In the first part of this series of blog posts, I talked about how to introduce creative writing in schools in a fun way. Then in the second part I talked about why it’s important to build an imagination muscle and flex it regularly.

In this final part, we will look at how to practice all these ideas in a busy and often assessment filled curriculum. Children will love reading and writing if there is much more of a self-invested motivation. So these are some ideas for both teachers to practice and practice in their classrooms with students.

Practice What You Preach

a) Start (or end) every day / lesson with a related prompt and a writing activity. Whether you’re going to be discussing mountains in a lesson about landforms or about adjectives in an English lesson, you can start with a poem or a story prompt related to the lesson. Get them to write a simple 4-line poem or a 6-line story about an adventure over a mountain using the terms they would have learnt in the previous session.

It’s a great way to revise and apply, improve comprehension because the concepts you taught have to be understood to be thrown and mixed into a story.

b) Start a writing journal – the teacher, the TAs and the students could keep a writing journal where they could write a few lines every day in one of the classes (and draw) to comment on, discuss, share their thoughts on the day or the lessons or their break-time. Whether you are an adult or a child, professional or an amateur writer, a topic or theme or a prompt would help initiate the writing process so they are not staring at a blank page.

c) Start class or school assemblies with word prompts – if the entire school is buzzing about a word – for example – umbrella – every child’s story would be different yet would have been triggered by the word umbrella.

d) Collaborative writing and drawing is a brilliant way to reduce the amount of writing each child has to bear and a great way to promote collaborative working within groups. Discuss stories, get children to work in groups to create a book, draw a cover, do the blurb, get inside writing and illustrations. It’s important that teachers take an active part in these activities to bring a sense of “we’re all in it together.”

A teacher’s drawing
A child’s drawing of the same scene

e) Display teachers’ and children’s work alongside in classroom and school displays. Choose a topic and let everyone write a story or a poem or draw and pin it up. Be brave – the less children stress about sharing their work, less pressure to write. It increases joy and reduces the fear of criticism. And teachers should lead the way by displaying their work.

Make Writing Fun in Schools – Part 2/3

In 2018 alone, I’ve done over 200 workshops in schools across the UK and US. Often teachers ask me how to interest children in writing – without them groaning and moaning, whining and whinging.

As part of my school visits or in specialised sessions, I work with teachers to help them bring fun into creative writing in schools.

The first blog post with suggestions and ideas for activities is here.

In this post, let’s look at FLEXING THE IMAGINATION MUSCLE!

Please feel free to try them out in your schools and when it works, do send me photos, emails, tweets to share the news with me.





Like any other skill, tapping into your imagination is a skill that needs to be practiced. We need our brains and creative energy to be agile and supple to take what’s around us or given to us and make them into stories. Humans have been telling stories for millions of years. Good storytellers not only practice dipping into their inner subconscious but also keep their language and cognitive abilities honed and tuned for that one killer story they want to tell.

So here are ways by which teachers can keep the imagination muscles of their children flexed and ready for that day when you want them to write stories, poems and get going with the writing.

  1. Word Association Games – this improves the vocabulary and at the same time can be fun and competitive in class. It can be played in groups or one to one, it can be a great tool not just to improve imagination, but also to build comprehension and spelling skills.

There are many ways to play this game – but my favourites are these two:

The first one – is simply to generate interesting nouns and verbs.

  • Pick a random word from a hat, from a book, or from around the room.
  • Now the group should come up with five different related nouns and verbs. If the associated words are not obvious, they should be able to explain why they chose it. Remember, there is nothing right or wrong about their choice – but we are flexing their imagination as to why they associated those words with the added benefit of comprehension.

The second one is a story-starter. Again it can be played individually or in groups

  • Open the dictionary to a random page, find a noun a
  • Ask the following questions:
    • Who owns this?
    • What does it look like?
    • Who wants to steal it?
  • The teams should write down the answers and start their story from here.

