cressida cowell

Cressida Cowell interview

Cressida Cowell interview

We chat to Cressida Cowell about how her childhood inspired her much-loved series of books How to Train Your Dragon…

This June marks the 20th anniversary of Cressida Cowell’s How To Train Your Dragon. A huge hit with children around the world, some 11 million books have been sold and it spawned both the DreamWorks Animation film franchise, as well as being made into a TV series.

Cressida, who has written and illustrated 12 books in the Dragon series, was initially inspired by her holidays on an uninhabited island off the west coast of Scotland. There was no electricity so she would spend much of her time drawing and writing stories. Her father would regale her with tales of the Vikings who invaded the area and the legends of dragons, sparking her imagination of what might hide in the cliffs and what it would be like to fly on the back of such a creature.

Her character of Stoick was based on her father, who she recalls fondly. Her earliest childhood memory is of a game she played with him in which he launched her in the air to the ‘moon’.

So for her, the Dragon series is a deeply personal one. It must have been some journey watching her stories become the global phenomenon they have. She says success unfolded slowly. “I’d done some picture books and been an author for five years by the time I did How To Train Your Dragon. It was my first novel and I was just pleased to see it published. The success happened over several years. I had time to adjust.

“Children started recommending it, booksellers were real champions of it and it was published in many different languages. I did sell the film rights early on but that happens with books all the time – when I found out it was actually going to be made, I was like ‘oh my goodness’.”

She was always consulted on the movies but tried to stand back and let the filmmakers get on with their job. She loved the results. “When you’re writing a book about something that’s so personal, it would be very difficult if you didn’t like the movie and so for me, the whole thing has been wonderful. I feel incredibly lucky.”

Cressida did worry initially about what her dad would make of it as their relationship is reflected in the films. “We were very different people – for instance, he didn’t talk much about his feelings and I’m quite chatty – but we loved each other very much. Suddenly there it all is as a Hollywood movie. He was very sweet about it and didn’t seem to mind. I think he was proud.”

She went on to write another successful series – The Wizards of Once, which has been translated into 37 languages and has also been signed by DreamWorks Animation. They are inspired by her holidays spent playing in the woods of the Sussex South Downs, where her grandparents lived.

With so much competition from screen time, Cressida manages to pull off the increasingly challenging task that today’s authors face in capturing children’s attentions. She says that it’s about creating characters that readers really care about and never dumbing down. “Children are used to sophisticated storylines from what they watch on TV so I try to balance exciting and fun but giving them things to think about and making it emotional.”

Her characters are also relatable. She includes bullying in her storylines, for example, as well as having characters with dyslexia. “It’s so important that a reader can recognise a person like themselves who is going through the same experience and see how they deal with it.

“Children with a learning difficulty, such as dyslexia, may not necessarily express how hard they’re finding it or how bad it makes them feel. You may have reassured them countless times but it’s difficult for them not to compare themselves to others. So I think it’s really important to emphasise that this is not a race, and is not a reflection on a child’s intelligence.”

cressida cowell

Having relatives with dyslexia, she has experience of seeing the struggles they have – and how they overcome them.

Cressida, an ambassador for the National Literacy Trust and the Reading Agency, says that while it may seem like a battle to encourage an interest in books, parents reading to their children each evening has a huge benefit. “They are still picking up on the words and that’s often what the real benefit of books is about. Words are the pathway of thought and the wider the vocabulary you have, the more complicated thoughts you can have.”

Books are also vital in encouraging empathy. “On a screen, you are watching something happening whereas in a book they’re happening inside your head, you feel like you are that person.”

As a child, Cressida enjoyed the books of Diana Wynne Jones. The Ogre Downstairs, in which children find magical chemistry sets, was her favourite. At school, she says she was messy and disorganised with terrible handwriting and spelling. But she loved to write and was encouraged by her teachers. Aged nine, she won a writing competition which gave her the confidence to think that she could one day become an author.

She says she has many favourite authors and mentions David Almond, Lauren Child, Louis Sachar, Eva Ibbotsen and Michelle Paver among them. What’s on her bookshelf right now? “Ben Macintyre’s Colditz: Prisoners of the Castle, which follows the ingenuity of these extraordinary escapes from Colditz. I love reading stories about the Second World War because it reminds me of my grandfather. He was a spy.”

Cressida is now writing her second book in the Which Way to Anywhere series: Which Way Round The Galaxy will be published in September. She works in a studio at the end of her garden at her home near Hammersmith. She says she loves the illustrating part the most. “I love the writing but I love getting on to illustrating because it means I have finished the writing!”

“But I enjoy the whole process. Which Way To Anywhere is all about space and alternative worlds and so I’ve loved doing research into what life might look like on the other side of universe, and artificial intelligence.”

Cressida will be at Barnes Children’s Literature Festival in June. She is also a part of Wimbledon BookFest’s Schools programme. She can’t wait – one of her particular joys is to meet her readers. “They tell you what really matters to them and so you can then incorporate that into your books.”

Barnes Children’s Literature Festival, 24 – 25 June.

The anniversary edition of How to Train Your Dragon publishes on 8 June and features a brand-new Dragon story.