New Voices: Nicole Melleby & Rajani LaRocca MG Debuts that Highlight Father-Daughter Relationships

By Stephani Martinell Eaton

I’m excited to introduce you to debut middle grade authors whose books highlight father-daughter relationships in their novels. Nicole Melleby, author of Hurricane Season (Algonquin, 2019), and Rajani LaRocca, author of Midsummer’s Mayhem (Yellow Jacket/Little Bee, 2019), share their inspirations and perspectives on the writing journey.

Nicole Melleby

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

I actually got my MFA in Writing for Young Adults—I started writing YA novels. I even got my first agent with a YA novel.

Hurricane Season was my first attempt at writing a contemporary middle grade, because I really wanted to focus on that father-daughter relationship at that age, and when I started it just … felt right. It felt like this was the voice that worked for me, and I don’t know what it says that I apparently have the voice of an eleven-year-old, but it’s true!

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Before I knew what the story was going to be about, I knew that I wanted to write about a daughter-and-father relationship, where it felt like it was them against the world.

But I still needed a plot, and in spring 2017, my cousin was studying abroad in London. My aunt and uncle were planning a vacation to go out for a week to see him, and I pretty much decided I was going to crash their trip.

While there, I adjusted to the jet lag pretty quickly, and my family decidedly did not. Because of that, I had my mornings to myself and I knew that the National Gallery in London was free, so I decided to check it out.

When I got to the Van Gogh paintings, there was a tour guide talking about Van Gogh’s mental illness, and there was just…something so unbelievable relatable about what he was saying. I ended up going to the gift shop and buying a book of Van Gogh’s letters. I read them all on the plane ride home, and I knew exactly what I wanted to write by the time we landed.

What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?

The day of my book launch event, I got into my car to drive to my local bookstore that was holding the event….and promptly backed up into the car parked behind me. I had to wait for the cops to come file a report and everything, so I was late to my event, and when I got there, my mom had told everyone what had happened!

What model books were most useful to you and how?

I read a lot of the LGBTQ MG books that were published before me, both as a reader and as a writer. Books by Ashley Herring Blake, Kheryn Callender, and Lisa Bunker.

Barbara Dee’s Star-Crossed (Aladdin, 2017) was actually the first queer middle grade book I ever read, and I finished it and went, “Wow. I can do this, too. I need to do this, too.”

As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to your story?

I always get asked if, because I’m queer and write queer stories, if I write the books that I wish I had growing up. And that’s true! But it’s also not.

Most middle grade readers now live a completely different world than I did when I was that age—especially queer ones. There’s more visibility, more understanding among peers. And while it’s still not always great, it’s not the experience I would have had. So when I write about queer MG characters, I try to blend what I wish I had and what I needed, with what MG readers need and want now.

School visit with East Islip Middle School’s book club

Rajani LaRocca

Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?

The apprenticeship of every writer begins with reading widely. As a kid, I always had a book in my hand at school, in the car, in bed, and at meals. I read everything I could — novels and nonfiction, comic books and cereal boxes. When I visited my family in India, I plowed through piles of Indian graphic novels called Amar Chitra Katha, which explored everything from Hindu mythology to Indian history.

Rajani and members of her critique group

I did a lot of creative writing in school and college, but I knew I wanted to study medicine, and the demands of medical school, residency, and young motherhood made writing take a back seat for years.

Then in 2011, when my kids were in school and my medical practice was established, I wondered how I could nourish my creativity again. I decided to take some writing classes, both online and in person. And in those classes, I met some wonderful writers who became my critique partners. I have learned so much from them over the years, and I wouldn’t be successful without them.

After a few years of taking classes, reading craft books, and attending conferences and workshops, in 2017, I entered Pitch Wars, the mentorship program where more experienced authors mentor unagented writers. I was lucky enough to get in, and my mentor, Joy McCullough, gave me an edit letter on Midsummer’s Mayhem.

It was excellent, and it involved eliminating a major character from the novel. I was so scared that I started two revisions: one with him in it, and one with him gone. Within three chapters, it was clear that he needed to go, but he was in almost every scene.

Over the next five weeks, I essentially rewrote my novel, and I think that was the true crucible, the time when my apprenticeship really occurred. I then proceeded to the agent showcase and received multiple offers of representation.

Rajani and Pitch Wars mentor Joy McCullough

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

The first inspiration for Midsummer’s Mayhem came from a childhood memory. When I was a kid, my dad didn’t travel that often, but when he did he was sometimes gone for up to a week. When he returned, I, having an overactive imagination, wondered how I would know if the person who came back wasn’t actually my dad, but someone who looked exactly like him. So I devised a series of “tests,” questions that only my read dad would know the answers to. Luckily, it always was my real dad!

When I began this story, I wondered about a girl whose dad returned from a trip acting strangely, and something really was wrong, but she was the only one who noticed. How would that happen? Midsummer’s Mayhem started with that question.

What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?

The worst moments have been the times when self-doubt creeps in and tells me I’ll never be good enough.

The best moments have been when someone said yes: my agent, my publisher, other publishers for other books. But since Midsummer’s Mayhem released, I’ve had kids write me and tell me in person that they love my story. And that has been the best!

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?

  1. Read widely – in your genre and outside it, adult and children’s books alike. Have fun with reading and keep yourself open to all kinds of stories.
  2. Write. You don’t have to keep a particular schedule, or write every day, but in addition to your projects, do some writing for fun…it will help keep things fresh. No writing is wasted!
  3. Try to ignore your inner editor when drafting.
  4. Be a merciless editor when revising.
  5. Find critique partners whose judgement you trust. Keep them close, and don’t let go.
  6. Surround yourself with people who support you and avoid those who tear you down or drain you.
  7. Always be learning.
  8. Be kind. It matters! And remember to be kind to yourself!
  9. Give back to your community in any way you can.
  10. Keep things in perspective. Even if publishing isn’t going well for you at the moment, take time to reflect on the things in your life that are going well.
Rajani and family at book launch

Cynsational Notes

Nicole Melleby is a born-and-bred Jersey girl with a passion for storytelling. She studied creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University and currently teaches creative writing and literature courses with a handful of local universities.

Her debut novel, Hurricane Season earned three starred reviews and was awarded the Skipping Stones Honor Award for exceptional contribution to multicultural and ecological awareness in children’s literature. Her second novel, In the Role of Brie Hutchens… will be released Spring 2020.

When she’s not writing, Nicole can be found browsing the shelves at her local comic shop or watching soap operas with a cup of tea.

Rajani LaRocca was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now lives in the Boston area with her wonderful family and impossibly cute dog. She earned a BA and an MD from Harvard, and spends her time writing novels and picture books, practicing medicine, and baking too many sweet treats. Midsummer’s Mayhem (Yellow Jacket/Little Bee, 2019) is her first novel.

Stephani Martinell Eaton holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts where she won the Candlewick Picture Book Award and the Marion Dane Bauer Award for middle grade fiction.