2. What-If: This is a great way to trigger the out of box ideas. This technique is also used by most professional writers.

In a classroom setting, you can start off with a prompt – either an image or a physical object or a word.

Here is an example.

What if my Grandma’s chair is a time travelling machine?

Once you have generated a question that has potential, the team should then dig further into the what-if and keep continuing until they see the story emerge.

So continuing from the above what if – here are my next three.

What if she sits and is transported to the Bronze Age?

What if she took my maths homework with her and I need it back?

What if I went after her and had to rescue her from the Bronze Age humans?


Want more tips?  Find out more at

Make Writing Fun in Schools – Part 1/3

In 2018 alone, I’ve done over 200 workshops in schools across the UK and US. Often teachers ask me how to interest children in writing – without them groaning and moaning, whining and whinging.

As part of my school visits or in specialised sessions, I work with teachers to help them bring fun into creative writing in schools.

Over the next three blog posts, I’ll be sharing those ideas with all of you. Please feel free to try them out in your schools and when it works, do send me photos, emails, tweets to share the news with me.

In my opinion, there are 3 principles to teaching and guiding creative writing in schools.

#1 – Make it Fun

#2 – Flexing the Imagination Muscle

#3 – Practicing what you Preach

In this post, let’s look at FUN!

It’s no secret that children and adults, do more of what they enjoy. Whether it’s exercise or sports or watching television, it applies. So the first rule is not to force creative writing down the throats of children, especially if they are struggling with writing or spellings or school work.

Here are 10 ways to introduce creative writing in a fun way.
  1. Teach the children to write jokes and riddles. There is no end to their joy when you let them loose on each other with their little scraps of paper filled with their riddles.

2. Be Roald Dahl for a day – Read funny and strange words in class and ask children to make up new words. Check this out.

3. Create a class newspaper – fill it with jokes, cartoons, news, advertisements. Check out this fake newspaper generator –

4. Write a letter to their favourite author or illustrator or even an imaginary one.

5. Write a recipe for something strange like a witch’s potion or a dinosaur’s cough medicine or the giant’s breakfast. 

6. Write book reviews / movie reviews or video game reviews

7. Write a blurb for an unwritten book or a book they’d love to read

8. Author and illustrator visits especially authors from different backgrounds

9. Enter writing competitions like BBC 500 words (Have you been a judge before? Try your hand.)

10. Create an anthology for the school library with children’s work – get them to submit to a deadline. Use ICT classes and English lessons to encourage them to work on it. Once the book is done, add it to the library and lend it to children like a regular book.

If  you wish to bring Chitra into your school to run workshops with both teachers and students, see here.

What additional ingredients are required to create a series that is led by a character from Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic heritages?

This post is a continuation from the first part – What are the ingredients of a universally appealing early fiction series? By Chitra Soundar hosted on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, a community of brilliant blogging authors. Also I wish to make a full disclaimer that I wrote this, in 2015, as part of my MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University. So it doesn’t cite newer series. And that’s why it has some clever quotes from academic references. This is not normal for me.

Series fiction is the child’s first gateway into the world as an independent reader. They understand not only their school and their friends but also family relationships, life values and about losses, celebrations and their heritage from these books.

Buchoff (1995:230) writes in The Reading Teacher about family stories: ‘When incorporated into the elementary curriculum, family stories are effective tools for encouraging students to learn more about their heritage, to acquire and refine literary skills and to develop greater respect for the multicultural differences that make them unique.’

Therefore it is critical for children from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities to see their own family and cultural setting in these stories. It is important for them to recognize familiar words and their meanings from the stories that they read.

They should recognize familiar family structures in these stories – living in a joint family, having different or hybrid bedtime rituals, celebrations and festivals that are more culturally specific to them. All of that adds to their overall understanding of their own world – as the learning always begins with the known and proceeds to the unknown.

Opitz (1999:888) quotes Galda (1998:275), ‘All readers… need books that allow them glimpses of the selves they are, visions of the selves they’d like to become, and images of others that allow them to see beyond who they are.’

