Rajani LaRocca describes herself as an omnivorous reader of novels, nonfiction, comic books and cereal boxes—and now, an omnivorous writer for young readers: novels and picture books, fiction and nonfiction, prose and poetry. LaRocca won the 2022 Newbery Honor for her novel in verse, “Red, White and Whole.” She’s also been a primary care physician for over 20 years.
LaRocca’s latest is a nonfiction picture book about vaccines. She joined All Things Considered host Arun Rath to discuss her children’s book, “A Vaccine is Like a Memory.” What follows is a lightly edited transcript.
Arun Rath: So, I want to talk about the book. But first off, I want to know a bit about your background. You were born in India and raised in Kentucky. How did you end up in Boston?
Rajani LaRocca: I came here for college.
Rath: As many people do.
LaRocca: Yes. And then I stayed for medical school and residency, and we never left.
Rath: Tell me a bit about growing up in Kentucky.
LaRocca: I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, which is a lovely city. We had a small but very vibrant Indian American community there. I attended a school called Louisville Collegiate School from fourth grade to the end of high school, and I loved it. It was a great place to grow up.
Rath: How long have you been writing? The whole time?
LaRocca: No. I loved to write when I was in school, and even through high school and a little bit in college, but then I put that all on hold once I went to medical school because there was too much to stuff into my brain. And then I had kids. As you know, that makes you kind of busy as well, so I didn’t go back to writing until about 2011. So, it was a long break.
Rath: Did your kids inspire it? You’ve written a lot of children’s books.
LaRocca: Yes, the kids did inspire it. But, also, I think that once I started writing again, I realized that my voice really was in that kid realm. I think mainly what inspired me was that the things that made the biggest difference in my life were the ones that I read when I was a kid. When I started writing, I realized that’s what I wanted to do.
Rath: I say this as a South Asian Indian guy with kids—as I was looking around for books for my kids that had characters who were like them or people who looked like them, there wasn’t a lot. And now, thanks to you, it’s a lot better.
LaRocca: Oh, thank you. You know, I was a book lover from the very beginning, and growing up in the U.S. as an Indian American, I read books here, I read books in India when I went to visit my relatives, but I never found any stories that had to do with people like me, who were Indian American growing up in the U.S., but of Indian origin. I didn’t realize what I was missing until I was an adult. I finally read a book about a character like me, and it changed my whole world.
Interestingly, when I first started writing, I didn’t necessarily write about Indian American characters. I think that there was something in my brain that was like, “Oh, stories are about other people, right?” But then, after a couple of years, I was like, “Wait a minute, why don’t I write about people like me when I read about stories that I care about?” So, that’s how it all started.
Rath: So, “A Vaccine is Like a Memory.” What inspired that, beyond the whole pandemic thing? Being a doctor in the pandemic must have been intense.
LaRocca: It was. It was a crazy time for everybody. I feel like medicine changed kind of overnight, and we all had to deal really quickly with what we were all dealing with. It was a challenge, but it was also inspiring to see so many of my colleagues stepping up and being at the forefront of treatment. You know, when we didn’t know how to treat COVID-19, they were there.
And, as a doctor, I’ve always been pro-vaccine. It’s one of the most remarkable achievements that medicine has ever made. But really, truly, the inspiration for this book came from the COVID-19 vaccines. So, four days after I got my first vaccine, I drafted this book because it reminded me of how important vaccines are, and I wanted to tell kids about it.
Rath: For a kids’ book, it’s written to a very high level. I mean, it’s the real, detailed history and the science of it, including some people who haven’t gotten credit in the history of vaccines.
LaRocca: Yes. What’s interesting is that kids understand things on a much more sophisticated level than we sometimes give them credit for—even little kids. The fact that this is a picture book is really helpful because the illustrations really help tell the story as well. But I didn’t want to underestimate how smart kids are or how interested they might be in this topic.
I wanted to tell that whole story, and then give examples of diseases that we no longer see anymore because of vaccines. I did want to mention the pandemic because, obviously, we all went through it, but children suffered all kinds of upheaval, and I wanted to put that in perspective and explain how vaccines help the pandemic end.
Rath: Tell us about the central metaphor of the book because it’s kind of interesting.
LaRocca: One of the things that inspired this book was the idea that every time a medical treatment comes out, some people are skeptical of it, which is rightfully so. But I feel like the reaction to this latest round of vaccines was really strong on the part of some people, and it got me thinking about whether this is something that’s new or is this something that has happened every time vaccines have been rolled out?
Sure enough, there have been protests and arguments against vaccines since their inception. So looking up the history, I thought about it as a whole, and I thought that the metaphor of vaccines basically reminds your body of an illness that it never had so that you can fight it off when you’re actually exposed to the illness. But we as people need to have a memory of what things were like before vaccines so that we don’t fall into the trap of getting rid of this thing that helps us stay healthy and safe.
Rath: I love that metaphor of it working like a memory—that it gives your body a memory of a disease that it never had. It’s almost science fiction in that way, like injecting people with memories. Vaccines are really cool.
LaRocca: They really are. I just thought about how, you know, with many illnesses, if you get it once, you’ll never get it again, and it’s because your body has a memory; you know, it’s a memory in cells and a memory in proteins, antibodies in your veins. How cool is that? So we as people can’t lose that memory.
Rath: I think a lot of adults are going to learn things from reading this book, and that made me wonder: is some of the intended audience here vaccine-skeptical parents?
LaRocca: I hope all parents and all kids who read this book learn something from it, and I hope that it helps make some things clear that may be confusing. I hope it helps inspire people to be more curious and learn more about vaccines. I think that, sometimes, fear comes from a misunderstanding or just not enough information. So this is a good place to start getting good information about vaccines.