Book Review – Magnetic First Words

Title: Magnetic First Words – Days Out

Written by: Michelle Trowell

Illustrated by: Barry Green

Published by: Top That! Publishing

Magnetic First Words - Days

This hard-board book contains over 100 magnetic first words around the theme of Days Out. It has been designed to promote literacy skills, help hand-eye coordination and to encourage parent-child interaction. The pages are magnetic so the words and numbers do not easily fall off and the pages can be turned leaving the magnets in place.

Barry Green’s bold, double-page spread illustrations contain a lot of action, ideal for prompting discussion whilst matching the words to the pages. The children can also invent their own sentences linked to the lively pictures which include children playing by the lake, at the fair and on the beach.

The book contains many of the high frequency sight words the children are required to learn from reception upwards. In my opinion the book will make learning fun and will definitely help with sight recognition of these high frequency words (such as: we, she, look, on, can, etc.) as they have to search through all the words provided for the correct word to match.

Suitable for children aged three upwards, I think they would also make an ideal activity for KS1 children in a reading corner. You will need a pretty little pot to keep all the magnets in though once you have taken them out to use.

An interview with … Anne Rooney

For the latest issue of my Research Secrets column in Writers Forum I have interviewed Anne Rooney about her research process for her non-fiction children’s books.

Anne Rooney3

Anne Rooney’s books range from lavish, large-format to smaller, cheaper books. Dinosaur Atlas (2017) and Animal Atlas (2019) for Lonely Planet are good examples of the first type, with fold-out maps, flaps, and fantastic illustrations. How to be an Eco-Hero (2020) is an example of the smaller format and has line drawings.

Anne loves doing research. She said:

“There’s a childish part of me which goes ‘Wow! look what I’ve found!’ — and that’s essentially what my books are. My older daughter says my job is basically being a perpetual student, and that’s pretty much true.” (Anne Rooney)

Anne explains that research can take you to all kinds of places: the distant past, deep below Earth’s surface, the furthest reaches of outer space or far inside your own (or something else’s) body. This is why she finds it more adventurous than writing fiction. Throughout the interview she used her book, Dinosaur Atlas (illustrated by James Gilleard), to demonstrate what she meant and discuss the research she covered.

“It covers the whole world and 160 million years, so it is quite ambitious. It sounds like it’s just ‘find out about dinosaurs’, but it’s far more than that.” (Anne Rooney)

Dinosaur Atlas

Anne explained how her research varies considerably from one book to another and how it differs slightly between fiction and non-fiction, but not necessarily more than between different types of non-fiction or different types of fiction. She told me the real difference is whether you are completely immersing yourself in an unfamiliar environment — 16th-century Italy, say — or checking details, such as which flavour crisps were available in 1980. The same applies in non-fiction. Some topics take tons of in-depth research and others take far less.

Anne said:

“Perhaps research for fiction can get you into more trouble more easily. In Off the rails (Evans, 2010; reissued, Readzone, 2014), a boy witnesses a crime from a moving train. I took the train journey, found the right spot, and tracked the other locations and journeys on Google maps. A few days later, my younger daughter challenged me: what had I done? Why did Google maps have an overlay marked ‘dump body here’? That doesn’t happen with non-fiction — though my lists of street prices of illegal drugs have raised eyebrows occasionally.” (Anne Rooney)

Anne also spelled out why there’s as much work to do understanding and sometimes explaining how we know something as what we know. Do we know what colours dinosaurs were? Why not/how? How do we know what they ate? In a world with a very cavalier attitude towards facts and truth, books for children need to set a good example by showing how truth is rooted in rigorous investigation that can be replicated and explained. Dinosaur Atlas features life size photos of bits of dinosaur. Anne suggests that museums are the best source for this: actually seeing a tooth the size of a banana makes it clear that absolutely has to go on the page.


To research a book like Dinosaur Atlas, first Anne sets out what she needs to know. The parameters are set by the format of the book, including illustrations. An important part of research is providing an artwork brief and reference – that is, pictures the artist or picture researcher can use as a guide. The better and more detailed the ref is, the more likely they are to come up with a suitable picture the first time round.

