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Rajani LaRocca: The Burden of Guilt + Fear (Anxiety, Depression)

One cold winter’s night when I was eleven, I went to the mall with my mom. While she shopped, I daydreamed about being amazing at gymnastics, which was the unit we were currently doing in gym class, and which I was most definitely not amazing at. In my imagination, I leaped on the balance beam, tumbled across the mat, and flipped around the uneven bars and managed a perfect landing.

After finishing our shopping, my mom and I went out into the dark, frozen parking lot. We had just gotten seated in our car when someone suddenly forced open my mom’s door. A man threatened my mom with a knife, demanding her purse. I froze, thinking of my own little handbag, which held $10. The man took my mom’s purse and fled.

We were left in shock. We went back into the mall and called the police.

Neither of us had been hurt. They only thing we had lost was the purse. But in the days and weeks after this incident, I worried about so many things. I worried that the thief, who had my mom’s driver’s license, would come to our house. I felt guilty that he hadn’t stolen my purse, too. And I worried that I, with my daydreams of being an amazing gymnast, had somehow caused the attack.

Some of these worries didn’t make logical sense, but that didn’t matter. They persisted.

I grew too scared to practice the piano with my back to the front door of my house. I double- triple- and quadruple-checked that the doors were locked before I went to sleep.

I didn’t tell my mom and dad. I was afraid to talk about my fears and worries, and I’m not sure why. As an adult, I’ve talked to my parents about this time in my life, and they’ve told me that they saw how I was feeling. They tried their best to help and reassure me.

But we never talked directly about what I was feeling at the time, just like we didn’t talk about a lot of things. We expressed our love for each other every day, but we didn’t discuss feelings like worry or fear or guilt. I don’t know whether this was part of being immigrants to this country, cultural, or just something specific to my family. Luckily for me, over weeks and months, my guilt and anxiety improved.

My new middle grade novel in verse, Mirror to Mirror, deals with anxiety and mental health. The story is about identical twin sisters, Maya and Chaya, who love music almost as much as they love each other. But Maya hides her anxiety—which started when she was younger, made a mistake, and blamed herself for all the bad things that subsequently happened to her family. Maya keeps her feelings of guilt and worry buried, even though they cause her significant pain. She doesn’t even confide in her twin, although Chaya knows something is wrong.

Maya sees her parents are arguing, and she can’t bring herself to add to their burden—what if she’s the thing that destroys their family? She leans into her perfectionist tendencies and believes that if she is anything less than perfect, terrible things will happen to those she loves.

Chaya tries to help her twin . . . and often, she’s the only one who can prevent Maya from cycling into a storm of silence, which is how she thinks of Maya’s panic attacks.

Although Chaya is very close to her sister, she can’t understand exactly what sets off her anxiety. Chaya laments that although they started with identical DNA, they are growing more different every day, and Maya is suffering more. After a particularly awful panic attack, Chaya tries to tell their parents about Maya’s worsening symptoms. But Maya stops her twin, and then shuts her out completely.

Chaya thinks more about why Maya’s been feeling worse, and the only conclusion she can come to is that perhaps she is the cause of Maya’s anxiety: after all, they look identical, and play the same classical music. And Chaya deicides to try to ease the pressure on her twin by changing the way she looks and the kind of music she plays. Chaya finds a new set of friends and new activities that are independent from Maya. But instead of bringing them closer together, this pushes them further apart.

The last part of the book involves the twins making a bet at their music summer camp to pretend to be each other and play each other’s music; whoever lasts the longest without being discovered gets to decide where they will go to high school—a point of contention between them.

Ultimately, by pretending to be each other, Maya and Chaya learn about each other . . . and about themselves.

I wrote this book in 2020-2021, when the whole world changed. The COVID-19 pandemic brought isolation, illness, and death, and with them came anxiety and depression that have affected many, if not most, of us. I’ve seen it in my patients. I’ve seen it in my family. I’ve seen it in myself.

In Mirror to Mirror, I wanted to explore anxiety and mental health in a poetic way. I wanted to sit with these characters and express what they were both feeling—one suffering and unable to say why, the other feeling helpless because of her sister’s misery. There are complex family dynamics, including a mother who isn’t facing her own mental health challenges.

I hope this story makes young readers think about what might lie under the surface of people they know, even those who seem to be just fine on the surface. I hope it helps them reflect on feelings of anxiety or depression that they might have. And I hope it encourages them to share how they feel with those they love and trust, because it’s only by sharing our feelings that we can start to get help.


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


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