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Hop in the minivan: 'Summer Is for Cousins' invites you on a family vacation

Illustrations © 2023 Abhi Alwar

For Ravi, summer means beach days, long hikes, paddle boarding and ice cream. It means going to a big house by the water with his mom, dad, two uncles, two aunties, Thatha and Pati, and six cousins.

Ravi loves summer vacation with his family. But this year, he's also a little worried: His older cousin Dhruv is the only other boy. And this year, Dhruv is taller, his voice is deeper, and what if he's forgotten about all the things he and Ravi used to share? Like their favorite flavor of ice cream (banana)?

Rajani LaRocca says Summer Is for Cousins was inspired by vacations with her own 10 cousins in India.

Cousins are kind of like superstar relatives. Because they're kids, but they're not your siblings.

"All of my favorite summer memories involved my cousins," she says. "Cousins are kind of like superstar relatives. Because they're kids, but they're not your siblings."

LaRocca filled the book with universal details. There's lots of sitting around doing nothing much in particular and there's lots and lots of food.

"We spend our days biking, playing, reading, napping," LaRocca writes in the book. "When it rains, we stay inside and work on a huge puzzle with tiny pieces."

LaRocca and illustrator Abhi Alwar didn't come up with the story together, though they do talk like they've been friends for years. Alwar says when she first got the manuscript, she immediately felt like she was on vacation with Ravi and his family.

Familiar faces

Alwar grew up in a double-immigrant family from South India. Her "cousins" were the other Tamil immigrants she grew up around in the U.S., as well as her relatives back home. Many of her family members appear in her illustrations.

"It's a lot of me and a lot of the people I know in this book," Alwar says. "I was like, 'I hope that's OK!' "

/ Abrams Books for Young Readers
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Abrams Books for Young Readers

Thatha in the book? Alwar's own grandfather, who was perhaps a little annoyed by how short she drew him. Her dad spotted himself in the story cutting vegetables. Her brother did not recognize himself as Ravi, but he definitely is.

"My brother was basically like, 'Oh, wow, Abhi for once I'm not in your book.' And I was like, 'Look again, you are the main character,' " Alwar laughs.

As for herself, Alwar admits she's more of an introvert. Growing up in a huge family where people were always coming and going was "a lot," she says. She drew Ravi's older sister, Anita, in her own image.

"She's the one taking pictures and being a little bossy, as older sisters are," says Alwar. Anita is the documentarian — not in the thick of things as much but always observing.

"I really loved being on the outside and kind of enjoying watching all of these interactions," she says. There are a lot of little interactions and small moments in the illustrations: cousin Jaya feeding ice cream to the dog. Thatha taking a nap at the beach. Dhruv sitting on a puzzle piece. The Polaroids that Anita takes adorn the endpages of the book.

/ Illustrations © 2023 Abhi Alwar
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Illustrations © 2023 Abhi Alwar

Even LaRocca is in the book — she and Alwar appear as little stick figures, on a sailboat, in a picture hanging on the wall in the vacation house. It's very small, but you can see Alwar's glasses and LaRocca's curly hair. They're waving.

"I hope we're not saying "Mayday!'" LaRocca says.

"No, no," says Alwar. "We're starting an adventure!"

'She knew exactly who these people were'

LaRocca says you can tell Alwar used people who were important to her as inspiration throughout this book.

"I think that that's why they're so charming and loveable," LaRocca says. Though she also had to apologize for the sheer number of characters — 15! — in this story.

"I didn't realize what I was asking of an illustrator," she laughs.

But Alwar took it in stride, making a family tree to help keep track of each person. "It was just so important for all the future parts of the process and creating these little tableaus of this vacation," she explains, "because I'd be like, 'OK, now they're at the beach. Who likes to be at the beach? Who doesn't like to be at the beach? Who would be probably talking on the phone? Who is probably eating snacks right now? Who wants to go home?'"

"She knew exactly who these people were," adds LaRocca.

And Alwar took her research a step further — she made a shared album online and asked her family and friends to add reference photos. Since Ravi's family is staying at a house that is by both a lake and the ocean, Alwar used Airbnb to research locations and find places and houses that she could screenshot and use as inspiration. (She decided it could be in Maine.)

/ Illustrations © 2023 Abhi Alwar
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Illustrations © 2023 Abhi Alwar

When it came to actually illustrating the book, Alwar chose a cartoonish style, with bright colors, and a very specific color scheme. There's lots of sunny, cheerful yellow — sandy beaches, spaghetti, corn on the cob and, of course, banana ice cream — complemented by purple line art. The result is chaotic — in a good way — the illustrations are crowded and colorful, with tons of people on each page and a lot going on.

'There were just many things that I didn't have to say'

Newbery Honor winner Rajani LaRocca has written children's books before, including I'll Go and Come Back, Where Three Oceans Meet and Masala Chai, Fast and Slow but says she doesn't always get the opportunity to work with illustrators who share her background.

"When I wrote the book, I made it very specifically a South Indian Tamil family," LaRocca says. "I will say that in seeing Abhi's work, there were just many things that I didn't have to say." She didn't have to explain the way the parents were all part of the meal preparation process, or the mish-mash of South Indian and American food.

Alwar says that was very intentional. "Growing up as a South Indian Tamil girl who is also American, living in the Midwest, I intentionally made sure that there are details like, bindis ... making chai on a rainy day — very important."

Both LaRocca and Alwar agree, without having discussed it beforehand, that of course Thatha and Pati would always be sitting on chairs right next to the food.

"This is important to me to illustrate," says Alwar. "And I hope important to other South Indian Tamil girls out there who like seeing themselves in this book."

/ Illustrations © 2023 Abhi Alwar
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Illustrations © 2023 Abhi Alwar

That level of detail, LaRocca says, is what makes readers relate to the story. "The more specific you are, the more that you make people feel like these are real people, the more universal it becomes. Because people say, 'Oh, that's kind of like me!' Or, 'I know somebody like that.' "

One day, the cousins take turns on the rope swing at the lake. Last year, Ravi was too afraid — but this year he gives it a try. And that's when he realizes that he's growing up, too. Just like his big cousin Dhruv. "Dhruv is my big cousin," LaRocca writes. "But now I'm bigger, too." It's bittersweet, in a way.

"Isn't it funny you can be nostalgic as a kid, too," LaRocca says. "That's a special moment in a child's life where they realize that they're also getting bigger and that brings all kinds of emotions with it."

LaRocca says the message she hopes kids take away from this book is that families grow and change, and so does the love they share.

Some things don't have to change, though. In the end, Ravi is happy to learn that banana is still Dhruv's favorite flavor of ice cream, after all.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Samantha Balaban
Samantha Balaban is producer at Weekend Edition.