My PhD supervisor told me years ago that you don’t need to know everything, you just need to know people who know everything you need to know. One of the best resources is people. I’m lucky to know lots of knowledgeable and helpful people! I had a consultant on this book, Dr David Button, who works at NHM in London and could answer any tricky questions I couldn’t resolve on my own.

Dr David Button, who works at NHM in London

Dr David Button

She explained that with a book like Dinosaur Atlas, the reference has to be accurate, and that means knowing which sources are reliable and which not.

“There’s a lot of dinosaur stuff out there and it’s important to know which sources are reliable and which not. You need to look for things that cite authoritative sources. It’s not all reading. I also watched YouTube videos produced by reputable channels such as PBS and the BBC to get some kind of idea of dinosaurs as living creatures.” (Anne Rooney)

She mentioned there are some brilliant professional paleolithic artists out there and Computer Generated Imagery  (CGI) created by experts where you can see the exact posture for theropods, because dinosaurs such as the T-rex didn’t stand upright as they are often shown, but had a more horizontal posture.

posture for theropods

Her starting point for choosing dinosaurs was to get a good geographic spread. She started with the Natural History Museum’s Dino Directory  as you can search about 300 dinosaurs by date, by type (eg theropod, sauropod, ankylosaur) and by continent, so it was a great way to get an initial list of possible candidates. Anne told me for details of specific dinosaurs, there are some great online databases, such as Prehistoric Wildlife  and blogs such as Everything Dinosaur.

Her research tip for other non-fiction book writers, it to integrate research into your life.

The world is buzzing with fascinating information. Keeping your research antennae alert all the time and note down everything that might be useful for any book you might ever want to write, anything that sparks your curiosity, even if you don’t have any immediate use for it.

She also explains you need to keep on top of your particular areas of expertise. Read the relevant magazines or journals, subscribe to email updates from all the relevant organisations and not everything potentially interesting and suggests that you keep track of your sources rigorously. Footnote everything. Keep the library call marks and the URLs of all your sources. You never know when you might need to go back to them.

Find out more about Anne Rooney, her research and her books on her website:, Twitter @annerooney and Instagram @stroppyauthor

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #221 Mar Writers’ Forum from your nearest good newsagents or order online from Select Magazines.

Writers’ forums

As you all know by now I write for Writers’ Forum a national writing magazine. I have two columns each month, one about authors and their research and the other about writing for children. Each is approximately 1200-1500 words.

Today on my blog though I thought I would write about my thoughts on writers’ forums that is somewhere where people can get together online to discuss writing. There are hundreds of professional and aspiring writers out there and basically we are all in the same boat submitting our manuscripts to agents and editors, with similar wishes and desires for success.

Forums bring people together to chat and talk about their writing. There are different forums for different types of writing. I used to belong to a lot of yahoo Groups when I first started out but I found I outgrew them and Yahoo groups do not not run in the same way anymore, if at all. Nowadays most forums seem to be on Facebook, or run through a society’s websites such as SCBWI and NIBWEB. It is part of your virtual network. I have posted about Virtual networking before, See: Virtual networking


I try to limit myself to three forums so I do not get too many distractions from my work. On these forums, people often asked the same sort of questions But, these were sometimes questions that I may have been pondering over for weeks and just wasn’t brave enough to ask myself.

Sometimes little debates linked to writing go on with everyone adding their point of view. These can be fascinating. Sometimes I listen in or add my own snippet. It is important to contribute to forums to get the most out of them, although I am sure there are plenty of ‘lurkers’. One thing for certain is they definitely counteract the feeling of being alone.

forum 2

It is also important to keep it positive. If someone says something controversial my advice is – keep quiet. Remember some of the members may be very highly-regarded authors or editors and you want to make a good impression.

And probably most importantly, when you post to a forum every single member gets to read what you have written so keep it relevant. If you want to ask a specific person a question it might be a good idea to do it more privately through email.

If you belong to any forums, which are different to the ones, mentioned above, whether they are for children’s writers or writing for adults why not add a comment. I’d be interested to know a little about them and how they have helped you.

