Children’s Laureate Cressida Cowell warns of social mobility timebomb and blasts grammar tests for primary pupils as she launches reading crusade
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CRESSIDA Cowell has made a career out of conjuring up spellbinding quests. Having seen her How To Train Your Dragon series of books turned into computer games, television shows and hit DreamWorks films, she is now on a thrilling crusade of her own.
Appointed Britain’s 11th Children’s Laureate in July – following in the footsteps of Sir Quentin Blake, Dame Jacqueline Wilson, Sir Michael Morpurgo and her Marlborough College classmate Lauren Child – she finds herself on the frontline of epic battles over schooling, libraries and the future of the nation’s creativity.
The 53-year-old one-woman literary whirlwind not only writes wildly successful books, she illustrates virtually every page of them too, and is exacting about the finest details – down to the texture of the dust jackets.
Speaking at the kitchen table of her home in Hammersmith, west London, Cowell apologises for being “lurgified”. But despite nursing a cold, she is as animated and fervent as ever about her causes.
Her voice fizzes with excitement as she darts from the environment to philosophy and feminism.
When I ask about her latest volume, the third title in her Wizards Of Once series, set in a rip-roaring Iron Age world of hairy fairies, witches, warriors and giants, she flicks through a copy to refresh her memory.
With a childlike lack of inhibition, she says to herself, in between bursts of laughter: “Actually, I think this is almost my favourite book. I love this one.”
She has been a National Literacy Trust ambassador for more than a decade, her tireless campaigning winning her the Ruth Rendell Award in 2017.
She was also the first children’s author to scoop the Hay Festival Medal for Fiction, and Philosophy Now magazine’s award for Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity.
The charter she has drawn up as Laureate has 10 points but is summed up by the first: “Every child has the right to read for the joy of it.”
She explains: “That’s why I’m so passionate about libraries because nobody has been able to answer me the question: If a child doesn’t have a public library and they don’t have a library in their primary school, how on earth are they going to be able to read for pleasure? It is a social mobility timebomb. How can a kid compete with another kid who has got access to all these words?”
The Daily Express revealed earlier this year, cost-cutting councils in England and Wales have closed at least 71 libraries – one every 46 days – since 2010.
She adds, with a hollow laugh: “Sometimes I think the problem is that the people who make policy don’t understand how important the libraries are for children who aren’t their children.
“They’re getting their books from bookshops and Amazon and so they think of the library as an old-fashioned thing and they don’t realise that there are people who otherwise don’t have access to books.”
Cowell tries to be diplomatic in answering any question she senses might be politically loaded, insisting: “People are getting very upset by how divisive everything has got and I don’t want to add to that.”
But some of her answers are quietly scathing, including her thoughts on the introduction of compulsory language tests for children in the last year of primary school which require them to identify tough grammatical terms. “I would have no idea what a fronted adverbial is,” she said.
“I studied English at Oxford. I use language, I think, brilliantly!” “Would I have been excited by fronted adverbials and would that have encouraged me to use language in an interesting way? No. It would have put me right off.”
Cowell is also baffled by the Government’s exclusion of art, drama and music from the English Baccalaureate, which measures five “core” subjects. Since its introduction in 2010, there has been a 38 per cent drop in the number of arts GCSE entries.
“What does that say about how we value culture?” she asks. “These are serious, serious questions.
“I’m always quoting that creative industries are making £100billion a year for the country and outperforming the rest of the economy by double.” Yet in the international Pisa ratings, based on tests of 15-year-olds in more than 70 countries, the UK fell out of the top 20 for reading in 2006.
Cowell is hopeful that proposals for global rankings to also include creative thinking will persuade Britain to up its game.
“We have to be prepared for that,” she warns. “Because it’s not going to look good if we measure up badly, particularly for a country that has a long history of being very, very good at creativity.”
Last year, Cowell – a selfconfessed dreamy, messy pupil – launched Free Writing Friday, a campaign for schools to set aside at least 15 minutes a week for pupils to write and draw whatever they like in a dedicated notebook, free of any targets or a teacher’s dreaded red pen.
She says: “Overwhelmingly I get a lot of teachers saying they are frustrated with how they’re not allowed to teach creativity, and the children and parents as well.”
Does she meet a lot of demoralised teachers? “Yes, indeed. And if you look at the rate at which teachers are leaving the profession – that’s not surprising. I’m very sympathetic.” The final point on her charter is: “Every child has the right to have a planet to read on.”
Indeed, her new book is her most environmentally driven yet and, remarkably, foreshadows the current fires sweeping the Amazon, many of which were started deliberately to clear the rainforest for agriculture and mining.
‘I’d love to a spell children outside same wild we were to’ In Knock Three Times, Queen Sychorax begins torching the wildwoods “so that the Warriors could build their forts and their fields and their new modern world.
“The sprites had to die because their habitats were needed to make all the things that Warriors need. It was all in the name of progress”.
The author says the biggest anxiety for today’s children – even above the surveillance of social media – is the degradation of the planet.
“I’m trying to get children to think about the incredible creatures that inhabit the world with them that we’re losing at a desperate rate,” she says. “It’s the biggest problem facing everybody, and children have a sense of what is essential.”
She adds: “I would love to cast a spell to say children could still play outside, unsupervised, in that same wild way that we were able to.”
But whatever Cowell achieves during her twoyear tenure as Laureate will perhaps be outdone by the longlasting impact of her stories on a generation of children which she i keen to show new templates of masculinity and femininity.
“This was hard-wired into How To Train Your Dragon and Hiccup the Seasick Viking, that there are different ways of being a man,” she explains.
“Hiccup represented a new vision of what a boy hero could be. His qualities are intelligence, empathy and creativity.”
Her best-loved protagonist in her new title is Perdita, head of the Learning Place for Spectacularly Gifted Wizards. She is the twin sister of a raven and can transform into an “unimaginably enormous” bear.
“I think she’s a strong female character – who is wise and kind but not soft – which is really important to me.”
A bit like her creator, you might say, as those in charge of our education system – and fate of libraries – may be about to find out.
- The Wizards Of Once: Knock Three Times (Hodder Children’s Books, £12.99 hardback, £7.99 paperback).