As the best-selling author of How To Train Your Dragon and the current Waterstones Children’s Laureate, Cressida Cowell knows exactly how young readers can become enthused by books. In this exclusive interview with PACEY, she explains what we can all do to help make stories come alive.
How did you become a writer?
I spent a great deal of time as a child on a tiny, uninhabited island off the west coast of Scotland. The island had no roads, houses or electricity. The name of the island is a secret, but it was such a small island it wasn’t really big enough to have a name at all. There were no roads or shops, just a storm-blown, windy wilderness of seabirds and heather.
When I was four, my family would be dropped off like castaways on the island by a local boatman and picked up again two weeks later. In those days there were no mobile phones, so we had absolutely no way of contacting the outside world during that time. If something went wrong, we just had to sit tight and hope that the boat really did come to pick us up in two weeks’ time.
In those days, there was no such thing as a mobile phone and so, if somebody broke their leg or their neck or got horrible food poisoning or acute appendicitis, my parents had ABSOLUTELY NO WAY WHATSOEVER of getting help from the outside world. I was a bit more of a worrier than my parents and, even as a four year old, I thought they were completely crazy.
I thought they were even crazier when they got a boat, because my father was a very confident sailor, but he didn’t really know what he was doing. He was clueless but bossy. There was something glorious about the dignified way my father barked out orders while heading us straight into a Force Eight gale, or hitting a rock, or accidentally tying the boat to a lobster pot instead of a buoy.
This was what gave me the idea for the characters of Hiccup and his father Stoick.
By the time I was eight, my family had built a small stone house on the island, and my father got a boat, so we could fish for enough food to feed the family for the whole summer.
From then on, every year, we spent four weeks of the summer and two weeks of the spring on the island. The house was lit by candle-light, and there was no telephone or television, so I spent a lot of time drawing and writing stories. In the evening, my father told us tales of the Vikings who invaded this island Archipelago 1200 years before, of the quarrelsome tribes who fought and tricked each other, and of the legends of dragons who were supposed to live in the caves in the cliffs.
That was when I first started writing stories about dragons and Vikings, way back when I was 9- or 10 years old.
There’s no shortage of people who try to write children’s books – why do you think your stories have been so successful?
I definitely did not expect my stories to be such a success. I actually think that’s a good thing, because had I known, it would have been a much more pressured creative process!
I am very lucky that the books have connected with so many people. A lot of the themes of How to Train Your Dragon are universal: growing up; your relationship with your parents or your children; what makes a good leader; protecting the natural world.
Also, of course, I’m very lucky that the DreamWorks movies are brilliant – I LOVE that they’ve captured the spirit of adventure in my books – which has brought lots of new readers.
What do you think captures children’s imagination?
Children are inherently curious, questioning, and capable of extraordinarily original pathways of thinking. And this ability of children to think creatively, originally, and outside the box, is something that we sometimes lose as we get older.
To quote Einstein: ‘It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education’.
The most important thing is to ENGAGE the child, so absolutely the first thing you have to do is create a character that they care about. If you don’t do that, the plot doesn’t work because nobody cares if you drop the character off the cliff – and, if they don’t care about the character, your story is dead.
Aside from creating the right characters, I try to make them laugh, make them cry, scare the beejeezus out of them and I make them think. I move them emotionally. This might be one of their first experiences of books, so I want to give them a sense of the sheer gobsmacking potential of a book. I have to make the plots absolutely fiendishly clever and surprising, I have to outwit the reader, outbox them, dazzle them with the magic of language, and convey an almost spiritual awe at the wonder of the world that we live in.
One of my favourite characters in the Wizards of Once is the enchanted spoon that is owned by the lonely hero, Wish. When my daughter Maisie was about 5, and had just started school, for the first time she invited an unaccompanied friend over for a play date. This tiny little girl called Ella rushed into our house, took a swift look around the room, and then ran over to the sideboard, where there stood a couple of blue candlesticks.