John Condon’s book launch

Last week Thursday, I went to John Condon’s book launch for his latest picture book, The Pirates are Coming written by John Condon and illustrated by Matt Hunt.

The Pirates are Coming

This is an ingenious picture book all about a little boy who keeps a look out everyday for pirates in a similar vain to the boy who called wolf but as John’s son, Eddie, explained the boy is not being naughty because he really believes it is a pirate ship he sees.

On arrival I was greeted by the staff of Queen’s Park Books, London, who offered me a drink, red wine, white wine and rum, which made it really difficult for me not to take an alcoholic drink as dark rum is one of my favourites. After much deliberation, I drank mango juice and managed to restrain myself from mixing it with rum. There were also some delicious pirate cupcakes.

The first person I met was John’s son, Eddie, who pointed out he was the boy in the cover of the book and indeed he was – right down to the red sash and the bell. Some of the guests also dressed up as pirates, including myself. This is a picture of me with author Matt Killeen and another of author, Cath Jones in her pirate costume. I interviewed Cath for the January 2020 issue #219 of Writers’ Forum see: An interview with… Cath Jones

John was also dressed up and he was the spitting image of he dad in the book. The likeness was uncanny. I was wondering if Matt did this intentionally.

During the launch we were entertained by violinist, Frank Biddulph, and John read the book with the help of his son Eddie who got the timing perfect and even managed an improvised squawk of the parrot.

I have also previously interviewed John about his writing process for the #216 Oct 2019 issue of the national writing magazine, Writers Forum. I have blogged about the interview here: An interview with… John Condon. In the interview John explained that even though The Pirates are Coming was accepted to be published first, due to the backlog of pirate based stories his other picture book The Wondrous Dinosaurium (illustrated by Steve Brown) was published first.

All in all a very successful book launch for another excellent picture book. I can’t wait for the next one.

To find out more about John take a look at his website or follow him on Twitter @John_Condon_OTT

Book Review – Refugees

Title: Refugees

Written by: Brian Bilston

Illustrated by: José Sanabria

Published by: Palazzo

Edited by: Gemma Farr


For my 200th blog post I have blogged my review of Refugees by Brian Bilston and José Sanabria.

This is ‘cleverly crafted book picture book that highlights prejudices and bigotry. The poem can be read both forwards and backwards to show two opposing views about refugees. The provides a brilliant opportunity for discussion and a way to talk about fear and hate and the need for compassion, understanding and empathy. I particularly like the way the poem is laid out on the left of the spread when read forward and on the right side when it is re-written backwards in the second half of the book.

The colours used for the illustrations also help to convey the different moods and feelings, with dark sad-faced images to show the fear and mistrust and brighter, colourful images with happy smiling faces to demonstrate people from different races and cultures are all the same all around the world, doing the same jobs, same activities and everyday routines. An excellent book to promote debate.

The book would be ideal for PSHE classes not only at KS1 or KS2 but also KS3 and KS4 as the opposing views are relevant for all ages. It would also be interesting to have children craft their own similar poems to show opposing views on this and other subjects, such as climate change, conservation and even Brexit.

This book review was previously published on the online Armadillo Children’s Book Review Magazine.

An interview with… Sarwat Chadda

Sarwat Chadda’s first novel, The Devil’s Kiss, was released by Puffin in May 2009 and was quickly followed by the sequel, The Dark Goddess. He has also written a breathtaking action adventure series for children aged 8-12 years, called Ash Ministry and writes under the pseudonym Joshua Kahn. He is currently working on a project with Rick Riordan. I interviewed Sarwat about his research in 2009 for my Research Secrets column.

He explained that for him the research comes before the writing because he loves reading about history, mythology and fairy tales way back when he was an engineer. He likes to start something on a whim and then explore the area, culture and background until he reaches a saturation point. This gives him enough information to sound convincing and have all the key characters and locations in place.

Ultimately, his books are about the character and feels everything else is scene setting. To help create his characters he looks into his life and projects how he was at the age of his protagonist. He said the core needs come from there.

Sarwat insists research shouldn’t be a chore it should be part of the fun.

