Podcast: Rajani LaRocca and Abhi Alwar

Jul 7, 2023 | Podcasts

What You’ll Find In this Podcast

Author Rajani LaRocca and illustrator Abhi Alwar joined George Brown on our podcast to talk more about the creative, personal, and emotional process behind their new picture book SUMMER IS FOR COUSINS, and Abhi’s experience as an illustrator attending a verse novel workshop.

Podcast Highlights

Rajani LaRocca’s inpiration behind her new picture book:

I thought about my favorite summer memories and most of them had to do with visiting my cousins [in India].

Abhi Alwar on trying different formats and genres:

I think like we can all learn from different types of like expression and I think honestly–becoming a better writer, I think it will also help me become a better artist.

Rajani LaRocca’s thoughts on how an illustrator transforms a manuscript:

The other thing when you write, there’s a lot of stuff you just leave unsaid because then the illustrator comes along, and it’s like “here I am. I’m making up, you know, more than half the story!” It’s amazing.

It’s such a perfect example of what an illustrator brings to a project that I as an author could never have imagined.

Abhi Alwar’s experience while attending the Crafting Novels in Verse workshop:

I want to do it to learn something completely new that I’ve never really tried before, with the intention of–at least as far as poetry goes–with the intention of putting it into a story. [The] experience here of being around other really talented, really experienced verse novelists and poets–it’s been amazing.

Full Transcript

George Brown : Hi everybody, this is George Brown at the Highlights Foundation. Here’s an interview with Rajani LaRocca and Abhi Alwar, and they talk about their new picture book: Summer is for Cousins. It was just released May 2023. This book was featured in Jenna Bushe Read with Jenna Junior List recently seen on the Today show. We were so thrilled to have Abhi and Rajani here right after their launch in New York and then here on campus at the Highlights Foundation. Take a listen. Welcome to the Highlights Foundation gather podcast, where our mission is to positively impact children by amplifying the voices of storytellers who inform, educate, and inspire children to become their best selves. Today’s guests are Rajani LaRocca and Abhi Alwar. Hello Abhi and Rajani. 

Rajani: Hello. Hey, George.  

George Brown: Welcome. Your picture book Summer is for Cousins, released just a couple of weeks ago in early May 2023, and I’m so glad you’re both here for the crafting novels and verse workshop so that we can talk about your book. So let’s let’s jump in. Rajani you’re the author Abhi you’re the illustrator. So maybe Rajani start and talk about how the book came about.  

Rajani LaRocca: Yeah, I think it was the summer of 2020 that my agent and my really good friend asked me to write a picture book about summer, he said. Just anything about summer cause he loves the summer and so I thought this was a great idea and I thought about my favorite summer memories and most of them had to do with visiting my cousins. So every few years, even though I was growing up in the United States, we would go back to India because all of our relatives were in India and I had a bunch of cousins who were right around my age and they all lived in Bangalore, India. So we would go back and visit the family and we would spend all summer there and I would hang out with my cousins and we would have the best time and you know what’s really interesting about thinking about these memories? Was that even though a lot of times you think that the most important things are kind of that big trip you took to see that thing or that big celebration, that big party. The most joyful times were the little times, the moments that we just had together, where we just spent all day together, and it was a, you know, I think that cousins. I have no siblings, so my cousins were the closest thing I had to siblings, but they’re very special in that you don’t have that kind of sibling rivalry that you have or, or just kind of like sibling tension because you don’t live with each other all the time. So you don’t know exactly how to irritate the other. One you just have to you know, enjoy the time that you have and then when I, you know, I grew up and I have children myself some of my cousins lived near me now, which is amazing. So they’re kids and my kids spent a lot of time together and we would, because of my children, I’m giving them this is this is why we did this. We would go to Cape Cod every summer to different places and like rent, you know, a house or something or stay in a hotel and all the cousins would be together and then I got to see my kids have that same experience with their cousins. But there’s a lot of Cape Cod feeling in this book.  

George Brown : Oh, I love that, so one of one of our summer traditions is 4th of July on Cape Cod with the cousins and so I can’t wait to feel that vibe in your story. Okay, so Abhi talk about this from the illustration perspective. How was it or how did it come about?  