She lifted one candlestick over her head, and in a very high squeaky little voice shouted: ‘THE CANDLESTICKS OF POWER!’ Maisie did not hesitate. She did not ask any awkward questions, such as, ‘What on earth are you talking about?’ She rushed over, and picked up the other candlestick and shouted back at her: ‘THE CANDLESTICKS OF POWER!’ And they were off for the next three hours, running around the house, shooting spells and making up some elaborate, fascinating magical game with the candlesticks of power.
Here is the thing - every child is a magician and every ordinary household object has the potential to be magic.
For me, magic is synonymous with childhood. It is synonymous with creativity and originality, and thinking outside the box. And we need that magic, we need the people of the future to be, if anything, MORE creative, than they have been in the past. The world faces a lot of problems, and to quote Einstein again: ‘No problem can be solved with the same consciousness that created it’.
Considering some of the hair-raising adventures that you went on as a child with your father, do you think that, as a society, we’re becoming too risk-averse, especially with children?
In my life as an author I meet thousands of families a year and, although my stories of life on the island are unusual, almost all parents can relate to the freedom I was given. Parents laugh, wryly, acknowledging that they, like me, grew up in that way, but haven’t emulated the ‘don’t come back until you’re hungry’ maxim with their own children.
I show them a photo of me and my siblings going out in a dingy, without life jackets, looking fearlessly ahead, and point out there is an adult gaily taking the photo, secure that we will come back, unharmed from our adventure. When the children are asked if they would like the same freedom, almost all of them in the room enthusiastically agree (although on one memorable occasion, one child said to his neighbour, ‘what exactly is the 1970s?’ and his friend replied, with authority, ‘I think that was what they call The Dark Ages…’).
I’m not entirely advocating the extremely gung-ho approach of my own parents – even if I secretly admire it – but perhaps we should all become a little braver than we are at the moment. Maybe we should think about letting our children run wild a little. Don’t entertain them, hover over them, or pack their day with structured activities. Let them explore nature, and allow them to experience a little of the danger and the boredom – and the beauty and the inspiration – of playing outside in the countryside in the way that our ancestors did for countless generations.
We’ve looked at the issue of screen-time with our members before. Why do you think a story-time session with someone reading a book is so much better than television?
Films and telly are primarily visual mediums, and they are very ‘bossy’, they tell you exactly what things look like and how they sound. They’re very directional, whereas in a book, the reader has to engage in their own act of creation to fill in the blanks. A book is partly what I write, and partly what the reader imagines.
I love telly and have never banned it at home, although I do try and limit it a bit! I can’t help but think it’s all stories – television and film are still stories and storytelling, they can still fire the imagination. It’s just sometimes nice to have a portion of the day as reading time for children.
Do you have any advice for our members to help make story-time exciting or interesting?
Reading aloud to a child is probably the most important thing you can do to help them read for the joy of it, and you should read aloud with them beyond the age that they can read for themselves.
When you read aloud to your children, you can read to their intelligence rather than their reading ability, they are physically close to you, and the shared joy sends a vital message: books are important, books are powerful, magical things, that can make your dad cry, or your mum laugh, and have the sort of wisdom in them that can change your life.
That’s why I always write my books with reading-aloud in mind. I think about the books as a performance, and the mouth-feel of the words, the loudness or softness, or bellowyness of the characters. It’s why I gave Toothless a stammer -to encourage the adult to lose their inhibitions and make a fool of themselves while reading it.
Don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself and throw yourself into the performance of it. Talking about his virtuoso performances on the How to Train Your Dragon and Wizards of Once audiobooks, the genius actor David Tennant gave this generous advice in a recent interview on Woman’s Hour: ‘Enthusiasm is all that’s needed. You don’t need a vast array of voices. If you enjoy it, your children will enjoy it.’
Again, I quote Einstein: ‘If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.’
The battle has moved away even from what we used to call television (where traditionally in UK there was only limited choice) towards YouTube and seemingly unlimited viewer-directed choices on demand. What do you think about that and how can books compete?
When I was a child the telly was terrible, there was no internet, no PlayStation. Now the telly is glorious and incessant, and it is magically ‘beamed’ in to children’s heads without them having to do anything, whereas books can only be accessed by a laborious act of de-coding.
