying incident before summer break, Ari decides he’s had enough. He’s got to lose the weight before high school starts. With the family in turmoil, Ari’s mother moves the two of them out of San Francisco to fix up and open an old gallery at the beach. With the help of a few unexpected friends, Ari starts his quest to reinvent himself no matter what it takes, and when he begins the perfect Diet Revolution, everything changes.

AllOfMe_CVR

Josh: Awesome. And as you both know, SEVENTH GRADE VS. THE GALAXY (out March 5, 2019), is a middle grade sci-fi novel about a “public school spaceship” in the future that gets mysteriously attacked and catapulted across the galaxy. Aliens. Lasers. Spacey shenanigans. (The #MGBookVillage was kind enough to run my cover reveal here.)

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Now to the conversation at hand: Why do we write middle grade? I’m particularly interested in your thoughts, Chris, given how personal your story seems: How did you come to middle grade? And how did you come to this story? Then what about you, Rajani? How “close to home” does your story hit? 

Chris: Josh…it is really personal, and I think that is part of why I care so much about writing middle grade. Stories have always been a source of shelter and inspiration for me. I think I have been writing about this story since I started writing at all. Growing up for me was a combination of 1) a fairy-tale childhood growing up in an artist’s family in New York City and all kinds of other places, and 2) struggling with difficult family dynamics and the identity of being a Jewish kid, an overweight kid, constant diets, negative comments and teasing  from family and friends. Honestly—I thought I was really happy—but people kept telling me I wasn’t.

For ALL OF ME, I needed to tell the story of a kid, Ari, who is told that it is wrong to be who he is—that it’s all his fault somehow—and how he works through that in a difficult but positive way. I think so many middle grade kids relate and even connect to feeling like an outsider because of their weight or their religion, their family dynamics, you name it. There are so many rites of passage happening at this age, and I wanted to tell an honest story about how childhood magic, innocence, identity, family challenges, and religion all mix together and what comes out the other side.

One last thing about how I came to this story: My own family. Seeing my own children grow up—their daily wonders, joys, triumphs and tragedies—they really do inspire.

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Chris Baron’s Middle Grade debut, ALL OF ME, a novel in verse from Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, is coming June 2019. He is a Professor of English at San Diego City College. Baron has published numerous poems and articles in magazines and journals around the country, performed on radio programs, and participated in many readings, lectures, and panels. He grew up in New York City, but he completed his MFA in Poetry in 1998 at SDSU. Baron’s first book of poetry, Under the Broom Tree, was released in 2012 on CityWorks Press as part of Lantern Tree: Four Books of Poems (which won the San Diego Book Award for best poetry anthology). He is represented by the amazing Rena Rossner, from the Deborah Harris Literary Agency.

Rajani: The spark for MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM came from one of my own childhood memories. My dad didn’t travel much for work, but when he did, he sometimes went away for a week or two. When he returned, I’d sometimes wonder what it would be like if the person who returned wasn’t really him, but an imposter who looked and spoke exactly like him (creepy, right?). I devised some “tests” to make sure it was my dad, and luckily, it always was. When I was brainstorming novel ideas, I wondered what it would be like if a girl noticed something odd about her dad…and she was right.

My husband had an imaginary friend when he was little. He spoke to him, played with him, read stories with him—everything. I started wondering about imaginary friends, and what might happen if someone “imaginary” turned out to be quite real. Given my love for Shakespeare in general and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in particular, the next step wasn’t that big.

And, like Chris, so much of this story was inspired by my own children, about being a young person in a world filled with “experts” (some of whom are related to you), of dreaming big dreams but not knowing whether you have the talent or the brains or the grit to make it. And my children, like Mimi, have sometimes surprised themselves with their own brilliance, and with their big hearts and hours of work and refusal to give up even when all seems lost. I hope MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM speaks to kids (and adults) who have set lofty goals for themselves and wonder whether they can ever achieve them. Because the payoff is sweeter when the struggle has been hard.

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Rajani LaRocca was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now lives in the Boston area with her wonderful family and impossibly cute dog. When she’s not writing middle grade novels or picture books, she practices medicine and bakes way too many sweet treats. MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM is her first novel. You can find her online at www.rajanilarocca.com and on Twitter and Instagram @rajanilarocca.

