Inspire them to read and write with... Cressida Cowell

Cressida Cowell is one of the UK’s most beloved children’s authors. She has brought us the fantastic novel series How to Train Your Dragon, which has subsequently become an award-winning DreamWorks film franchise, and now joins Primary Times to discuss her latest magical series The Wizards of Once, her literary inspirations growing up and her Free-Writing Fridays Campaign.


Q: How did you first become interested in writing and was there a particular book or author which sparked your passion?

A: I was read to a great deal as a child. I went to the library a lot and my parents read aloud to me. I’ve just started The Free Writing Friday campaign, which is 15 minutes every Friday for a child to have a book in which they can write whatever they want, and the teacher can’t mark it. No rules, no marking, just fun.

In this particular book, just for 15 minutes, the spelling doesn’t matter, nothing matters, apart from the kid having fun. They can write a story, they can design a game, and it’s about focusing on the joy of writing. Now I did that because when I was in year 2, I had a teacher who did that for me. My handwriting was terrible, my spelling wasn’t great, and she gave me a book which was just about me enjoying it. I learnt to enjoy writing.

I’m really worried about today. There is so much emphasis on correctness. I get a lot of people writing into me saying their kid is being put off writing. There was a heartbreaking message on Twitter, saying my grandson used to love writing stories but now he won’t as he fears getting something wrong. That is so sad.

So, my Free Writing Friday Campaign was designed as a practical way that teachers can fit 15 minutes into their packed curriculum to try and help the kids have somewhere where they’re enjoying it. That’s what happened to me – It’s about the ideas. We need to get the children reading for fun. We so need it. The creative industry has raised over £90 billion a year for this country – It’s no sense not to be feeding that creativity.

Also, even if we don’t go into the creative industries, we need children’s creativity. We need their creativity in science, we need their creativity in everything – so we’ve got to get these children being creative.

Favourite Author/Book: It’s a book called The Ogre Downstairs by Diana Wynne Jones. It’s about children who find a magical chemistry set. I read it, loved it, read it aloud to all my little siblings and cousins, and then I read it aloud to my own children. I write my books to be read aloud way beyond the age. I always say to parents don’t just leave it up to the school, read aloud to kids just 10 minutes per day.


Q: Both the How to Train Your Dragon Series and the Wizards of Once Series are a whirlwind of fantasy adventure. What is it that draws you to fantasy fiction and magic?

Well I loved it as a child. I love fantasy worlds – Why is it that kids want to be magic so much? It’s very basic sometimes. When I was a kid I wanted a secret magical power. Every single time I go into a school and ask ‘who would like a secret magical power’, all of the children (and most of the teachers) put their hands up.

Why is it that we want to be secretly magic? I think it’s because the adults are so bossy for a child. Can you imagine a child, you’re always being bossed about by your parents and your teachers. So, imagine you have this magical power, you have this secret power that you can do things. So, I think it really appeals for children.

And for me fantasy taps into creativity and creative thinking. Magic is impossible, but for children they believe in magic very easily because they believe so easily. I’m tapping into a child’s belief in the impossible and the idea that it might be true.

But I suppose what’s different slightly is that my books are fantasy fiction, but they also – and of course this is fantasy as well – are inspired closely by history. And that doesn’t always happen in fantasy fiction. In cases of both series, how to train your dragon – I did loads of research into the Vikings to make the fantasy feel real. The Wizards of Once is set at the end of the Bronze ages and the beginning of Iron. I do loads of research into those times in order to make the fantasy feel real. So, they’re a funny mixture of your fantasy and historical fiction, which children are very attracted to. They love it when I play games, because children love that, and say ‘ooh is this real, or is this not?’ Children are so imaginative.


Q: Other than fantasy, what is your favourite alternative genre to read and write about?

Well I do love history. I read a lot of history, and I read a lot of picture writing as well – Robert McFarlane. A theme running through both series is the environment, children’s relationship with wilderness and nature is a theme in both books. My dad was an environmentalist, chairman of Kew Gardens and then Royal Society Protection of Birds. And so those environmental themes are in a lot, I read a lot of nature.


Q: With the up and coming release of Twice Magic in paperback, can you tell us a little bit more about the Wizard of Once world and the second book that you have written?

Wizard of Once is set at the end of the Bronze Ages, and at the beginning of a new age (so a bit of a nervous time). It’s a world in which magic really exists. There are two tribes and they are fighting each other. There are warriors and wizards, and the warriors are trying to get rid of all the magic. The two children, the girl hero and the boy here are from opposite tribes. They have been brought up to hate each other, and it’s about what happens when these children meet. Can they work together to fight a common enemy? It’s about empathy, which is what books can do. Can these two children overcome the prejudices of the adults and work together? That’s such an important message today.


Q: The newest How to Train Your Dragon movie was released in February. How have you found the whole experience of putting your own characters onto the big screen with Dreamworks Animations?

I have loved it. I’ve found it a really positive experience. I’m very close to the filmmakers, it’s the same team for all 3 films. The same director, producer. They really care about it – I loved the films even though they are different to the books (there are 12 books and 3 films). They are the true spirit of the books.

I try and write books that are moving and make you think, as well as funny and adventurous – and the movies are that. They’re moving, thoughtful, wonderful and I’m really proud of them – and the third one is brilliant! It’s really, really good. I couldn’t be prouder. I find a lot of kids come to the books through the films, or the televisions series, and I’m really interested in that quarter of kids who are reading for pleasure.


Q: Why do you think it’s important for children to develop a love of reading from a young age?

Because of how closely it is linked to academic and economic success. I do also want to stress happiness and joy. Education isn’t just about attainment, so the impact on their happiness is true as well.