Even if a child doesn’t have a learning difficulty, books can come to be associated with school and hard work and, if a child has dyslexia, it can be worse than that. In that case, books can sometimes come to represent something that actively makes the child feel stupid, and how on earth can you love something that makes you feel stupid?
So I have to work very, very hard to over-turn that impression, and make sure that the stories are worth the effort that the child has to put in to access them.
Children of today are very visual (it’s all that screen time), and they have shorter attention spans than when I was a child (again, all that screen time) and you do have to bear that in mind when you are writing, and make sure that the story whips along at a cracking pace.
However, that doesn’t mean you have to ‘dumb down’ the content. That would be boring - children may be more impatient than they were when I was a kid, but they certainly aren’t less intelligent. So, as long as the plot is exciting and scary and funny enough, and the child cares about the characters, then you can get away with challenging content and complicated language – indeed, children want that. They are natural linguists, natural philosophers, naturally curious, naturally iconoclastic and they are always asking questions.
What I’m trying to do is provide surprising and exciting plots, genuine pathos, thought-provoking content, masses of illustrations, fleshed-out characters who feel ‘real’, and unexpected story developments in a not-too-intimidatingly-small-font-size, and a nice short page extent. I want side-splitting comedy, hair-raising excitement, and bits where the reader actually cries. I try and make the books easy to read, but still have a sophisticated and poetic use of language.
I write about the things that interest children, and they tend to be the truly important things in life: heroism, bullying, wilderness, our relationship with the natural world, death, love, spirituality and adventure. (As well as owning your own giant, and riding on the back of flying doors, and laughing at the naughtiness of sprites.)
I write the books to be read aloud, and that is a key factor in getting a child to read for pleasure. Books read to you in your parents’ voice live with you all your life.
I also pay a lot of attention to the visual aspect of the book. I make the cover friendly and exciting, and preferably shiny and jewel-like, so that in the mind of the child they are ‘sweets’, not ‘Brussels sprouts’. I break up the text with as many wild and whirling, messy, child-centric illustrations as I can, to invite the child in, and to reward them for sticking with the story.
There’s a lot of movement, and a lot of weather in my illustrations. Wind, rain, snow, people or animals running, flying, or jumping, and mostly the direction of travel is vigorously, and rather chaotically, from left to right. This is to encourage the child on, to give a feeling of momentum and drive.
It’s like being dragged along by a friendly and rather over-enthusiastic hand, helping and propelling, and sometimes even dragging you on your way.
The plots are wildly unexpected, and they rattle along with a roller-coaster energy that is barely in control. This makes things exciting, for the reader does not know what will happen next, and you have to make them feel that they might be in the hands of an author who is prepared to give the story a sad ending if necessary.
I learnt this from Roald Dahl. On the first page of James and the Giant Peach, James’s parents are eaten up, in full daylight mind you, by an angry rhinoceros that has escaped from London zoo, and from that moment on, you are on the edge of your seat, because you know just exactly how far this author is prepared to go. TOO far. And that is exciting…If you know that everything is always going to be all right in the end, where is the tension, where is the drama?
The changes of direction in emotional mood, the breaking up of the text, the anarchic style and the surprises along the way, all serve a purpose in making the child feel that this is a joyous, modern play-object to be read for pleasure, not a school-y, laborious task that has to be done.
With so many things vying for children’s attention these days, do you have any top tips for encouraging children to read?
In my role as Waterstones Children’s Laureate 2019-2021, I’ve created a charter, basically a giant to-do list. Point one on the charter is that every child has the right to read FOR PLEASURE. Research shows that as long as you are reading for the joy of it, you’re likely to be happier, healthier, more likely to vote, more likely to own your own home, not to be in prison. These are powerful, measurable, real-life benefits that can transform lives. So my top tips for getting your child to read for pleasure are:
- Read aloud with your kids way beyond the age they can read for themselves.
- Don’t force your child into finishing a book they don’t like. Follow your kids’ interests – there really is a book for everyone. Go to your local library together and let your child try out lots of different reading materials and genres.
