Ahead of her visit to Southampton’s Nuffield Theatre to promote her new book, How To Fight A Dragon’s Fury, I caught up with bestselling writer and illustrator Cressida Cowell.
You’re visiting the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton next week. What can we expect from the event and what are you hoping people will take away from it?
I always try and tell the story of where the books came from. I’m very interested in telling children how it happened and I’m interested in any child out there who wants to become a writer and encouraging that. I loved writing stories when I was a kid but I never knew that I could be a writer, I didn’t know any writers, so I think if the kids meet me and I talk through the books maybe some children out there who are interested in becoming writers might find that inspiring and want to join the creative industry sometime in the future.
Have your own children inherited your passion for writing or illustration?
Yes, my eldest daughter who is now – I can’t believe it – 17, is wanting to go to art school. It seems seconds ago that she was a baby, but they have this way of growing up on you don’t they? It’s not something that I’m conscious of and actually she’s the kind of person who if I’d suggested something she’d probably go and do completely the opposite! But maybe if you’re surrounded by creative things, maybe you naturally do that. In fact, all my children are into creative things and maybe it’s just because that’s what’s going on in the house anyway as that’s what I’m doing.
Have you found it hard juggling your career with parenthood?
Yes, I really did. I’ve been doing this for 18 years because my first book was published just before my first was born, so my whole career has been with the children and at the beginning it was really tough. I was just about probably covering the 2 days a week childcare with what I was making from the books. But I have a husband who was working so I was lucky that I was able to carry on doing it nonetheless. But for the first 5 or 6 years of writing I was really not making very much at all. Even at the beginning of How To Train Your Dragon my husband was travelling two weeks out of every four because he was working very hard and I look back and think ‘how did we get through this’? It’s not easy, it’s very difficult and I don’t want to gloss over that and I think a lot of families would say the same. I can say that for a long time it was very chaotic!
You wrote the first book in the How To Train Your Dragon series quite a few years ago and the last one has just been published. Did you have a plan from day one as to how the series would end or has it evolved over time?
Yes, I did. I had a game plan right from the beginning. It wasn’t completely planned out but I knew that the hero would be going on a quest without realising it and I knew he was on a quest to find some lost things and in each book he finds one of the things. There are many things about the overall plot I had worked out for a long time ahead because then there’s that magical feeling for the reader where you suddenly reveal that and you realise all these things you thought were random and accidents actually have a pattern to them, so that all had to be worked out ahead.
Did you ever think the series would be this big?
Absolutely not! At first you’re just happy to have your book published really and kids see successful authors and think that’s automatically what happens, but you have to go into writing with open eyes and knowing that it’s more likely, however talented you are, that it won’t be, because a certain amount of luck comes into it. It’s not what I expected at all but it’s been ‘beyond your wildest dreams’ really, I’ve been incredibly lucky. Also I love the films as well, which is not always the case, authors don’t always love the films that are made out of their books, so it really has been an extraordinary time. It’s taken a really long time as well, it’s something that we’ve really built, with my publishers and with World Book Day and festivals and going round schools and it’s been a very exciting and wonderful time. So yes, it isn’t something I expected but it’s something that I’ve worked for with so many other people and it’s been wonderful.
I recently read the last book, How To Betray A Dragon’s Hero and my daughter couldn’t wait for me to finish it so she could read it herself…
That’s what I’m hoping will happen, I’m passionately keen on getting kids reading for pleasure and I write them deliberately to be read aloud as I think that’s a great way to get kids reading. If it’s read aloud to you by a parent or someone you love, the child thinks the book is special, it’s a shared experience between the adult and child and it’s a special thing, if they can hear their dad laughing at something it sends a very powerful message.
Not all children are so keen to read, especially today with computer games and TV, sometimes it’s a struggle to get them to put those things down and pick up a paperback. From your experience, what can you suggest to get kids enjoying reading?
I guess that’s very much what I’m trying to do with my books. Even with older kids, if you can, read with them, read aloud, try story tapes in the car – we had David Tennant reading the How To Train Your Dragon books and that’s a great way of getting kids into a storyline. For a lot of children, film and television is beamed magically into their heads without them having to make an effort and the problem with books is that it’s a decoding thing and for some children, if they are dyslexic for example, that’s a real problem, but even for a kid who isn’t dyslexic it takes more work and it can become associated with school and books themselves can make a kid feel stupid if they find it hard to read. So you’re overcoming a whole load of things in the child’s mind and the books themselves have got to be the right books for the kid and the kid has got to want to read them for pleasure, so it’s a question I guess of trying out lots of different things. I always say don’t give up. One of my kids wasn’t a keen reader for a long time, until I found the right series for her. It was the Louise Rennison books and suddenly she read that. She was one of these very active kids who loved netball and never sat down, but that series just captured her attention and she loved that and then she was off! And now she’s a huge reader, so never give up, keep on trying different things. I think going into a good bookshop and asking advice is a fantastic way, or going to a library so you can try things there, you have to be innovative. I do a lot of work with the National Literacy Trust and research has shown that just as little as 10 minutes reading a day with your kids has a huge effect on their reading ability and how well they do in school and 10 minutes a day is great because that’s doable, however tired you are I think a parent can feel that they can do that and if they realise what an effect it has on their kids literacy level and therefore how well they do at school I think a lot of parents will be prepared to do that.
You mentioned libraries. I remember when I was at school, libraries were always a bit drab, with somebody on the desk telling you to be quiet, whereas today they are much more colourful and inviting. With cut backs and potential closures, how important do you think it is to have these libraries available to us?
It’s hugely important. I suppose back in the day we were all so reliant on libraries as we didn’t have these fantastic televisions and all these other things to do with our time so they could get away with libraries that looked drab and didn’t look exciting and you could get away with book covers that weren’t flashy and blingy. As writers we have to write in an animated and exciting way, remembering what a child’s attention span might be, we have to do all that because we want to get them reading. I agree, I’m very worried about libraries and I think personally that school libraries ought to be statutory. There was a massive commission into school libraries in 2010 which showed that schools with the best libraries had children with the best literacy levels. Nothing can beat the expertise of a librarian getting the right book into the hands of the right child at the right time!
Finally, if you could have been the author of any other book already published, what would it be?
I would say Holes by Louis Sachar, I love that book. I also love Wonder by R J Palacio. Holes by Louis Sachar is just wonderful, a magical book, it’s well worth reading. Wonder by R J Palacio is very moving and touching, a wonderful book, but there are many many books, I could go on for a long time!