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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Soaring 20's Spring 2023 Releases

The Soaring 20’s High Flying Books for Kids and Teens is a group of authors and illustrators hailing from California to New York (and Canada!), who’ve joined together to help promote their books.

Be sure to visit their website to “discover kidlit talent on the rise.” Their website includes “behind-the-scenes posts about how these books were made; resources for using these books in your classroom or library; places you can meet these talented authors and illustrators in person; and of course, GIVEAWAYS!”

Welcome Rajani & Qing,


Tell us a little about yourself. (For instance, where/when do you write or illustrate? How long have you been writing or illustrating? What is your favorite type of book to write or illustrate?)

Qing Zhuang – Rainbow Shopping (Holiday House 3/7/2022) –

Hi! A little about myself…I was born in China and raised mostly in Brooklyn, New York. Rainbow Shopping is my first writer-illustrator project. I have done a previous book that I illustrated two years ago. I love to illustrate slice of life or poetic stories and have a tendency to draw from my own life and experiences.

Rajani LaRocca – Mirror to Mirror (Quill Tree 3/21/2023) – My first career is as a doctor, and it was only after about a decade of practicing medicine, when my kids were in school, that I returned to writing in about 2011. At first, I took some online and then in-person classes, and intended to write only for myself. But then I met other writers and formed critique groups, and once you have friends asking you what happens next, it makes you go and write the next chapter. Around 2013, I thought I might want to try to get published someday. After years of working on craft and gathering rejections, I signed with my agent in late 2017, and my first book released in 2019. Now, I can’t imagine not having writing as part of my life!


As a working mom, I’ve never been too precious about where I write. I’ve written early in the morning, late at night, parked in a lot waiting for my kids to come out, and in the lobby while they had their piano lessons. Once they grew older, I coopted their old playroom as my office, and last year we renovated it with built-in, beautifully lit bookshelves, a new desk, and a gorgeous light shade made from the pages of Red, White, and Whole. It’s a wonderful, restful, inspiring place to write, and I love it!

Rajani, that sounds like an amazing office. Qing, I like the book you created with Kelly Carey - How Long Is Forever? What is the most fun or unusual place where you’ve written or illustrated a manuscript?


Qing Zhuang – I really am a creature of comfort, I love to brainstorm in bed. Sometimes ideas come when I’m listening to music while cooking. Nothing unusual I’m afraid!

Rajani LaRocca – I love writing on trains and planes — the exhilarating feeling of hurtling through space, cut off from the outside world, that allows me to fully engage with the world I’m creating in my writing. I also think that travel (especially at 30,000 feet!) engages emotions and allows them to flow on the page.

Those are both great places to be creative. Now that we know a little more about both of you, what made you wonder about this topic or inspired you to write your book?

Qing Zhuang – Rainbow Shopping (3/7/2022) – On an intellectual level, I wanted to write about a working-class immigrant family because I don’t think they are positively portrayed if at all in the media. Personally, I wanted to portray a feeling of warmth and sweetness I felt tagging along with my mother on her grocery shopping trips to Chinatown. I remember as a child feeling intrigued but a bit sad when I read about other kid’s experiences of birthday parties and going to the movies and vacations. I wanted to depict a family like mine where the parents really don’t have much leisurely time and the bonding and joyful moments emerge from those mundane and necessary events of everyday life. Lastly, this book is a sort of ode to the immigrant enclaves of South Brooklyn as well as NYC’s Chinatown, specifically its grocery stores full of interesting and diverse produce!

Rajani LaRocca – Mirror to Mirror (3/21/2023) - The idea for Mirror to Mirror started with a single poem. In April 2020, I took an online poetry class with renowned poet Lesléa Newman in which she discussed several types of formal poetry, including ghazals, which are a type of poetic form, often set to music, that are popular in South Asia and the Middle East. Inspired by that class, I wrote a ghazal about a sister lamenting that her twin had changed, and she couldn’t understand why. So from that seed, I started to explore those characters—identical twins who had grown apart—and from that came Maya and Chaya, the twins in my book.


Mirror to Mirror deals with anxiety, which Maya suffers from and tries to hide from everyone else. Chaya, her twin, knows that Maya is struggling, but Maya refuses to let her ask their parents for help. This starts the rifts between the two sisters that widens as the story goes on. Given the events the whole world has experienced since 2020, I felt that anxiety and mental health would be a timely topic to explore.


