Author Interview: Rajani LaRocca on Poetry, Verse Novels & Beating Writer’s Block

By Mitu Malhotra

I first met Rajani LaRocca on a crisp fall day in November 2022 at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier. Her amazing energy stayed with me long after that weekend when she shared her writing journey and the art of juggling two full careers. Today we welcome Rajani, recipient of a Newbery Honor and Walter Award for her middle grade verse novel, Red, White, and Whole (Quill Tree Books, 2021), to share some thoughts on penning her second verse novel, Mirror to Mirror (Quill Tree Books, March 21, 2023).

You are a prolific writer along with being a mom and a medical doctor. Do you maintain a daily writing practice? Do you have a favorite place /pen /journal or a ritual that you begin writing with?

I typically write on my laptop, because as a doctor, I often can’t read my own handwriting! I often write in my office, but honestly, I can write anywhere, and I have—in my kitchen, living room, at my local library, at a café, on a train, or in a car (not while driving!). As a working mom, I learned early on not to be too precious about when and where I write.

I don’t have a particular writing ritual, but when I’m drafting a novel, I try to write first thing in the morning when my brain is fresh, and I’m not bogged down with work or email. I can revise at almost any time of the day.

A peek into Rajani’s writing alcove.

In the verse novel, Mirror to Mirror you use alternating first person POV of two identical twins. Could you tell us about the process of creating their distinct voices on the page as you wrote and revised this story?

Originally, this story was told with one twin’s voice (Maya’s) in poetry, and the other (Chaya’s) in prose. But after reading the first draft, my editor thought the book would be better with both voices in poetry . . . and I agreed. So, when I revised, I rewrote almost the entire story. I tried to infuse each character’s poems with their distinct personality. Although both voices employ metaphor, symbolism, and other poetic devices, Maya is more lyrical, and Chaya tends to be more direct.

Rajani’s sofa adorned with cushions printed with her book covers.

Mirror to Mirror is your second verse novel. Was writing in this genre easier or more challenging, second time round?

Writing in poetry wasn’t difficult in and of itself, but I wrote most of this book in 2020 and 2021, when the circumstances of the world in general and my family in particular were very challenging. Writing about anxiety at a time with so many of us were struggling with this feeling was hard at times.

Music runs as a novel length metaphor throughout this book. What’s your personal connection with music that has primed your writing in this way? Did you play an instrument growing up?

I played classical piano and sang as a young person. I also have two children (now young adults) who are very musically gifted: both play classical piano and sing, and my son also plays jazz trumpet. My husband is also an incredible singer; all our family road trips become singalongs!

To me, music and poetry are interconnected—they both have rhythm, melody, and the ability to evoke emotion. My previous novel in verse, Red, White, and Whole, also used music (80’s pop music in particular) as a metaphor. It made sense to put music at the very heart of Mirror to Mirror.

Tell us about beginnings and endings of poems that work as mini chapters in a verse novel. How intentional are you about crafting titles and last lines? And which ones are your favorites in Mirror to Mirror?

I try to be intentional with every line, but especially with the beginnings and endings of poems. One of my favorite techniques is to put a few lines at the end of a poem that changes the meaning of the whole poem. For example, in the poem, “Practice,” Maya starts off talking about pancakes, particularly dosas—savory pancakes made of lentils and rice—and how the first one never turns out right. And at the end of the poem, she says,

“On the outside,
I’m just like my sister.
But on the inside,
I’m pale, doughy, useless,
I’m the first one.
The one for practice.”

I love so many of the poems, but here are some of my favorites: “She’s the One” by both Maya and Chaya; “Major and Minor”; “Silence”; “The What-if Game”; “Twins Who Fly”; “Sorry”; “Different”; “In the Morning.”

What inspired you to create the four concrete poems in this novel? Why did you pick these junctures in the story to infuse a visual element?

I loved playing with concrete poems for this book! Each of the poems happens at an important part of the story. “Climbing” establishes early on that Maya struggles with fear and anxiety. “Hurricane” comes near the end of Part 1, when Maya has a panic attack that spurs Chaya into action. “Cabin” is from Chaya’s point of view at the beginning of Part 3—it embodies how Chaya feels trapped and claustrophobic that she has to pretend to be Maya at their summer camp.

Could you tell us about crafting the Ghazal poem “In the Morning” with its echoing refrain?

In April 2020, I took an online poetry workshop with renowned poet Lesléa Newman, and during that class, she talked about ghazals and showed us several examples of this poetic form. I was inspired to write a ghazal and drafted this poem that very day. I was surprised to find that I had written a poem about one sister lamenting that her twin had changed, and they were no longer close. That poem became the seed for this entire book! I wondered what had happened to push the sisters apart; the fact that at ghazal is a type of song made me put music at the heart of this story.

What do you hope young readers will take away from Mirror to Mirror?

I hope young readers understand that even when someone is as similar to and close to us as possible (even an identical twin!), they may not know all that is in our hearts or minds. So, if something is hurting or bothering us, we should share that with those we love in order to get help. I hope young readers understand that anxiety and mental health issues are common and treatable, and we don’t have to deal with them alone. And I hope they gain insight into the unbreakable bonds of family and sisterhood.

Rajani’s reading nook, home to the couch above.

Any plans to pen more verse novels?

I’ve got a verse novel idea that’s not letting me go, so we’ll see!

What’s your trick to tackling the writer’s block?

Sometimes, writer’s block is a sign of mental fatigue, so I take a walk or a shower and see what happens. Sometimes it means I should stop writing for the day and try again after a good night’s sleep. Sometimes I take a break from one project and work on another—I call this “productive procrastination.” Sometimes, though, when I don’t have time to set a story aside, I will set a timer for 6 minutes and make myself write without stopping. And 99% of the time, I end up writing for much longer.

Cynsational Notes

Rajani LaRocca was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now lives in the Boston area, where she practices medicine and writes award-winning books for young readers, including the Newbery Honor winning middle grade novel in verse, Red, White, and Whole. She’s always been an omnivorous reader, and now she is an omnivorous writer of fiction and nonfiction, novels and picture books, prose and poetry. She finds inspiration in her family, her childhood, the natural world, math, science, and just about everywhere she looks.

Learn more about Rajani and her books at and Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. She also co-hosts the STEM Women in KidLit Podcast.

Mitu Malhotra holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is the 2021 winner of the Katherine Paterson Prize for Literature for Young Adults and Children. Her short story Toxins is part of ELA curriculum. In previous avatars, she was a textile and fashion designer. When she is not writing, Mitu paints, sews, and builds miniature dollhouses out of recycled materials. She is an active member of SCBWI. More on or Instagram @mituart.