Abhi Alwar: So yeah, I got I got an e-mail from my lovely agent Ally and we were just like oh my goodness. Like this here, this is something that came in from the editor Courtney Code, and you’re like, wait, this could, this feels like it really speaks to me as soon as I read the manuscript, I was like, Oh my God. Like, I feel like I’m there, like I’ve been there. This has happened to me so many times. Like we’ve had so many lovely vacations and I just, I was like, I really want this. I want this so bad. So yeah, I was like please. I want this so we, you know, we started the, got the ball rolling and yeah I started working on character sketches because there are seven cousins. So started having to think about like what these cousins look like and like which families they’re like with like who their siblings are, their relationship to each other and in the manuscript itself, like Rajani had really only like, I think listed out the order of who is oldest and who’s youngest like at like one of the first spreads. And so I was like, OK, like that’s mostly what I’m working off of from this. And then so from there I had to like think about like each of their little personalities, each of their little quirks and then like build it from there and that was really fun. And so like, I made a little family tree and then you know everything just like went from there.  

George Brown: So you had to take the manuscript and then you built this whole world in your head of what the family looked like and the cousins to be able to get that out on paper.  

Abhi Alwar: Yes, yes. 

Rajani LaRocca: I just have to tell you the, the kind of story is that there’s a family that gets together every summer and they rent some house and it’s near the beach and a lake. And there are seven cousins, there’s two uncles, 2 aunties, mom and dad, and a grandma and grandpa. And they all go together. So I was like, OK, that’s a lot of people, but I didn’t think about it cause I was just writing words.  

Abhi Alwar: And I didn’t think about how hard it would be to illustrate it. 

Rajani LaRocca: The central story is that there is the main character is Ravi who Is like the next to youngest. And he loves his oldest cousin like he loves all of his cousins. But his oldest, he and Robbie have a special relationship, cause he’s the only other boy. And but this year, His cousin Dhruv is like taller and has like a deep voice and he seems to have changed so much. So Ravi is wondering whether he remembers all the things that they used to do together, including their favorite flavor, flavor of ice cream. And so that is the premise of the story. And that comes right from my feelings, which was when I was gonna see my cousins again after a few years. Like I knew that they had changed. I saw them and I was like, oh, my, and almost all my cousins were boys. And I was like, they got huge. Like, when did that happen? And there was always this, you know, initial, like feeling of like, oh my goodness. I feel a little bit shy because are you the same person that I knew and loved before, or have you changed so much that we don’t have anything in common. So that’s what this story explores, and in the very first spread I said huge family and then only later on when I saw these sketches was I like, Oh my goodness, she had to draw 15 people.  

Abhi Alwar: I, at first I was like, this is so daunting, but then I was like, this is really fun because like, I, I get to think about each of their relationships and how, like, how in each spread, like, as the story goes on like what they’re doing. So I had to, like, think about like, OK, like, not only the cousin’s relationship, but like aunties and uncles like how do they feel about each other? What’s their sibling relationship like and like, what would their, what would their connection be with their like parents? Because it’s like an intergenerational, like, whole meet up and so. Like I was, I like, I pulled from like, you know my own experiences, of course, with cousins and also with like family friend with family friends who are essentially like my cousins growing up here, mostly in the US, like we would go back to India maybe like once every few years, and like, you know, the times I spent with my cousins were very treasured and like I did try to include as much of those too. But like a lot of the small like road trips and like trips to like water parks and using parks and all that stuff like that was it like my little, my little group of family and so yeah, it was, it was great to pull from those experiences.  

George Brown:  I‘m fascinated by the, the back story, right? Like it’s the personal experience, but it’s also like all the stuff that doesn’t show up on the page that goes into that process. And it sounds like you’ve done a lot of that to pull it together now, how did you come up with the character sketches? Did you have models? Were you looking at photos? Does it all come out of your head? Where did the actual looks of the characters come from?  

Abhi Alwar: So like a, a lot of them are, you know, like partly inspired by people I know, my family, friends, my cousins, my aunts and uncles like will features here and there and.  

George Brown: Did anybody in your family say ohh, that one’s me? 