I read a number of early-fiction series published in the UK and the US, with lead characters from Black and Asian backgrounds, to understand the specific ingredients – the spices that are added by pinch into a popular recipe that make these books diverse and multi-cultural yet universally appealing.


The stories can be set anywhere – either in contemporary Britain or contemporary Africa or Asia – but the setting and characters must be as authentic they can be. Atinuke tells us stories about Anna Hibiscus and the No. 1 Car Spotter who live in Amazing Africa. Hilary McKay’s Lulu and Lenore Look’s Ruby Lu are based in contemporary USA.

Wherever they are set, these stories include authentic customs and traditions of similar families – how do they cook or eat? What kind of food do they eat? How do they address their mothers and fathers and grandparents? What language do they speak and more importantly how are their family and social interactions similar or different to mainstream culture?

Culture in the Core

The stories in these books arise partly or fully from the culture. The culture is not the backdrop alone – it is the spring from which conflicts arise and resolutions are found. In the Ruby Lu series by Lenore Look, Ruby’s cousins from China are staying with them and they are immigrants. Ruby has to deal with this even if she doesn’t like it because that’s what Asian families do.

When writing in the Guardian in 2015, Kalu says, ‘place a conflict or a problem that relates to diversity right on the spine of the plot.’

One of and not Only

The stories that I researched – be it Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke or Dyamonde Daniel by Nikki Grimes demonstrate quintessential characteristics of the chosen family. They are not (and need not be) representative of the entire race they belong to.

Bailey’s prize-winner Adichie says in her Ted Talk ‘The danger of a single story’, ’The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.’

It is important not to create a caricature but portray a single family upon which a spotlight is shone.

Kalu in his Guardian article (2015) echoes this, ‘Culture is never static. So don’t fossilize it. We have multiple identities and allegiances. Try to get that sense of blur and multiplicity…’

Universality is not enough

Many of these stories set in a non-white family are universal in their emotions. But they are also different from the mainstream in other ways. The differences – both negative and positive are tackled head on – but within the premise of the story being told.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious and the Zebra Necklace, the two girls set off with a nurse to a distant village in search of truth. Western Health & Safety laws and social conventions would disallow this. But it is normal for the family being portrayed in this story.

In Alvin Ho series by Lenore Look, Alvin visits China with his family. There he finds he can’t go out when the smog and pollution is very high and he also discovers the colourful markets and wonderful people, when he does venture out.

Cai explains why discussing differences is a necessary step in multicultural literature.

…first step toward the goal is to accept, tolerate and respect cultural differences. To cross cultural borders, paradoxically, we need to recognize and face them first. If we do not understand and respect cultural differences, there would be no rapport on an equal basis. (2002:130)

Having said that these books are not pulpits for political views. Not a single book beats you on the head with the issues of racism or other issues.

Kalu writes in the Guardian (2015) on this, “Racism exists and writers have the opportunity to make important contributions to speculating how society might deal with it.”

While discussing the differences are important, all these stories demonstrated similarities too. Friendships, love, loss of a pet, loss of a grandparent, judging others, doing mischief – these universal experiences are portrayed through the lens of a lead character who is either Black, Asian or from Minority Ethnic heritages.

In summary, a universally appealing early fiction series with a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic lead character would not only be funny, consistent, feature a unique and memorable main character and have a strong supporting cast; it should also have an authentic setting, keep culture of the main character in its core, avoid stereotypes and celebrate the differences and similarities between the character’s background and the mainstream.

Check out the Prince Veera series here. A Jar of Pickles has been shortlisted for the Surrey Children’s Book Award 2018.

I Write Like I Cook

My first cooking lesson perhaps started when I was six, because I hung around my grandmother, sitting on the kitchen counter, listening to her tell stories from her past, smelling the foods she was making. She taught me how to cook without tasting – just with the smells.

