7 Nov 2017

Cressida Cowell: wizards, warriors and magic

From Nine To Noon, 10:07 am on 7 November 2017

English author Cressida Cowell, writer of the wildly popular How to Train Your Dragon books, approached her latest children’s book offering with some nervousness - but an important message to impart.

The writer, who also penned the Emily Brown series, saw her Dragon books turned into an award-winning movie franchise by Dreamworks Animation.

Cressida Cowell

Cressida Cowell Photo: Supplied

Speaking to Kathryn Ryan on Nine to Noon, she said wrapping up the series of more than a dozen books about Hiccup the Viking, and embarking on her new series, The Wizards of Once, was more emotional than she had expected.

“Starting something new, and wanting it to mean as much to me as How to Train Your Dragon, felt like a lot of pressure," she says.

Having written the How to Train Your Dragon books over a period of 15 years, she knew the series had an ending, but it was hard to face when it came. In preparation, she’d started working on her new book, The Wizards of Once, a magical epic that has young people failing to live up to parental expectations at its heart.

Cowell told Kathryn Ryan that the book, likely the first in a series of three or four, was timely.

"I want to send a message to children that you don't have to fit in, that it's okay to question people," she says, saying it took “great moral courage” to do so.

She gets many letters from children having trouble fitting in, or who are bullied, like the character Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon, and wanted to encourage them to find the courage to stand up against things they felt weren’t right.

Cowell said The Wizards of Once carried a message about the importance of seeing things from other people’s points of view.

“The two heroes are from warring tribes and have been taught from birth to hate each other,” she says. “The ability to be empathetic is one of the most important qualities that we need to be nurturing in our children today. It's also something that books are uniquely good at producing."

Ms. Cowell said it was important that she felt strongly about her new series, which as with all of her books, is written both to be read by a child alone, and out loud by an adult.

"If you can make yourself laugh, or make yourself cry, or move yourself - you can do that for your readers as well," she says.

The imaginary worlds in Cowell’s books often come from her childhood. While she grew up in London, she says, How to Train Your Dragon was inspired by her environmentalist father, and the wild summer holidays she spent with her family on a remote island off the coast of Scotland.

"No television, no phone, fishing for food to eat," she says.

The island was the first place the Vikings invaded when they invaded Britain and it was the last place they left.

"So once upon a time, real Vikings would have lived on that island, and Vikings believed that dragons really existed," she says. Her child's imagination was swept up in the idea, and years later, How to Train Your Dragon was born.

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Photo: Supplied

She promised her father she'd never reveal the island's location because he still loves to visit it.

The Wizards of Once was inspired by Cowell’s childhood too: she remembered playing in and exploring vast hill forts in Sussex, south England. Iron Age people thought giants had built the forts, and the surrounding area was filled with lore about sprites and other magical beings.

"It was really the landscape of my childhood, and playing in it - completely unsupervised - in the 1970s inspired these stories," she says.

It’s a concern to her, now, that children of today don't have the wild interaction with nature that she had growing up.

While Cowell praised TV and film as “wonderful” mediums, inspiring the lavish illustrations included in her books, she believed reading still had something special to offer: that the story is happening "inside your head. You are that person."

Cowell grew up reading a diverse range of things that ultimately influenced her work - everything from Chaucer, Dickens, and Shakespeare, to Peanuts, Batman, and Lord of the Rings, particularly in wet summers on the island when there was nothing else to do.

“Books are a thinking medium, a medium of language and thought-paths,” she says.

Cowell also campaigns for the National Literacy Trust to give disadvantaged children the literacy skills to succeed in life, and is a passionate supporter of public and school libraries, believing there should be a fixed time found in the day for teachers to read books with their pupils.

She says the closure of libraries all over Britain was "incredibly short-sighted."

"If a child comes from a family with a low income, and can't afford books, and the primary school library is shut - which has happened all over the UK; the first cost-cutting is the library. And if they don't have a public library either, how is that child going to become a reader for pleasure?"

Cowell says a lack of literacy would affect social mobility in the coming years; research had shown links between reading for pleasure and a child's economic success, "let alone your happiness," she says.

Higher literacy scores equated with higher likelihood of voting, owning your own house, and staying out of prison.

She's described her work on literacy as "the war to save a medium," but says there's a joy in knowing there are "many people out there who want to do just that."