The children’s author tells Etan Smallman about wizards, stupidity and the magic of reading
[Click on image below to view full-size page]
Cressida Cowell has sold eight million copies of her How to Train Your Dragon books. They have been translated into 38 languages and turned into a TV series, a set of video games and an Oscar-nominated movie franchise. The rights to her new title were snapped up by DreamWorks before it was even published.
And yet, the London-born children’s author still finds herself fending off condescension from those convinced she must be biding her time – paddling in literature’s shallow end before she finally turns her hand to grown-up writing.
“Throughout my career, people have asked me: ‘Have you ever thought of writing for adults’?” she says incredulously. “As if writing for children is some sort of consolation prize!” She laughs when she recalls meeting another group of people – those convinced they can rattle off a kids’ book because they read them to their children. “It’s like saying, ‘I’ve got teeth I can be a dentist’!” Cowell insists the reason she loves writing for youngsters is, in fact, because it is so challenging. “In no way are you ever dumbing down,” she says – a claim bolstered by her 2015 award from Philosophy Now magazine for Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity. It was the first time a children’s author scooped the prize, and judges commended her books “for their profound meditations on complex political, historical, emotional and moral themes”.
“In some sense, adults lose their way,” says Cowell. “They get interested in sex and money and all those things. Children have a clear sense of what’s essential, and are interested in all the most important things in life.”
Indeed, in her latest book, The Wizards of Once – her first new series in 18 years – Cowell touches on war and peace, disability, death, masculinity, racism, immigration and much more, in a star-crossed tale of a boy and girl hero from opposing tribes of wizards and warriors.
She also illustrates her books, and is involved in every detail of their production, including selecting an array of different typefaces to keep any parent reading the story aloud as riveted as their offspring.
What’s more, she deliberately sets out to leave mothers and fathers weeping in the process, she tells me, “because it sends a really powerful message to the kid: ‘Books have the power to make my dad laugh, to make my dad cry – they are powerful things!'” Cowell even dictates the books’ cover materials – shiny sweet wrappers are the guiding inspiration (“Sweets! Not Brussels sprouts”).
The 51-year-old is also on a magical and epic crusade of her own. It could perhaps be titled: How To Save Children’s Literature.
“I love that idea of being involved in a quest to save a medium,” she says. “We sold twice as many children’s books in 2016 as we sold in 1998. And that’s astonishing when you think of the amount of obstacles to doing that – the rise of the internet, television, two working-parent families ” Cowell refers to a barrage of statistics and studies showing how reading with your child can do everything from engendering “a keener sense of other people’s intentions” to boosting future economic success. I half expect her to add that it can sort out Brexit, Syria and North Korea.
She is baffled by what she sees as the Government’s obsession with maths and sciences over the arts.
“The creative industries make £86bn a year for this country. And they’re outperforming the economy by double,” she says. “And yet, because the English Baccalaureate does not have arts subjects as part of the curriculum, we have the lowest take-up of art GCSE that we’ve ever had. Where is the joined-up thinking?” A particular bugbear is the preoccupation with language rules and tests. “I talk to teachers all the time,” she says in despair. “They have these creative, imaginative children, who they’re having to judge just on their grammatical ability. It’s heartbreaking.
“Another very sad thing is the mental health statistics, which are related to the amount of exam pressure we’re putting on our children.”
I wonder if it is a coincidence that Wish, her new female protagonist, is a scruff who finds it impossible to conform and is hopeless at spelling.
“That’s deliberate,” says Cowell. “And that’s very personal as well, because I was very much a child who had dyslexic friends. And I was very messy. My experience of our school system is that it has got more stressy than when I was a child. I felt it was very stressy at the time!” Cowell has been a campaigner for the National Literacy Trust for a decade, and was recently appointed the first Foyles Literacy Ambassador. She wants to see school libraries made statutory and a fixed time found in the day for teachers to read books with their pupils.
“I’m worried about a social mobility problem. Words are power!” she exclaims. “How is a kid who hasn’t got that to compete?”
- ‘The Wizards of Once’ (Hodder Children’s Books, £12.99) is out now