When I was ten, I really had to cook. A full family meal. I learnt from my Mum who stood outside the kitchen giving me instructions as I nervously mixed and stirred and listening to the number of times the pressure cooker hissed. My mum and my her mother-in-law, my grandmother, didn’t measure any of the spices. Everything was intuitive – a pinch or a handful or just the right quantity. There was no recipe to follow. Nothing was written down. All the cooking was passed down by practice. If I hadn’t spent time in the kitchen arguing over whether the salt went first or the spices, I would have never learnt.

Until I was in my teens, I knew only the regional cuisine I was brought up on. In India every time you crossed a 100 KM you crossed a cuisine line. I grew up in the state of Tamil Nadu, but Tamil Nadu itself has tens of cuisines, all regional, and many passed down from 2000 years ago.


When my interest in cooking got stronger, I started experimenting with other Indian cuisines. I tried Gujarati food from the west, Punjabi food from the north, Kerala food from the south-west, street food from Mumbai. All vegetarian, and all adapted. I don’t think I ever cooked anything that I didn’t change a bit here and there. Even to my mum’s recipe. In fact, some family recipes have been irrevocably changed and my dad thinks it’s for the good.

As I left the country in late 20s, and moved to Singapore, I remained an Indian foodie. I still experimented – but only with Indian food. foodcourtThe vast array of food courts in Singapore didn’t tempt me one bit – primarily because they did not fathom how anyone could be vegetarian for 7 days a week, 365 days a year and definitely on the extra day in a leap year too.

But I did venture slowly into international food – not necessarily always authentic, but an adventure nevertheless. I started travelling to the west around this time and had to quickly find alternatives to Indian food that didn’t contain egg or fish or meat of any kind. Italian, Greek and some Mexican if you knew the difference between con and san.

Moving to the UK 11 years ago, introduced me to the vast array of supermarket shelves. I walked around the aisles (I still do this in mega big food stores), looking at strange names – Paprika, Sun-dried tomato paste, Rosemary, Thyme, Pesto, Udon noodles and such.westernherbs

I not only learnt to appreciate world cuisine, I wanted to experiment, learn and cook things I liked. My philosophy about food is – learn to cook what you love to eat. That way I never have to wait for someone to cook, or find a restaurant.

Experimenting with new spices from Europe and South America taught me new flavours, new smells, new combinations. I cooked a lot of Mexican food – like vegetarian chili, burritos, tacos. I cooked Italian. I love pasta more than pizza for some reason. And some British food – especially crumbles and pies.
For a while I kept my two interests separate – I cooked Indian food the Indian way and the world cuisine as per downloaded recipes. Then slowly I started mixing and matching. The more confident I got with the spices, the more I experimented.

I started taking traditional Indian recipes and adding western ingredients into it. And voila! These turned out to be my signature dishes. Those that my mum and my sister want the recipes for. Although it still frustrates my sister when I say – just a pinch of this and a trickle of that.

Then I took the western dishes I loved – especially the pasta and started adding Indian ingredients into it. My brother-in-law freaked out. He politely asked me to cook Indian the next time he visited – because he is an authentic foodie and my mixing up food cultures troubled him and kept him awake at night. I’m getting hungry thinking about so much food.

But the point is, I’ve recently realized that my writing has also taken a similar journey and the parallels were obvious when I looked.

When I had started out writing, of course I wrote as per the rules. I didn’t change anything, I didn’t modify anything. Not just from a craft point of view, but also from content – edicts like if you’re a girl, these are the kind of things you wrote about. What was not allowed, I wrote in diaries. I sometimes regret that I destroyed all my diaries before I left India – they contained raw emotions, anger, passion, sorrow, frustration and so much truth. Perhaps as a grown-up I would cringe at my teenage diaries. But nevertheless they would have been more authentic than the stuff I showed others.