Abhi Alwar: Yeah, there’s this one like 1 scene where there’s a dad that’s cutting vegetables and my dad, like, sent me a picture and he was like, is this me? And I was like, yeah, but yeah, yeah.  

George Brown: Shout out, shout out to dad, right? Ohh that’s funny. 

Rajani LaRocca: But what about your brother?  

Abhi Alwar: Ohh yeah yeah that that whole. So Ravi, the main character, you know, like he’s like a cute, chubby little boy with this little boy cut and you know at first my brother, like my my brother is like, you know, very tall and very different from how he looked like when he was younger and like, he was like, oh, wow. Like, I’m so glad that, like, finally you didn’t, like, put me in one of your books like, geez, it feels like you’re always inspired by me or something. Well, actually he’s like, are you telling me I’m in this book and I was like, yeah, you’re kind of Ravi. Like what?  

George Brown: So that’s lovely, yeah.  

Abhi Alwar: But yeah, it’s like it, it definitely feels really, really nice to like be pulling from, like, real relationships that I’ve seen from like from my loved ones around me. 

George Brown: And talk a little bit about your art process. Are you sketching with a pencil? Are you going straight on a digital how does it, how does your process work?  

Abhi Alwar:  So for this one I like. I mainly worked digitally. Like I did some very rough thumbnails by pencil, but the digital process is definitely like the one that I’ve been using a lot for picture books. And yeah, I had like a watercolor texture that I already like had made. So like, you know, scan that in and then I used that mostly as the background. But the final art was all digital, all through procreate and my iPad and Apple pencil.  

George Brown: Awesome. OK, OK.  

Rajani LaRocca:  So I just went, I have two comments on her art.  

George Brown: Go for it, yes.  

Rajani LaRocca: So first of all, we knew that Ravi has an older sister in this book and they have like, a little sibling hilarious relationship. Yeah, there’s like one seeing where it’s specified. Like, you know, he splashes his sister. I splashed my sister until she shouts at me to stop. I stop and then she splashes me. Like that is just like the typical brother sister kind of thing. But when, when we first got like initial sketches from you, my editor was like, oh, he said that she had this idea that one of the characters would be like the photographer, like the family chronicler. So the older sister character who looks a little bit like I would say, Oh yeah, yeah, he’s me this is and beautiful hair. It’s like, so sweet. She’s the she’s got a Polaroid camera and the end papers are Polaroids of the family of the cousins it is, oh my goodness. When she shared that with me when my editor shared that with me, I like burst into tears. I was like, this is so beautiful and like, it’s not anything that is in the text. It is just something that, you know, you read the text and you’re like, this is my idea of how to bring this to life. And that is like it’s so it’s such a perfect example of what an illustrator brings to a project that I as an author could never have imagined. Like I, I mean, I’m just like, whatever, here’s the story and she’s like, look, it’s a family. So yeah, that that was that, it is pure joy and the really fun thing that is going to be fun for kids to look at is that in every almost in every spread that that character is taking a photo and then you can see where those photos came from on in the first.  

George Brown:  So there’s a thread that carries through alright and maybe you can’t answer this Abhi but like, did you work really hard to come up with that in paper idea or did it just come to you like where in the process did that come to you?  

Abhi Alwar: Good question I, the idea itself like originated, I think from the designer who was like oh, since the character is taking pictures like how do you feel about the end papers being like this? And I was like, wait a second, this is perfect. And I jumped on that and the photos themselves are actually inspired by, like photos that I’ve taken. Or that like you know, we’ve taken, like family on these family vacations and trips and things. So like it was, uh, sometimes like very directly taken. And I was like, oh, like, yeah, I have this one like of like, one of my one of my family friends like, she was like jumping on a trampoline. And like, I was like, oh, wow this is super cute.  

Abhi Alwar: So I added that in front and yeah, like we also like I also added something in about like on  battles. Like which, you know, we a lot of us are like very like involved in Indian traditional music and like I guess I’m actually isn’t that but yeah, like we, we would, we would have like little singing battles sometimes, and that was that was really nice to include. And so that was much further on in the process though, but yeah.  

George Brown: Sounds like a project of both of your hearts, like there was a whole lot of personal connection emotion that went into making the whole piece. You had a launch recently, you were just telling me a little bit about that Rajani and you tell me, how did that go? What was it like?  