Josh: First, you are both amazing. You know I think that already (we’re friends IRL, after all). But I can’t say it enough.

In a sense, mine is a lot less personal than either of your stories. I don’t conceive of SEVENTH GRADE VS. THE GALAXY as much of a reflection of my own life. If I had any guiding light in writing it, it was: Make this fun. Make this the kind of thing you would have wanted to read when you were younger (and still do).

That doesn’t mean that it isn’t “personal.” I wrote a book that middle school Josh would have wanted to read. He knew well that feeling of being a lonely kid, huddled up with a story that took me far away. I found escape in all sorts of fantasy/sci-fi as a kid. I consumed every Star Wars novel they gave me and loved every page. And I’m overjoyed at the possibility that SEVENTH GRADE VS. THE GALAXY might bring a few kids some of the same comfort and enjoyment.

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Joshua S. Levy was born and raised in Florida. After teaching middle school (yes, including seventh grade) for a little while, he went to law school. He lives with his wife and daughter in New Jersey, where he practices as a lawyer. Unfortunately, outer space doesn’t come up in court nearly as often as he’d like. Seventh Grade vs. the Galaxy is his first novel. You can find him online at http://www.joshuasimonlevy.com/ and on Twitter @JoshuaSLevy.

Frankly, this whole endeavor is a bit of an escape for me. Like you, I have a professional life that is separate from publishing. There are links between my “writing life” and my “lawyer life,” sure, but they’re not always obvious. And I’d love to know more about the connections in your lives. How is your “doctor life” (Rajani) and your “professor life” (Chris) threaded into your writing life?

Rajani: I wrote a piece for MGBookVillage about the parallels between writing and “doctoring.”

Put aside the years of training, the long hours, the many frustrations, and the need for support in both professions (although honestly, writing involves MUCH more rejection). Ultimately, both writing and the practice of medicine are about people— wonderful, horrible, pathetic, amazing people in all their imperfect glory. Both medicine and writing involve listening to others’ stories, and writing our own. For me, medicine and writing inform and amplify each other. And when one gets to be too much, I get to delve into the other, and it feels like a treat.

Chris: I have the privilege of working at San Diego City College, an urban, extremely diverse, Community College where I teach Creative Writing and direct the writing center. There are many connections between my job and my writing life—especially writing and publishing poetry. In many ways, it was my students who got me to the point of writing ALL OF ME. Every semester, I find my mostly working class students, veterans, transfer-minded students really drawn into narratives that connected and related to their lives, providing escape, but also giving new language to the more difficult aspects of life. Students always tell me they wished they had read books in High School and MIddle School that dealt with more serious issues head on. Every chance I get I try to connect them with books, graphic novels, poems, any story that might speak to them. Working with my students over the years has given me the courage to explore deeper issues in my own work. Not long ago, wrote what I considered to be a “risky” poem called “Heavy Water,” about an overweight boy feeling awkward and alone at the beach while other kids seemed so carefree. I got asked to read it a spoken word event.  It was after the reading, when so many of them shared with me that they wanted to hear a story about a character dealing with these issues, that I had one of the first sparks for ALL OF ME!

So Josh, to be fair, and no complaints, and the work is hard. There is a lot of grading, committees, and the introvert in me struggles sometimes, but my job gives a lot of flexibility and room for creativity. But what about your profession as a lawyer? We have talked about the fact that you do A LOT of writing, but what connections do you make between your legal writing and your creative writing? And if nothing else, how do you find the time?

Josh: Great questions, Chris. I’ll work backwards: First, time. I tend to assume that all of us “day job” writers (as well as all writers, generally) are playing a zero sum game. It’s not that “something’s gotta give.” It’s that at any given moment, something is always giving. Priorities compete with one another. What helps me keep perspective are the positive implications for which I’m so grateful: That I have a good job. That I have a wonderful family. That I’m publishing a novel!

And yeah, while my legal writing and my creative writing efforts are very different, I’m also grateful that I get to spend so much of my time doing something I really, genuinely enjoy, no matter the context: Writing. Working out puzzles of language and argumentation. “Is that the right word?” “Does an em-dash belong here?” “Does this aside serve the narrative?” These are questions I get to ask myself in both worlds.

