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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Finalist- RED, WHITE, and WHOLE by Rajani LaRocca

Red, White, and Whole

Introduction by Heavy Medal Award Committee member Andrea Tyler.

RED, WHITE, AND WHOLE by Rajani LaRocca is the coming of age story about Reha, an Indian girl in a predominantly white community who is just trying to fit in and enjoy junior high school.  At this point in her life her greatest challenge is how to find the balance between her two lives, the one she has with her Indian family and friends, and the one she has with her friends in school. 

Reha’s  life takes a turn however, when her mother is diagnosed with leukemia.  Suddenly her priorities turn to getting over her fear of blood and fulfilling her mother’s dream of becoming a doctor.  Now listening to fun music, going to the dance, befriending a cute boy and anything fun that occupied her mind before take a back seat as she becomes the serious, studious student her mother always wanted her to be. 

Reha’s fear of blood becomes an important theme in this book.  Reha is so bothered by blood that she faints or nearly faints every time she sees it, however bad blood is what is causing her mother to be ill.  Overcoming the fear of blood will allow Reha to pursue her mother’s dream of medicine and possibly save her mother’s life with a bone marrow transplant.

As her mother’s illness progresses, Reha and her family learn that finding a way to reconcile her two lives is her best chance to heal and move forward with her life.  Her family and friends from both lives all have valuable gifts that allow Reha to come to terms with the reality of her mother’s situation. 

“I have one life.

That’s all any of us gets.

And I know that I will make my way

For all rivers lead to the same ocean,

We all look upon the same sky.

I will write my own story.

Amma’s life, the one she gave to me,

Is in my heart, my veins,

My blood.” (p. 209)

This heartbreaking, funny and lovely story, written in verse,  will appeal to many who feel the pull between fitting in with friends at school and maintaining their own cultural identity.  The setting is the 1980’s, but other than a few pop references to music and celebrities, it could take place in any time period..  It is the classic tale of someone who is just trying their best to navigate the world they live in and the circumstances that dictate their life’s trajectory. 

Heavy Medal Award Committee members and others are now invited to discuss this book further in the Comments section below. Please start with positive observations first; stick to positives until at least three comments have been posted or we reach 1:00 pm EST. Let the Mock Newbery discussion begin!

About Emily Mroczek-Bayci

Emily Mroczek (Bayci) is a freelance children’s librarian in the Chicago suburbs. She served on the 2019 Newbery committee. You can reach her at


  1. Emily Mroczek says

    One pm and no comments yet! This book was a hard one for me to read because I personally dealt with a similar situation to Reha. That being said, LaRocca did an excellent job writing realistic fiction and the realistic facts about leukemia, the process, hospital stays and doctors were incredibly accurate. I also found Reha’s character incredibly raw and relatable

  2. Amanda Bishop says

    I loved this beautiful book. I am a huge fan of novels in verse because I think they express emotion so well, particularly subject matter that is heartbreaking. LaRocca manages to take on so many difficult topics and turn them into a story that I think will appeal to many readers. I forgot that it took place in the 1980s and I think that says a lot about the timelessness of this story.

  3. Emily Smith says

    We haven’t had three positive comments yet, but we’re well past 1pm, so here I go…

    I found this book kind of, well, cheesy, for lack of a better word. Despite often enjoying verse novels, an overall critique I nonetheless hold of them is that the poems don’t stand up individually as great poetry, and that they go from scene to scene without any of the “connective tissue” that is challenging to write but conveys subtlety and fleshes out characters and setting.

    In this book, descriptions of setting are rather fleeting–I would have loved more of the scene in India as a contrast to her “small midwestern city” (I wondered why it wasn’t named). Characterization is strong in some ways, but I found Reha a little too perfect. A tween middle-schooler who never lashes out at her parents, even when she feels that her mom is holding her back from blending her Indian and American lives? Yeah, right.

  4. I loved Red White and Whole. The writing was stunning–lyrical without being overwritten. Every word counted. There was enough setting detail to keep me grounded. While I didn’t personally go through living in two worlds in my own life, I felt the push and pull that Reha experiences. The themes of blood could at times feel heavy, but lightness of being a young teen experiencing first crushes and the joy of 1980s music balanced it out. Yes, Reha is good and obedient to her parents. I didn’t think her growth needed to come from lashing out at her parents. That wasn’t who she was or where her growth needed to be. The point was that the family bonds were strong–she wanted to find her place as an American girl and also make her parents proud. Reha’s experience of dealing with a sick parent brought me back to when I was 14 and had a similar struggle. The ending was just so very emotional and perfect. Ever since I read this book in early 2021, I thought it should win the Newbury. I’m so happy to see it here.

  5. Aryssa Damron says

    I’m with Emily on this one! It was a bit lackluster of a title for me, especially compared to a knockout verse book, for me, Starfish. The “point” of the verse was kind of…lacking, and none of the verse stood out to me on its own either. I also think the need to set in the 1980s felt forced, and often forgotten, throughout the text until some small reference came along to remind you.