Educational attainment, reading for pleasure and economic success are all particularly linked. The other thing in there is parental involvement in education as well. I want to get these kids reading for pleasure for all those reasons.

And it’s hard, it’s tough because film and television is magically beamed into a child’s mind, but reading is a decoding process. Even if the kids haven’t got a learning difficulty, it can become something that makes them feel stupid even though they’re not.

A book comes to represent to a child’s ‘struggle’. Of course, this isn’t meant to happen, but somehow along the way it can easily happen if you’re not careful. So, I am really trying to emphasise in the way I write the books, it’s all about enjoyment; the story lines are funny, they’re exciting and enjoyable, and packed with pictures. It’s to make it feel worth it for the children with the effort they are putting in, to make reading feel like sweets, not brussels sprouts.


Q: Do you have any of your own top tips to help parents get their children reading for pleasure?

From a writer’s perspective, I’m not trying to dumb my books down, but I have made sure they’re still about big themes; being a hero, finding your responsibility to the environment, bullying. All of these themes and long, descriptive language is in there. But, it’s also all joyful, funny, exciting and something they want to read. It’s about subject matter they love; magic and dragons – Who wouldn’t want to read about that and want to be in that world?

So, in this sense, it’s the same tips for parents. Look for themes like that, look for things your kid is naturally interested in. Football, for example. We’ve had a lot of success at the National Literacy Trust working with the Premier League on the Primary Stars Program, to get young boys reading. They sign on for a 10-week program, and at the end of these 10 weeks they make 6-months’ worth of progress.

Go for what they’re interested in, if they love animals go for books on animals. Boys, find out what they’re interested in. Boys often like fact books, for example I put lots of made up fact pages in my Dragons and Wizards books. Guinness Book of Records still works. That’s the sort of thing.

I write my books to be read aloud. I say to parents, read aloud to your kids for 10 minutes every day, because that’s an achievable target, because that’s a way of getting kids into reading. Even if it’s you doing the reading, you’re sending this message that books are something fun – and that’s so important.

Try as hard as you can not to make learning to read a struggle. This is such a key thing for parents, because I know this. In the end, I didn’t listen to my children reading at the end of the school day when they were 4 years old. They were exhausted, so I would try and do it over breakfast when they’re a bit perkier. Really try and stay calm and patient – I know it can be hard listening to a child read but make it joyful.

And if they’re not interested in it, put the book away and consider reading something that they are interested in. I’m afraid sometimes, if my children weren’t enjoying a book, I would find a picture book that they would enjoy – because it’s all about the joy of reading.

Let them see you reading – if they see Dad reading then you’re a role-model for them. Parents can often forget about what fun reading can be. Ask in a book shop for recommendations, find a librarian. The summer reading challenge can be a great way to get them reading during the holidays.

It’s all about the joy of reading and writing, that’s all what I’m trying to do. Which interestingly in the end, it’s the children who enjoy reading and writing in the end – it’s the best education.


Q: As a lover of literature, what have you gained from reading and loving books?

Oh, everything!! I can’t imagine life without books, I can’t imagine it. I get all my knowledge about history, about human nature, about the world around me from literature. There’s a book called the Hidden Life of Trees, for example. I found out all these fascinating things about trees, about how trees talk to each other, or communicate with each other, how could you find that out without reading?

In difficult times, a book can help you through. I’ve had children write to me, for example, and say that whilst being bullied, ‘Hiccup was my friend’. There is so much that can be gained from loving books.

As I said my Dad was environmentalist and although he worked in London, that was his heart place. That wilderness experience is something I want to communicate to children and get them thinking about nature. Thinking about a lot of my talks in schools, I try and encourage parents to take their children camping and to outdoor experiences to experience nature.


Q: Looking back on your own childhood, which books stand out as your all-time favourites and why?

I’d have to talk about the Ogre Downstairs, not just because I loved that book, but because I read it aloud during whole summers on the island where I grew up. There was no television, so I was the entertainment for others. It was the joy they got from listening; they laughed, and they begged to hear the next chapter. And I think it was that experience partly which led me to become a children’s writer. Imagine making children laugh, so that was a very special book in my life as a child.

Charlotte’s Web, I think that was the first time I came across death and it really touched me – with the death of the spider. There is so many books that mean so much to me. The Little House on the Prairie I suppose resonated because these were children living as we were on the island, on the very basics. The Lorax was a huge book for me. As a child it taught me the power of books and how they can make you think about everything. A simple little rhyme that is very true and still very relevant.


Q: Do you have any favourite children’s authors that we can recommend to our readers?

I’ve got so many. I love Louis Sachar’s books, Holes (1998) and his ‘Sideways Stories from Wayside School’. ‘Wonder’ is a marvelous book for lots of different types of children, seeing things from another person’s point of view. That’s a book for someone who likes real stories. Percy Jackson, my son is really into that fantasy. You must really follow what your kid’s interests are. If your kid likes football, they’d like Tom Palmer, who writes lots of wonderful books based on football.

And obviously mine! If they like fantasy, they might go for my books. If they like real life stories, they might go for Jacqueline Wilson. It’s really going into libraries and bookstores and getting advice about what your child might like.


Q: If you were to host a literary dinner party with 5 authors, dead or alive, who would you have at your table?

Ok, I think I would go for Shakespeare, because I just want to meet him. Garrison Keillor, George Elliot, Charles Dickens. I would quite like to meet Chaucer just out of interest, or Robert Burns. Anyway, they’re all quite jolly. Lots of them dead apart from Garrison Keillor, and that’s purely because if you’ve got the chance to invite dead people what fun! Find out what they’re like.

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