- Make reading together achievable and enjoyable. If it’s stressful, no one is going to want to do it! Start off small, by reading together for just 10 minutes a day. Pick a time of day that works for you and your family – if evenings are too full, try reading in the morning. And it doesn’t need to be 10 minutes all at once; little and often works just as well.
- Make sure your kids see you reading. You are a reading role model for your child. Often parents read in the evening when the kids are in bed, which means they never really see their parents with a book. Show your kids that books are an important part of life.
- Comics, graphic novels and magazines count. All reading is valid, so go with what your kids like.
- Ask for recommendations. Ask your child’s teacher or your local librarian or bookseller for recommendations of books that will get your child excited about reading.
- Read a couple of chapters of a very exciting book (preferably the first of a SERIES) and then, when the kid is desperate to know what happens next, say you have something very important to do downstairs, so they have to continue reading on their own.
- Listen to audio tapes.
How important is it to seek advice? Who has helped you?
As a 9 year old my handwriting and spelling were awful but I had two teachers who were very encouraging. In year three, Miss Mellows gave me loads and loads of blank exercise books and she let me write stories in them, even in maths lessons. Miss Macdonald was my history teacher when I was 12, and she set wonderful homework, such as ‘write a story about a child living in a village on the west coast of Scotland, who sees a Viking sail on the horizon.’
I think it’s very important to seek advice, especially when it comes to choosing books. If you can, access advice from a bookseller, or even better, a trained school librarian. Research shows that school libraries have a positive impact on all areas of pupils’ learning, including the development of reading and writing skills, self-esteem and overall academic attainment.
However, we have a big, interconnected problem in the UK because schools are not obliged to have libraries (but prisons are). If parents can’t afford books and don’t live near a public library, and if the child’s school doesn’t have a library, how is a child supposed to become a reader for pleasure? One of the key areas I’ll be focusing on as Children’s Laureate is libraries – I will be speaking to policymakers to come up with practical solutions to this social mobility time bomb.
Your children give you feedback on your stories - how important or beneficial have you found it to listen to your loved ones?
I don’t test the drafts out on my children (now 21, 19 and 15), but of course they are early readers and have made suggestions along the way. My son Xanny, for example, particularly liked the character of the Hogfly and insisted that he turn up in the last two books. He also said he liked the Wizards of Once world even more than How to Train Your Dragon, which I was thrilled with because children are VERY honest.
Many of our members are self-employed and run their own businesses – as somebody who has created a successful business, do you have any tips?
I don’t do it all alone, which is crucial. My husband is a fantastic businessman; and I have been with my agent for 20 years. I have a film agent, a lawyer and an accountant. Get expert advice when you need it, because that will pay off in the long run.
And meet your deadlines. I’ve never missed a deadline in 20 years. Work out what element of the business is crucial and deliver it to a high quality on time.
You do have to love what you do – anyone who’s self-employed will tell that it’s often long, unpredictable hours. I write and illustrate the books, I do a lot of events and interviews, and obviously my Children’s Laureate role is a big commitment, because I want to do a great job. That adds up to a lot, but I love creating books for children, I love talking to people, and the Children’s Laureate role is a huge honour, which I am also enjoying.
People often ask if I was successful immediately, but the answer, I’m afraid, is that it’s been over 20 years of consistent work.
You’ve had to develop the plotlines of HTTYD over 12 books, do you have any thoughts about how it’s possible to develop a business?
If only I could control real life like one of my books. Part of the reason I became a writer, I think, was to write my own endings. Don’t discount the value of creativity. Even if you don’t have a business in the creative industries, it’s important not to do things a certain way just because that’s always the way they have been done.
How important is it to go with your convictions and take a risk?
Being a writer is a risk. You have lots of wonderful people around you, advising – your editor and agent, for example – but you also need quite a lot of luck. When I began writing How To Train Your Dragon, the format of having illustrations integrated into the text of a fiction book, and having so many illustrations, did not exist. I took a risk with that, and so did my publisher. It paid off, and everyone on the team worked hard, but we did have some luck as well.