I researched identical twins for this book by interviewing multiple sets of twins. I learned about the extraordinary relationships that twins have, and I did my best to put that into this story. I wanted to depict Maya and Chaya as loving each other very deeply and having this connection since before they were even born, but still able to misunderstand each other, and struggling to find the best way to help and protect each other.

It is so fun discovering the spark behind a story and what makes it meaningful to the author or illustrator. What do you like to do outdoors - either by yourself or with your family and friends?


Qing Zhuang – I love taking walks with my husband, just taking in the weather and buying a fresh loaf of bread or some yummy treat.

Rajani LaRocca – We love taking walks with our little dog in the woods near our house! It’s so lovely to be out in the sunshine, hear the wind whisper through the trees, and watch our little furry pal in his glory. We inevitably have some wonderful, deep conversations when we’re out together and away from screens.


There's nothing like getting outside and clearing one's head, especially with a friend. Is there anything special you want your readers to know about your book? Which is your favorite spread in the book?

Text & Image © Qing Zhuang, 2023.


Qing Zhuang – Rainbow Shopping (Holiday House 3/7/2022) – There are many small details that are meaningful to me. It is important to me that the Chrysler building is visible and centered in the Chinatown spread as well as on the cover. I just remember being in Chinatown and admiring that beautiful crystal-like skyscraper in the distance and dreaming about going there. My favorite spread is the wordless subway spread, it is an image I have tried to draw many times. I had so much fun depicting the diverse passengers and took great care to draw mother and child resting after carrying all those groceries through the rain! Growing up in New York City, I have long felt that there is something distinctly beautiful about the city in rain. The inconvenience and discomfort and frankly nastiness of such weather is apparent on everyone’s haggard faces and it always made me feel connected to the shared humanity of this diverse and fast paced city.

© Rajani LaRocca, 2023.


Rajani LaRocca – Mirror to Mirror (Quill Tree 3/21/2023) – This is my second novel in verse — my first was Red, White, and Whole, which published in 2021. It was challenging to write a dual-POV novel in verse, and I worked hard to make the sisters’ voices distinct. Given the time when it was written and the fact that it deals with anxiety and mental health, it was not an easy book to write, but I’m proud of how it turned out.

What was the hardest, or most challenging, part of writing or researching, your book? How long did it take from first draft to publication?


Qing Zhuang – Rainbow Shopping (Holiday House 3/7/2022) – I think I wrote the first draft when I was a child, it was a poem about buying crabs with my mom in Chinatown. When I graduated college, I made a wordless comic about that poem. Then 9 or so years later I was drafting a simple story about the colors you see when you are in the supermarket and it evolved into the fuller, more emotionally and biographically driven version in Rainbow Shopping. I think the formal process took two years.

Rajani LaRocca – Mirror to Mirror (Quill Tree 3/21/2023) – I wrote Mirror to Mirror in 2021, a time that was difficult for the whole world, but particularly full of anxiety and grief for my own family. I think that Maya and Chaya’s feelings in the book reflect what I was feeling during that time.

Who was a favorite/special author, illustrator, and/or your favorite book as a child?


Qing Zhuang – Lane Smith’s The Stinking Cheese Man ROCKED MY WORLD, so did all of Roald Dahl’s books as well as Harriet the Spy and Seven Silly Eaters.

Rajani LaRocca – My favorite childhood book was The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. I loved the mystery, the big cast of characters, and the heart of the book—that people who seem very different on the outside can work together and understand and help each other.

What’s something you can’t do without either for your writing or for yourself?


Qing Zhuang – Leisurely time alone to find peace and listen to music and eat snacks and let my mind wander! I just had a baby so I can only dream of those days!

Rajani LaRocca –I can’t do without my writing friends and critique partners. They read all my words (often many, many times) before they’re ready to show anyone else and help me believe in myself when I’m feeling unsure. I love writing because it connects me to other people, and I couldn’t write a thing without my friends.

Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?


Qing Zhuang – I am working on a story about my parents’ little store.

