An Interview with… Roma Agrawal

My interview today is a blast from the past from Writers’ Forum issue #237 Oct 2021, when I interviewed structural engineer, Roma Agrawal, about her children’s non-fiction that provides a behind-the-scenes look at some of the world’s most amazing landmarks.

Author photo © Rebecca Reid

Roma has worked on many of the skyscrapers and bridges in the UK, including The Shard, the tallest tower in Western Europe. Her technical job is to ensure the structures are safe and stable. Her children’s book How Was That Built? The Stories Behind Awesome Structures was inspired by an adult book she wrote looking at how construction has evolved from the mud huts of our ancestors to skyscrapers of steel that reach hundreds of metres into the sky.

How Was That Built? The Stories Behind Awesome Structures is a concise look at how engineers build all sorts of structures and the ingenious methods engineers have come up with to enable us to build underground, underwater, on ice and even in space. Her illustrator was Katie Hickey who has brought a beautiful sense of wonder and playfulness to this book with her illustrations showing fascinating cross-sections, skylines and close-ups of engineering techniques in action, provide unique and illuminating perspectives of these awe-inspiring constructions.

How Was That Built? The Stories Behind Awesome Structures by Roma Agrawal

Roma told me her aim was to showcase a mix of well-known structures and also less familiar ones that would be accessible for young readers. She explained it was hard to narrow it down and started with a long list, in a spreadsheet, with structures from each continent from the categories – bridge, building, dam, tunnel, etc. After this she jotted down what fascinated her about each structure and what was the most compelling story behind it. In some cases, she said it was a story about a material, in others, its history.

“Some of the content between my book for adults and the adaptation for children overlaps but I wanted to ensure I covered structures from all seven continents and also in space, so I researched loads more stories. I thought about which structures and engineers might capture a young person’s imagination and create stunning visuals. It was a tough task trying to cut down the extensive list I first came up with.”

Roma Agrawal

Roma told me her favourite spread is the How to Build in Outer Space. It feels like science fiction, but it’s real research that scientists are doing right now.

She said she chose the particular engineers as they are all really inspiring and she wanted to feature people from different eras and from different places to show children that engineers are from all sorts of diverse backgrounds. So in the book she has included the more known names from the Industrial Revolution like Henry Bessemer, but also Emily Roebling, who ran the Brooklyn Bridge construction as a woman in the 19th century.

Roma revealed that when adapting her adult non-fiction book, Built, into a STEM non-fiction aimed at children the major change was restructuring the narrative to answer the sort of questions a young reader might have such as, How do you build tall? How do you build a long bridge? Or how do you build a watertight dam?

“I wanted to answer these questions with surprising examples from all around the world, and very importantly, include some of the pioneering engineers who made them possible. I also needed to figure out how to fit in all the information needed to understand a structure – this ranges from how particular materials are made, or how the ancient Romans built to how columns and beams work and how to design against forces like earthquakes.”

Roma Agrawal

She explained the trick was to find stories behind the complicated science or engineering and centre the information around them as this was important to humanise STEM. The book includes some incredible stories of people from all sorts of backgrounds that have made the world the way it is today, and proves to young people they too can change the world and make a contribution to something exciting.

Her advice to Writers’ Forum readers aspiring to write for children is to tell the stories. Even if you think there aren’t any, dig deep and find them. It’s never too late to learn to write. She told me she disliked even writing technical reports that were a part of my job, let alone creative writing. But she challenged herself and learned this invaluable new skill in my 30s.

Roma has another children’s non-fiction engineering book out in 2023 called, Nuts and Bolts: Seven Small Inventions that Changed the World (in a Big Way).

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #237 Oct 2021 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Writing 4 Children or Research Secrets interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

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