Change of site

My new website, where I’ll be keeping you updated with Magic Pencil creative writing activities, plus news of my books, has now moved to:

Please do sign up for new posts and book updates at the new site.

See you there!

Rebecca x

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Writing from Art

The Lunch by Diego Velazquez

A very enjoyable activity I did recently was to provide students with a piece of art and then ask them to form in their heads an idea of what had happened just before and just after the scene they are looking at. I chose Velazquez’s ‘The Lunch’, but this can work with any pictures at all (possibly made simpler by choosing pictures which have some visible motion in them). Once a few ideas have been discussed and/or roleplay of the characters, the students can then write a short story describing the events before, during and after the picture snapshot. I prefer to keep the writing in the present tense for this activity as it drives the writing in a more dynamic direction, keeping it fluid and compelling.

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Would you rather have a monkey to tickle or a bear to read to

ImageJohn Burningham is such a brilliant illustrator and children’s writer. His drawings and prose are iconic and quirky and one of the things I love about his books is that they are left open-ended, loose ends fluttering in the breeze, just perfect for young enquiring minds. We had a fun end of year Magic Pencil club session yesterday where I read them Burningham’s ‘Would you rather’, a hilarious book where he throws up lots of weird and wonderful scenarios for the reader to choose from. I then asked the children to write and illustrate their own mini ‘Would you rather’ books which had them in gales of laughter. Always good to close the end of the academic year with a smile 🙂


John Burningham


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Travel by Robert Louis Stevenson


Robert Louis Stevenson, beloved Scottish author of Treasure Island as well as a number of other books for children and adults and an abundance of poems and musical compositions, travelled a great deal throughout his life before finally making an island in Samoa his home. This week I worked with a small group, brainstorming places that they’d like to visit in the world (these could also be fictional places or past / future lands) before writing their own personal ‘Travel’ poems, modelled on Stevenson’s work and using his same first line as a springboard.

Here’s a poem by Max:

I should like to rise and go

to ancient Egypt, long ago

to see cats and pyramids

and maybe Pharoah’s kids.

I’ll visit mummies and their tombs

maybe even seamstresses working their looms

I’ll learn about ancient dynasties

with tales like the holy trinities.

I should like to rise and go

to Rome and the colosseo

to the place where emperors reigned

and the senate system was strained.

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How to start with poetry for children? Immersion, leisure, enjoyment, fun

How to start with poetry for children? Immersion, leisure, enjoyment, fun

‘Poetry plays a powerful role in increasing students’

literacy skills in schools. But unless literacy starts with

goosebumps, laughter, or contemplation, none of us

would bother to read anything but bills, instructions and

road signs. When teaching the reading of poetry the guide

words should be: immersion, leisure, enjoyment, fun.’

Mandy Coe

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Benjamin Zephaniah’s Imagine Nation

Benjamin Zephaniah. Wow, what an inspiration. Highly dyslexic, he left school at 13 being unable to read or write, had constant brushes with the law before turning his hand to poetry and making it accessible to all kinds of people in all kinds of places. His self-confessed mission is to fight the staid, academic image of poetry, thus turning his poetry readings into theatrical-style performances.

I can’t quite believe I didn’t know his poem, Imagine Nation, before. It is so powerful and a revolutionary call to fight the status quo and inspire young people everywhere. I worked with this poem with a group of ten and eleven year olds this week and I loved the way they responded to it and how it made them feel.

Here’s the poem. Enjoy 🙂

Imagine Nation

You cannot hold, force or control

The brave imagination,

From paintings that are bright and bold

To poetry creation,

You cannot legislate against ideas

For you will find,

You cannot stop young pioneers,

It’s all in the mind.


Teachers inspire students and

Students inspire teachers,

And if done write throughout the land

We’ll all become great readers,

There’s joy in mathematics

When a beauty is designed,

There’s even art in physics,

It’s all in the mind.


Bring thought police in uniforms

The music will not stop,

Excited brains will not conform

And nor will sweet Hip-Hop,

Now schools can become temples

Where the students bump and grind,

It’s all so experimental,

It’s all in the mind.


We beings need adventure

Just like we need a heart,

It’s more than lazy leisure

Life’s empty without art,

Ideas are like the universe

They cannot be confined,

And our ideas are so diverse

It’s all in the mind.


When you look at all the negative

It’s only black and white, But when you get creative

It’s all colour and light,

So why live in the darkness?

And why be colour-blind?

Our art brings love and brightness,

It’s all in the mind.