Rajani LaRocca: So we were at in Brooklyn at Books are Magic and this is all Abhi’s idea, cuz she’s local, she’s in Brooklyn and she was like, I don’t know, what do you think we could have this in Books are Magic and like, literally across the street is Malai ice cream so this Desi owned ice cream place that is the most amazing flavors. So we had a launch outside with children and adults, we read the book. Abhi did an entire illustration like, like, I mean she illustrated all the cousins in front of our eyes, it was amazing. And then we had ice cream and then we had a big book signing. It was so much, the ice cream, the ice cream was honestly amazing, but one of the this is the first time I’ve ever met an illustrator of one of my picture books and what a joy I learned all these things. I learned so many things from her at the launch. I got to ask her questions, like how in the world did you come up with all these people? And then she said Ohh, here are the families. And I was like, I’m glad you figured this out, because I only knew a couple of things when I wrote the book.  

Rajani LaRocca:  That’s the, that’s the other thing when you write, there’s a lot of stuff you just leave unsaid because then the illustrator comes along and it’s like here I am. I’m making up, you know, more than half the story, it’s amazing. I think the, like one of the things that is just so incredible to me is that, you know, this is the story of a little boy kind of wondering about his relationship with his cousin, but also just kind of engaging in all the joyful things that summer brings. So beach, and hiking, and puzzles, and reading, and playing games. All that kind of stuff, but the ultimate, you know, realization that he makes is that you know, your cousins have changed and grown, but so have you. And, but, that connection is still there and you’re always going to have it. And so I just, I feel like and Abhi’s art is so exuberant and yet like sweet and like it’s really luminous and beautiful the way that she does uses color, and light is so different from what you would imagine. She used a lot of yellows and purples, which I was like, wow. Like, who would have thought that just incredible. So, she, I, the story is just even better, like the book, is even better than I thought it would be, based on the story that I wrote.  

George Brown:  I love it, OK, and let’s talk about your art practice. Are you making art every day? Do you have projects lined up? Are you working on personal projects? Talk a little bit about some of that.  

Abhi Alwar:  Oh man, I would say I’m a pretty chaotic artist when it comes to things I don’t have, like the same process for everything that I do, I’d say like every day I try to like, like I try, I try to dig away a little bit by bit at some of the some of the different projects that I’m handling right now. Right now, I’m working on Super Pancake, the second graphic novel. So yeah, that’s been pretty interesting of a process to, like go through and that requires like a lot of like regular work which does require a lot of diligence and a lot of like you know, keeping at it, which you know has been like definitely learning curve for me. And then on top of that, like I, I really love, I just started getting back into like traditional painting too and that’s been just so lovely to like every once in a while. I’m like, OK, like I have some time tonight and I just need to like, unwind and it’s nice to like be able to work more on my craft. Because I think like I, I would really love to like, you know, I just want to like, keep doing more and keep working on like, working on my art, working on my craft and it’s nice to like, step away and be like, I just want to put colors on a canvas and like experiment and see what these two things look like together, whatnot.  

George Brown:  You have a favorite paint style, Is this watercolor?  

Abhi Alwar: This has been gouache, actually, yes, yes. But I really miss working with watercolors and ink. I used to do that way more back in back in high school and like back in college before we were introduced to Photoshop. Yeah, I do, I want to I do want to get back into that a little more. But yeah, that’s kind of where my practice is at. It’s constantly, I’m constantly figuring it out and uh.  

George Brown: And when you do this at night and you pull out a canvas to start painting on. Do you know like, do you say I’m going to paint blank or do you just start putting your brushes out and something happens?  

Abhi Alwar: Like lately it’s been, it I mean, it started out as like I really want to paint with these colors. It’s actually like that, like and then it starts very abstract. I have been painting a lot of Lily pads. It’s just like something that I’m currently into. It’s more of like a meditative practice, if anything. I would say and then like I think you know, there are also just some things that like what I’m what I’m reading, what I’m watching like, it’s kind of like a something that I do just for myself that I just draw that like no one else needs to look at and I like fan art, like, what I’m reading and watching. But like, it’s just like, it’s a nice feeling to just do this for myself as opposed to like which I mean, I love illustrating for books and for kids and for other people. But like, sometimes it’s like this is this is nice for this to just be for me.  