Rajani LaRocca – I’ve got six books coming this year! In addition to Mirror to Mirror, I have two fiction picture books (Summer Is For Cousins, illustrated by Abhi Alwar, and Masala Chai, Fast and Slow, illustrated by Neha Rawat) and two nonfiction picture books (A Vaccine Is Like A Memory, illustrated by Kathleen Marcotte, and Your One and Only Heart, illustrated by Lauren Paige Conrad), as well as a middle grade epistolary novel, The Secret of the Dragon Gems, which I co-wrote with my friend, Chris Baron!


I’m just about finished revising my 2024 middle grade, a fantasy called Sona and the Golden Beasts. It’s an Indian-inspired fantasy that involves magic and animals as well as the issues of colonialism and who gets to tell history. I can’t wait for it to be out!

Rajani, you are going to be very busy this year! Last question, what is the best advice you’ve ever gotten - whether it’s regarding writing/ illustrating or not ?


Qing Zhuang – Free write and write many drafts until you get it to that crystal-clear simplicity. Also, show it to people you trust and whose opinions matter to you, and don’t let the voices of those other people linger too long.

Rajani LaRocca – When I was a beginning author, I had the incredible good fortune to meet Lois Lowry at a small event. She said, “there’s never a good time to write—never a time when it’s going to be easy or ideal. If you want to write, write now.” It’s still the best writing advice I’ve ever gotten!

Such great pieces of advice, thank you both. Thank you both for giving us a little peek into you and your books. Wishing you both enormous success.

Rainbow Shopping (Holiday House 3/7/2022) - A touching ode to family, with traditions, flexibility, and food bridging the gap for a newly immigrated young child. Sprinkled with humor and a dash of sass, this wonderful snapshot of a day spent shopping in New York's China town brims with love, bright colors, and a dash of imagination. The collage end papers and the final spread present the melding of her experiences with the influences from her former home. It's a wonderful book for all families.


Synopsis: Sharing a delicious meal helps a child feel loved in this heartfelt tribute to Chinatown and spending days-off together.


On a rainy Saturday, a young girl feels as gray as a pigeon. Since moving from China to New York City, Mom, Dad, and Grandma have been very busy working. But a trip to Mom’s favorite Chinatown store to find the best produce, seafood, and spices for dinner just might turn the girl's day around.


Later on, Dad steams, boils, fries, and stir-fries all the ingredients while girl and Grandma taste-test. After cozy goodnights, a final dream spread shows the family walking hand-in-hand in rainbow colors--an affirmation of love and support even on rainy, gray days.


Inspired by Qing Zhuang’s experience as a first generation Chinese American, Rainbow Shopping explores a young child's feelings of loneliness and discovery with tenderness and humor. Qing uses watercolor, colored pencil, and crayon to beautifully recreate NYC's Chinatown neighborhood. Filled with warmth and details of city life, this story about a working-class family is one readers can return to again and again.

Mirror to Mirror (Quill Tree 3/21/2023) - This lyrical novel in verse is gorgeously written through the alternating points of view of two identical sisters. Examining the struggles, connectedness, secrets, perfectionism, and family dynamics of Maya & Chaya, it offers a heartfelt and honest look at anxiety and mental health. Providing an amazing window into the mirrored, yet distorted beliefs and impressions each sister develops and offering a great opportunity for discussions.


Synopsis: Rajani LaRocca, recipient of a Newbery Honor and Walter Award for Red, White, and Whole, is back with an evocative novel in verse about identical twin sisters who do everything together—until external pressures threaten to break them apart.


Maya is the pragmatic twin, but her secret anxiety threatens to overwhelm her.

Chaya is the outgoing twin. When she sees her beloved sister suffering, she wants to tell their parents—which makes Maya feel completely betrayed. With Maya shutting her out, Chaya makes a dramatic change to give her twin the space she seems to need. But that’s the last thing Maya wants, and the girls just drift further apart.


The once-close sisters can’t seem to find their rhythm, so they make a bet: they’ll switch places at their summer camp, and whoever can keep the ruse going longer will get to decide where they both attend high school—the source of frequent arguments. But stepping into each other’s shoes comes with its own difficulties, and the girls don’t know how they’re going to make it.


This emotional, lyrical story will speak to fans of Ali Benjamin, Padma Venkatraman, and Jasmine Warga.


To learn more about Qing, Rajani, and other authors and illustrators, visit Soaring 20’s High Flying Books for Kids & Teens @ https://www.soaring20spb.com/.

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Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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