And you, Rajani? HOW DO YOU DO IT?! How do you balance the demands of your job and the pull of writing—and everything required to facilitate the success of both?

Rajani: Well, I could ask you both the same, right?

I think the real answer is…we all make choices every day about how we want to spend our time, and our priorities show through. For me, family comes first, but my children are older now and although they don’t need me less, they need less of my time, if that makes sense. They’ve got their own goals and projects, and they spend most of their time working on those. But I still treasure our meals together, and spend time planning trips or taking walks with them and just soaking up their presence. I also get more time alone with my husband, who is my biggest support in every part of my life. I also happen to love taking care of my patients, and even on the worst day at work, I feel like I have at least helped a few people.

But with writing…it’s not really a choice anymore for me. Characters and situations keep popping up in my head, and their voices can be really annoying if I don’t write them down! I can definitely get out of rhythm if I don’t work on a particular project (particularly a novel) for a while, but once I go through the exercise of “making” myself work on it, a little bit each day, I eventually get back in the groove.

All of this to say: How do I do it all? I don’t. I struggle and muddle through everything, just like everyone else. I show up and put in the work and try to enjoy the good times, and put my head down and deal with the difficult times. And through it all, I try to hold on to the incredible fact that in the end, I am writing things that will be read and enjoyed by children. Who wouldn’t be inspired by that?

Writing Like a Doctor, Doctoring Like a Writer

When I tell people I write stories for young people, they are inevitably pleased, but also sometimes surprised and bemused. Really, they ask. Why?

Part of the reaction to my writing life comes from the fact that I’m a practicing internal medicine doctor. I have the honor of being a primary care physician, which sometimes feels like being everybody’s mom. I take care of everything from stomachaches to headaches to heartaches, and I love it. I love medicine, I love my colleagues, I love my students, and I especially love my patients.

But I’m also a writer. I write because I have to. I can’t stop. I write because books have always been essential to me, my best friends. And I write for kids because the books I read as a child helped shape who I am today in significant ways. Plus, I might still have the mind of a 12-year-old.

To me, medicine and writing have a lot in common. And I’m not just talking about the long list of famous writers who happened to be doctors – Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Carlos Williams, Michael Crichton, Abraham Verghese – the list goes on and on.

I’m talking about the similarities in process between medicine and writing. They involve flexing many of the same muscles…uh, brain cells.

The Years of Training Sequence

Think of your favorite hero movies. The best ones have a thrilling montage of the hero training to prepare for the big battle: Rocky punching frozen sides of beef and running stairs in Philly; Daniel-San painting fences and waxing surfaces and practicing crane technique; Katniss honing her archery skills and trying to learn to relate to other humans.

Medicine has a particularly long and not particularly glamorous Years of Training sequence. Four years of college followed by four years of medical school in which students essentially learn a new language and enough science to make their heads explode, all while trying to perfect taking a great medical history, performing an excellent physical exam, generating the proper differential diagnoses, and still relating to other humans. That earns the MD. But after that comes the grueling residency (yes, the root is the word resident, since they essentially live in the hospital) that lasts a minimum of three years but can extend to five or more, followed by fellowships for those who decide to subspecialize. Oh, and lots and lots of tests! It’s a very long road, not for the faint of heart, and certainly not for those who don’t love medicine with every fiber of their being.

Writing has a Years of Training sequence, too. Great writers are made, not born, and it takes years and years of practice to hone one’s skills. Unlike medicine, this doesn’t necessarily require formal education – MFAs are great, but you don’t need one to write well, and you don’t need a license to write either. But good writing doesn’t just happen overnight, and it’s a myth that some people just “have it” and spit out best-selling, award-winning novels without working hard. Writers put in hours and hours perfecting the craft by reading, writing about reading, reading about writing, talking, reflecting, and just plain writing. We take classes, participate in critique groups, attend webinars, conferences, workshops, writing retreats … and we write. And write, and write.

Which leads me to another similarity between medicine and writing: the learning never ends. I’m required by my state medical board to devote a certain number of hours to Continuing Medical Education (CME) in order to stay up to date with the latest advances. Trust me, you don’t want your doctor to still be practicing medicine like it’s 1958 or 1998…or even 2008. Similarly, even the most accomplished writers I know are constantly pushing themselves to improve their craft every single day. Each book we write is written differently, and requires different skills. The learning really never ends. And that’s a good thing!