George Brown: Having the art for yourself, that creative piece of it. And Rajani on a on a separate podcast we’ve done with you recently, like a few minutes ago, you talked about the kind of how you started with your writing and it was writing for yourself and kind of that practice that leads to then the more polished and more craft like writing.  

Rajani LaRocca:  Yeah, I think though, I want to go back to doing some stuff just for me that has no like, I don’t really have any intention of ever publishing. I think there’s something really important about that. I think that also, I mean, listen, it’s good to be busy as we know right, it’s good to have all these projects lined up that we must work on, right. But then you find your mind going to that thing that like nobody knows about, so no one is asking for it. So that is your like secret joy. That’s also really fun to write. And who knows, secret joy might end up being something that gets published.  

Abhi Alwar: Oh, sure, sure.  

Rajani LaRocca: But while you’re working on it, it is for no one other than yourself, and I think that that’s something that It’s really important as a creative person.  

George Brown:  So we’re here for the crafting novels in verse workshop you are teaching and we just did a podcast where we talked a little bit about the messaging there. But Abhi, I’m, I’m curious from your perspective, kind of what what’s happening to you and your time while you’re here?  

Abhi Alwar:  Well, I I’m here to mostly soak it all in. I love poetry and I love reading novels in verse. I also read Rajani’s Red, White and Whole, and it just brought me to tears. And I was like, wait a second, I need to go to this workshop and it also happened and it just happened to coincide right with the book launch. So I was like this is perfect. This is perfect. That is perfect. Yeah, it was, It was really perfect. So me and some members of my writing group were all we were all like, what if we just, like, came here I was really lucky to have the get the Jerome Wiseman Scholarship that I yeah, thank you, to be able to come to this workshop. And I was like, I, if I’m if I’m going to use this scholarship like I want to do it to learn something completely new that I’ve never really tried before with the intention of at least as far as poetry goes, with the intention of putting it into a story. And yeah, so like the experience here of like being around other really talented, really experienced verse novelists and poets like, it’s been amazing.  

George Brown: I love that idea that you might call yourself an illustrator, or you might call yourself an artist, but you’re looking at different genres and different formats, and it doesn’t sound like you’re studying novels in verse fully, you’re just getting started. Thinking about novels in verse and that is kind of that stacking on your creative self, right. And I think what you get from that will go with you in whatever your formats come to be.  

Abhi Alwar: Absolutely, I don’t think like any, one creative one craft can be like completely siloed. I think like we can all learn from like different types of like expression and I think like honestly becoming a better writer, I think it will also help me become a better artist. And I think likewise to the other way. So, I’m really excited to like, yeah, like kind of work those different muscles.  

Rajani LaRocca: Makes me want to take. An art class.  

Abhi Alwar: Yes, you should.  

George Brown:  You could come to summer camp and illustration.  

Rajani LaRocca: Ohh, no way I can’t do that. Now I would just be like hi, I have drawn this stick figure and all the illustrators would be like look at this. But no, I actually I.  

George Brown: Doodles in the art coop, maybe we’ll get started with them.  

Rajani LaRocca: That that, that would be better. Yes, I could, I could do that. No, I really, do think that well, so here’s the thing. The difference is that Abhi could actually be a first novelist, whereas I will never be an illustrator. Oh my gosh. No way, but, like I don’t, you know, sometimes you can just do something and not worry about whether it’s any good or not. And just like be like that’s what I made. I’m sticking by it. All I can draw is a pig and an elephant in one view only. That’s the extent of my drawing ability. So if I expand beyond that, it will be a success.  

Abhi Alwar: Well, that could be a picture book, OK.  

George Brown: There, there we go. This could be inspiration for picture book. 

Rajani LaRocca: In one view only.  

George Brown: Well, this has been a lovely visit. Abhi Alwar and Rajani LaRocca for joining us on the HF gather podcast. We look forward to more. Visits from both of you here at the Highlights Foundation and I can’t wait to see your ongoing creative works.  

Rajani LaRocca: Thank you. 

Abhi Alwar: Thanks so much.  


Thank you to our faculty for this Guest Post!

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