Author Cressida Cowell hopes a new writing initiative will inspire pupils’ imaginations, she tells Etan Smallman
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The children of Newton Prep and St George’s primary schools in Battersea, south London, know a kindred spirit when they see one.
Cressida Cowell may be a middle-aged multi-millionaire but as the pupils watch the wide-eyed author and illustrator delight in ganging up on the teachers – her arms outstretched and voice squeaking with wonderment – they immediately understand whose side she is on.
“Children are the most creative people in the whole world,” she enthuses. “Because they don’t know the rules yet!”
By the time she orders all the adults in the assembly hall to cover their ears so she can deliver a lesson in Dragonese (the language she invented for her wildly successful How To Train Your Dragon books, since turned into Oscar-nominated films, TV shows and video games), she has the kids in the palm of her hand.
“‘Nee-ah crappa inna di hoosus, pishyou’ is ‘No poo-ing inside the house, please’,” she explains. “‘Mi Mama no likeit yum-yum on di bum’, means ‘My mother does not like to be bitten on the bottom’.”
It is the next bit that has the teachers, ears now uncovered, arching their eyebrows. “Writing is like telling a really big lie – a real stretcher of a lie.” And then: “I’ll let you into a secret: My handwriting was TERRIBLE. My spelling wasn’t very good either. But, and this is really important, at the end of the day, it’s not about your handwriting. It’s not even about your spelling – there’s spellcheck! It’s about your IDEAS.”
This philosophy is the essence of the one-woman crusade Cowell has just launched: Free Writing Friday. She is encouraging schools to set aside at least 15 minutes a week for pupils to write and draw whatever they like in a dedicated notebook.
Crucially, the books will be off-limits to teachers’ red pens and the children get to pick for themselves what to create. No targets, no learning goals, no corrections, no “room for improvement”.
The project is a response to the question Cowell says she gets asked most frequently, by teachers, parents and kids: what is the one thing they can do to encourage creative thinking? It is also an antidote to the stories she has heard of children so used to swiping screens that they struggle to grasp a pencil – and a literacy crisis that costs the taxpayer £2.5 billion every year. Research by the National Literacy Trust, for which Cowell is an ambassador, has found that the number of primary-aged children who say they enjoy writing and who write outside school is on the decline.
Cowell says she was “told off pretty much all day long” as an ultra-polite but “dreamy and disorganised” pupil at Bute House Preparatory School For Girls in Hammersmith.
Her free-form, scribbly writing and drawing style – which has now become her trademark – was “taught out of me”. “I remember teachers being very angry if it was messy,” the 52-year-old recalls, adding that the “red teacher pen all over everything” was “demoralising and inhibiting”.
At the other end of the spectrum was Cowell’s year two teacher, Miss Mellows, who said “I could write whatever I liked – my own stories in these special books that she didn’t correct. And how joyful and liberating it was.”
Then there was the “very encouraging history teacher”, Miss McDonald, who told Cowell to pen a story imagining she was a Viking. “Look what I’m doing now!” Cowell shrieks (the 15 books in her Dragon series are all set in a fictional Viking world).
At secondary school, Cowell moved on to writing a “piss-take of a romantic novel” with a friend, called ‘Angora of the Shetland Isles’. “I remember we stopped writing it because we couldn’t agree over who Angora should end up with: Angus, the faithful childhood best friend, or Frédéric du Bavignon Clovar, the handsome Frenchman. God, I still remember this, we were writing this when we were 12!”
Meanwhile, her classmate, Lauren Child, current Children’s Laureate, was creating the characters that became Clarice Bean and Charlie and Lola.
As she flicks through some of her adult notebooks, Cowell marvels at what came next. A 1997 red hardback pad that she started while pregnant with Maisie, the first of her three children, contains the beginnings of the empire: a sketch of protagonist Hiccup captioned: “Long ago in a fierce and frosty land…”.
But before she struck Norse gold, she was all over the place. “I’m writing down loads of ideas for stories – ‘The Bad Child’s Songbook’. ‘Dicky Takes The Stage: A Theatre Book’. ‘Claydon Was A Clingy Child.’
“I mean, it’s just silly, isn’t it,” she says, giggling to herself. “But you see, that’s the thing, from these scribbly ideas, this has given employment to publishers and to 300 animators making the movie. It’s a billion-dollar franchise.”
Which is why Cowell is baffled by politicians’ apparent disregard for arts education. Britain’s creative industries make £92 billion a year and are growing twice as fast as the rest of the economy. “Yet in 2016 we had the lowest take-up of art GCSE [in a decade] and that is directly related to the fact that there’s no art in the English Baccalaureate. I mean, where is the joined-up thinking? We outperform on the world stage in the film, advertising and music industries. So why aren’t we feeding that?”
By the time Cowell has completed her presentation, she has even won the teachers round (and not just with an idea that doesn’t involve any marking). Newton Prep headmistress Alison Fleming says: “The national curriculum has done amazing things but sometimes it makes me ever so slightly sad that children have to spend more time trying to identify fronted adverbials and metaphorical phrases than actually getting on with writing.”
Another teacher, who has been organising a similar exercise in her school, told Cowell on Twitter: “Kids love it, yet our school improvement partner recently visited and told us not having some form of marking in these was a waste of time and that it was an hour of lost literacy a week.” Cowell says mournfully: “I’m not sure that just because things aren’t measurable that they’re not valuable.”
Certainly, the kids are up for it. Ten-year-old Lilly from St George’s can’t wait to start her book, which she says she’ll hide under her bed to stop her parents peeking. “I think it’s quite interesting for a child to have their own book that teachers can’t mark because then you can express your imagination.”
Taylor, ten, says he fears constant corrections to his writing “because sometimes I have to change a lot of my story and I’m really proud of my ideas. It puts me off and it makes me feel like I hadn’t done enough work.” He is already coming up with plans for his notebook, including “two characters who are enemies and want to fight each other. One of them will be a magpie.”
Cowell, who in 2015 became the first children’s author to scoop <Philosophy Now> magazine’s award for Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity, is particularly fond of quoting Albert Einstein. “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” she tells the children. “Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
Another of her favourite quotes also comes from the physicist: “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”
- For more information, visit freewritingfriday.com
- Cressida Cowell will be speaking at the Barnes Children’s Literature Festival on Saturday (barneskidslitfest.org)