Which brings me to…

Science vs. Art

Everyone knows that medicine is a science. It’s also an art.

You can read all the books, take all the exams, and complete the training, but there’s nothing that teaches like experience. The best doctors listen as much as they talk, and take into account a patient’s body language and tone to elicit both what the patient is worried about, and what they care about – their values. This, more than anything, is what helps a doctor guide a patient through a difficult decision. Now that I’ve been practicing medicine for over 20 years, I find myself listening more, panicking less, and understanding my patients better than I ever could as a younger doctor.

Meanwhile, everyone knows that writing is an art. But it’s also a science.

There are plenty of ways to find inspiration, and sometimes writing is just about putting something (anything!) down on a page, but I love it when I devise or discover a strategy for getting my writing unstuck. This is not to say that writing is ever cookie-cutter, or one-size-fits-all…it never is. But to me, having a structure is extremely helpful. Classes and workshops and books have taught me practical approaches to developing an outline, deepening a character arc, or revising a scene. In the world of plotters vs. pantsers, I fall squarely on the plotter side…but it’s impossible for me to cut out pantsing entirely, and sometimes it’s absolutely essential! Often when I sit down to write a chapter, something surprising happens, and things go in a completely different direction than I’d planned. In any case, focusing on the structure and the science of storytelling can be a huge help when staring down a blank page. And sometimes, when I’ve worked on a piece forever and I can’t tell up from down, it’s helpful (and even fun!) to just focus on the nitty-gritty aspects of writing — like line editing!

And when things get tough, in medicine and in writing…

I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends

Practicing medicine can be high pressure, perplexing, and emotionally exhausting. Sustaining a life in medicine would be impossible without my colleagues – everyone from other doctors to nurses, nurse practitioners, medical assistants, and administrative folks. Not to mention the security guards, technicians, translators…without the whole team, we wouldn’t be able to take great care of our patients. And when I’m confused or excited, upset or elated, I can go to any of them with my questions/concerns/thrilling news, and they help. They always do.

Built into our system of medical education is a brilliant way of paying it forward: as a faculty member at a teaching hospital and medical school, I have the privilege of helping to teach and train the next generation of doctors, who go on to teach and train the ones who follow them.

And at the heart of it all is our sacred duty: to care for our fellow human beings, to advise them as honestly as we can, and to tend to them when they need us.

I never thought I’d ever meet a group of people as brilliant, hard-working, mission-driven, and generous as the medical community I’ve been fortunate to be part of.

And then I met writers.

I’ve met writers in person and online, in my hometown and across the country. They are published, pre-published, and almost published, women and men, young and old, newbies and mentors. And in them I’ve found another group of brilliant, hard-working, mission-driven, generous colleagues. We read each other’s work and cheerlead each other and serve as confidantes and counselors and promoters in the best possible way. Writers are constantly learning from fellow writers, and they pay it forward all the time.

And at the heart of it all is our sacred duty: to care about our fellow human beings, to tell our stories as honestly as we can, and to tend to each other when we need it.

Because people are at the heart of both medicine and writing. Beautiful, infuriating, wonderful, awful, glorious, ever-changing, transcendent people. People who make terrible choices. People who are braver than we can fathom. People who face impossible odds and keep trying. I’m so very lucky to care for real people who tell me their stories, and have these experiences inform the stories I spin in my mind. And fictional people, in the books I read and the books I write, inform how I take care of my patients. They make me a better doctor, and a better human being.

Stories matter. They always have. They always will.

So that’s what I try to do: write like a doctor, and doctor like a writer. Keep my chin up during the never-ending Years of Training. Keep my team close, and let them help me. Use science and art in my writing and my doctoring. And keep my heart open to all kinds of people with all kinds of stories. To listen to theirs, and tell them mine.

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Rajani LaRocca writes (middle grade and picture books), doctors (adults), and bakes (as much as possible) in eastern Massachusetts. Her home team includes her superhero husband, two brilliant kids, and the world’s handsomest dog. You can learn more about her at www.rajanilarocca.com and on Twitter @rajanilarocca.