“We’re not just putting words down on paper we’re offering readers our unique take on the world. If you’re finding it hard work constantly, question why you’re doing it. Writing is about passion, life’s too short to be wasted on something you don’t love.” (Sarwat Chadda)

Most of his research is done through books. In fact, he admits that his biggest cost is books, but he was buying them before he decided to become a full time writer. Sarwat believes that libraries are our greatest resource. I agree. Use them or lose them. He explained:

“The Internet has its place, but nothing beats getting really into a subject in a library and second hand book shops. They’re great since you’ll come across stuff that’s years old and since I’m writing about mythology, those sort of books just set the mood perfectly.” (Sarwat Chadda)

He said the danger is over-research and getting yourself trapped by it. But he does not have a system for the way he does his research. because he feels the best thing about writing is the license to mix it all up how you like. His tip to other writers is not to stack your books in a too organised manner. Mix them up and see what happens as you’ll come across connections otherwise impossible to see if it’s all logical.

Sarwat explained sometimes the ‘official’ version doesn’t work and you have to tweak it. This happens a lot in historical fiction, especially with combining characters and moving dates. But that’s why it’s called FICTION. In his adventures he admits he makes up all the difficult and dangerous stuff.


For all that sort of practical detail on the ‘day in the life of a warrior’ he got in touch with various re-enactment societies and visited shows around England. Since his books are based on the Knights Templar, he found their working understanding of the practical nature of the arms and armour of a medieval knight, very useful.

“They explained the nitty-gritty of the sword hilt, the practicalities of the weight of armour, its properties and the weapons designed to overcome mail or plate. It’s all these details that make the story breathe with a sense of reality.” (Sarwat Chadda)

To find out more about Sarwat Chadda and his books take a look at his excellent website: or follow him on Twitter: @sarwatchadda 

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #93 June 2009 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

What makes me want to keep reading?

Over the past few weeks I have been thinking increasingly about this question. I am the type of person that if I get bored with a book I will not carry on. I have a very short attention span and my mind wanders very easily into my own little worlds. I have read several books where I have been told, if you get past chapter five it is great you can’t put it down, because I have stopped reading during chapter two.

Room by Emma Donoghue and Timeline by Michael Crichton are two of these books. I have started again with these books and forced myself to read on and consequently really enjoyed the books and have since, read them again. So did I give up too soon? Why did I stop reading in the first place (especially as both of these books have such brilliant concepts)?

After a lot of thought, I think that there was too much backstory for me from the onset. I know as authors we should release the thread slowly, but these books for me, in the first few chapters, were too slow. The stories felt as if they were going nowhere. Even the dialogue did not seem to me to propel the story forward. In fact, dare I say it of two best-selling authors but the beginnings were rather self-indulgent. I didn’t get the cliff-hanger or unanswered question at the end of the chapter to make me want to read on. I have posted about writing cliff-hangers before: End Each Chapter With a Cliffhanger

I’ve heard it a thousand times on creative writing courses and I know I’ve said it myself and have more than likely written it in one of my blogs before but honestly if it doesn’t move the story forward, leave it out. I will block quote that:

If it doesn’t move the story forward, leave it out.

When I come to edit a chapter book, I always re-read each chapter (which is usually a scene) separately and ask myself these questions at the end:

  • Does the chapter trigger my curiosity?
  • Has the chapter developed the characters and/or the plot?
  • Is this something I would read if I only had a few minutes to spare?
  • Would it effect the story if the whole scene was cut?

These questions really help me to focus my mind.

I love reading books, which make me want to skip parts to find out the answers before I carry on from where I left off. It is frustrating when a book ends and it says… to be continued. I actually feel really cross at the author. This is what happened to me with Teri Terry’s first book in her Slated series.

But this technique did make me buy the next book in the trilogy as soon as it was released and they are still one of my favourite all-time series of books. I have also bought and read every other book she has written – so they’ve got to be good. I think Teri Terry’s books really hits it on nail – so here is my epiphany I wanted to share with you all:

To make me want to keep reading you have to make me care about the characters from the start and keep on making me want to find out what happens to them.

It really is that simple. I hope this helps you when writing and editing your own books.