I don’t think I ever thought I’d write for publication until I left India. I sent in poems and essays to competitions and magazines.newsletter storytellingprize The kernel of a writer was there. I wanted others to read my stuff. I secretly left my writing where people could see them. I loved it when I won prizes and things got accepted. But never in a million years, a lower middle-class girl could aspire to focus on writing and not a career.
The next stage of my writing started when I reached Singapore. I started writing down my stories on paper. By now the Internet had reached the html stages and I could Ask Jeeves! (remember that?). This was the time when Yahoo was still god and Google hadn’t been born yet.

I read lots and lots of books – craft books and fiction. I wrote every day. I sent out stuff every week. Many returned, one or two found their place. At this time, I wasn’t sure what type of writer I was – as much as I didn’t know what food I loved other than Indian. I wrote business articles that were published in the national newspaper. I wrote inspirational essays; I wrote short story and the first one was published in the Singapore Airlines magazine. I was experimenting in the kitchen and in my notebook.singaporeair

When I settled on children’s writing, I knew why. My imagination was too bizarre and weird for grownups. I wanted wishing chairs, my own faraway tree and witches and goblins and magic. I settled down into writing children’s fiction the same time I settled into my Indian cooking. I had experimented, I had figured it out and I was happy where I was.

When I came to the UK, it was a completely different ball game. I bumped into serious talent and I quickly realized I had to up my game. But it took a long time to understand how.

img_2590 img_2591
As with my cooking, and experimentation with western cuisines, I realized there was a perception that I had to figure out. Indian food had to be a certain thing – curry. People thought they knew what authentic curry was and they didn’t want an Indian telling them how it should be. It was the same in the stories I wrote. I was told what I should be writing or what was authentic. And when I experimented with western cuisine, and western plots, stories, characters, that didn’t go down well either.

Like in my cooking, I realised my authentic experience was not in the popular experience. I wasn’t sure if I had to write only Indian stories that matched the accepted norm, would I be “exploiting” my heritage just to get published. It was like cooking “curry” for a dinner party instead of cooking my authentic south Indian food. I had to connect to India in every story.


Because for many gatekeepers, my “western” stories were like being invited to an Indian home and being served fish and chips. They had come expecting Sag Aloo and Naans.
I switched gears very slowly. Many writing workshops later, many retreats, lectures, random courses, tens of SCBWI events later, I was figuring myself out. This was not just a writer’s journey. I had to figure out my identity – I had become a British citizen but I wasn’t born here. I had to deal with the conflict of my identity as a person and as a writer.

Less than half a decade ago, the recipe started to take shape. I could smell the spices, I could figure out the pinch and the trickle. I did exactly the same in the kitchen and in my writing – I blended my experiences in. I’m different and I am one. I’m a contradiction and I’m ambiguous.

Like the brinjal fry (brinjal is aubergine, just in case you were wondering), I made with my mum’s recipe modified with sun-dried tomato paste, I mixed the ingredients in the writing. I started figuring out how I could bring an authentic story to a western audience. I think I’m still figuring it out. Like how I still go to explore spice shelves in supermarkets, to find the ingredient that I could add to my mother’s spice box, I’m constantly learning how to blend my experience growing up in India with my world citizenship.

Sometimes the spice combinations don’t work. Sometimes they blow my taste buds and it becomes a classic recipe. Same way, some stories just work. Some struggle and stay inside my notebooks.

As I said, I cook the same way I write. I’m richer for the new spices I’ve learnt to use. I’m one person with multiple experiences. What’s authentic to me would never be authentic to my next-door neighbour in India who grew up right next to me. We had similar experiences and different ones. Who is to say which one is more authentic?

There is no single story to humanity. All our stories are universal and unique at the same time.
So next time you visit me, ask for some authentic Indian food and don’t gasp when you don’t see the curry takeaway staples on it. As for the stories, I can only hope I stay true to my characters and spin a good yarn. Like with food, the writer or the cook is only part of the experience. They have to be completed by a reader or a guest. Come and have a taste. You might be pleasantly surprised.