    • Emily Joan Smith says

      That’s a good point, Aryssa. I wonder if perhaps the point of being set in the 1980s was that her Indian immigrant community would have been smaller at the time? Or perhaps her mother would be less likely to die of leukemia today than 30 years ago? But you’re right, the references are to music and clothes rather than big news stories that substantially defined the era.

  6. Rox Anne Close says

    I really had mixed feelings about this book. I thought it dealt well with Reha’s emotions and her conflicting identities. The themes were strong. Family, friendship, community and finding where you fit in as a child of immigrants are the heart of this book, and the scenes where Reha must grapple with the possible loss of a parent are beautiful and sensitive. I found the book heart-wrenching, certainly a tear-jerker, but it also was full of hope . I loved the second half of the book, when Reha had to deal with her mother’s illness, I thought it was well done. I wasn’t so sure about the first half of the book, and couldn’t pinpoint why, Steven made a comment about this book back in October (I think??). He stated that the first 100 pages felt mostly like a character study. We get to know Reha and what she thinks, but not a lot happens. And that’s when I realized why I had mixed feelings about the first half of the book. Not a lot happens, and I was observing rather than being involved in the story. Steven, I’m glad you had that observation, because it clarified for me why I didn’t like the first part of the book as much.

  7. Leonard Kim says

    Maybe it was growing up in an Asian-American milieu, but I did not have a believability problem with Reha’s actions, especially since we are privy to her internal struggles as well. I don’t have the book on hand, but isn’t there is a point when, despite her inner conflict, Reha decides to be that model student/daughter? I remember feeling that was believable if a little sad. I had much more of a believability problem with the white hat/black hat characters in STARFISH. STARFISH’s endnote even addresses this, at least for the black hats, which I think should not have been necessary in a truly distinguished book. Truth can be hard to believe sometimes, but I don’t think that absolves an author of the responsibiltiy of managing suspension of disbelief. Overall, some of the criticisms here I think apply more to STARFISH, though it would take detailed analysis to demonstarte this. The one stylistic criticism I would have of RED, WHITE, and WHOLE is that, though I agree with Theresa’s positive asssessment of the lyrical writing, I thought there was rather less chapter-to-chapter variety and range in styles than one typically sees in verse novels, and I thought that put a small strain on the book’s ability to sustain its length. Nevertheless, I thought, based on precedents, this is strong enough for Newbery consideration, though as mentioned before, I think THE LOST LANGUAGE is the stronger verse novel.

  8. Stephanie Saggione says

    I really wanted to like this book. And I did enjoy the first half’s characterization and realistic action. But the second half took a turn – I thought it stopped being about Reha fitting in and became only about the illness. When she had the chance to become a donor, I thought that was the best ending… then it didn’t happen. The aunt also had a chance and I thought that could be a perfect way to bring the family together. But that didn’t happen. The very sad ending was so hard to read. I’m glad to read your comments about the honesty of the second half because that makes me think the book would be valuable to children who need this book.

  9. Lisa Levin says

    Sorry I’m late to post but I did enjoy this book for what it was, we can always use books about cultural differences and trying to fit in. While I don’t think this is a contender either, it is a good book and one that my students are enjoying reading as it shows a window into someone’s life and how they choose to deal with problems and situations. But I do agree, in regards to it being a novel in verse, this doesn’t compare to Starfish at all.

  10. I thought this was one of the best of the year! When I put this book down, I said, “Wow, that was a good book!” I don’t often have that immediate of a reaction. The last time I felt that was with The War that Saved My Life. I really felt connected to Reha, even though the only thing I have in common with her is growing up in the 80s. Excellent book!!!

  11. I agree. One of the best of the year. I was hoping to be able to check it out and read it again, and be able to post specifics, but it’s always checked out! (Read: popular) I thought Reha was a very realistically drawn girl and her commitment to being good and not a problem for her family seemed appropriate considering her culture and the circumstances (sick mom) in her family.

  12. Tamara DePasquale says

    This was not one of my favorite books on the list. I read it months ago, and I had to reread it because I carried nothing with me but the fact that it was “the one with the mom who dies.” That sounds harsh, but it underscores the need for something else to stand out here — to make it rise above the others.

    I found the writing to be okay, nothing notable. The themes of fitting in, coming of age, grief, and torn between two cultures are all familiar. The 1980s setting was developed through name dropping and list-making, The loss of the mother is heartbreaking, but it is not a new plotline. The characterization was its only strength, and I enjoyed meeting this cast of characters, but none reside in my heart. I was looking for something to grab hold of and consider remarkable. That did not happen. This was a slow and quiet read.

    I know that many have an emotional connection to Rehas’ story, but for me I wanted so much more. There has to be more than popularity and a tugging at the heartstrings for this to rise to Newbery consideration.

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