You cannot put a price upon

A dancer with great action,

Nor can you put a price upon

A teacher full of passion,

What’s possible is endless

When these talents are combined,

What’s possible is priceless,


It’s all in the mind.

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Creating catchy newspaper articles with kids

IMG_0489I did a really fun writing activity recently with a group of children. I cut out lots of pictures of people from magazines and then asked the kids to chose one picture each. After discussing what a journalist does, I split the group into pairs and one person took on the role of journalist and the other, the person whose picture they had chosen. After giving them some time to think of both good questions (journalist) and interesting tales to tell (character), the journalist conducted an informal interview before they swapped roles and finally wrote the stories up.

This activity really got the children thinking hard as I stressed to them that people only want to read articles in newspapers and magazines that they find interesting (and would then report back to their friends later, You won’t believe what I read in the paper earlier), so not only did the character have to think of a story that would hook the reader’s attention, but the journalist also had to think about the best way to present their material, using catchy headlines and quotes as well as the five W’s (who / where / when / what / why.)

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It’s all about reading


I love these two little pictures that my daughter drew recently, just because she felt like it. I couldn’t agree more, it really is all about reading. I say time and again to the children I work with that my number one tip for being a good writer is being a good reader. To keep reading widely and openly and strangely, it’s even helpful to read bad books because you can ask yourself why they don’t work and how you could write something better.

As for my daughter’s second picture, it reminds me of Emilie Buchwald’s words: Children are made readers on the laps of their parents. A child can never, ever be too young to start reading to them. By the same token, you can never be too old either. I still adore being read to 🙂

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Ben Okri’s ten and a half inclinations

The Royal Society of Literature once asked 10 writers to suggest the 10 books that children should read before leaving school. Instead of writing a list of books, this is what the writer Ben Okri wrote. Pure brilliance.

1. There is a secret trail of books meant to inspire and enlighten you. Find that trail.
2. Read outside your own nations, colour, class and gender.
3. Read the books your parents hate.
4. Read the books your parents love.
5. Have one or two authors that are important, that speak to you; and make their works your secret passion.
6. Read widely, for fun, stimulation and escape.
7. Don’t read what everyone else is reading. Check them out later, cautiously.
8. Read what you’re not supposed to read.
9. Read for your own liberation and mental freedom.
10. Books are like mirrors. Don’t just read the words. Go into the mirror. That is where the real secrets are. Inside. Behind. That’s where the gods dream, where are realities are born.
10 1/2. Read the world. It is the most mysterious book of all.

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Creating new worlds

I am very lucky indeed to be able to hold my after school club in one of the most beautiful gardens I’ve ever seen. I don’t know what it is about that hour between 4 and 5pm here in Nairobi, but even if it’s ben cold and rainy during the day, the sun always seems to come out. Yesterday I witnessed the most magical scene and only wished I had my camera to record it…When I ask the children to do their individual writing after the group activities, I get them to split up and find a little corner of the garden they’d like to write in. Two of the girls decided to go and sit on stepping stones that cross the river at the bottom of the garden and it was such a wonderful sight, the two of them cross-legged on their stones, completely engrossed in their stories as the river rippled by and birds flew overhead (yep, no such thing as health and safety in my writing club ;))

I’m discovering more and more that it’s confidence (or lack of it) that prevents children (well, adults too) from expressing themselves on paper. One girl I noticed was sitting on the grassy bank chewing her pencil and I went over and asked her if she was ok. ‘I don’t know what to write,’ she told me. We had spent the session discussing and building up settings for our stories and I had stressed how important setting is, often as important as the characters themselves. So I asked her to tell me about the world she had built up from our earlier exercise and she very enthusiastically began verbalising her world. When I told her that she definitely did had something to write about as had just told me about it in great detail, this girl looked surprised and then busily started writing. The challenge for anyone, of course, is to translate and filter all these dozens of colourful thoughts we have onto paper.

But there is, of course, only one way to get through this and, like anything, it’s to practise. To stick with the craft and write even if you think what you’re writing is no good. Because out of all of this, words or phrases will start to gleam like diamonds in the earth and before you know it, you have the beginnings of a story. So many children think they can’t write. I honestly believe that every child has a writer within them, but the key is giving them the liberty to produce a lot of writing that doesn’t work as how can they know how to write if they don’t also know how not to write? Only when a child is able to work through this can they pull back their bow and start sending out authentic words into the world.

Illustration by Allen Crawford

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