When MFM chatted with children’s author Cressida Cowell, a mum-of-three, we were dying to know some How To Train Your Dragon secrets. Cressida didn’t disappoint, and also shared her secrets for getting kids reading and writing, how her own children have influenced her characters and even dished the dirt on debates with her publishers over the final book…
MFM: Tell us something we don’t know about the How to Train Your Dragon series?
CC: “My son Alexander came up with the idea of having cards in the back of the books, like Top Trumps. There are a lot of different dragon types with all different stats so it worked brilliantly. I’m always thinking about boys and how to get them into reading. They love to collect, so these were great visually.”
MFM: Do you run story ideas by your kids?
CC: “Absolutely. My eldest daughter Maisie is now 13 so she’s grown up with them. Then she started reading them herself. Initially I wrote them with boys in mind, lots of Vikings and fighting. But then Maisie asked why there was no girl character, and that’s how Kamikaze came about.”
MFM: What’s your biggest challenge?
CC: “The books are competing against films. I love movies, but you have to overcome the prejudice that reading is a schooly thing. It really pleases me that the How to Train Your Dragon film has brought kids to the books. Kids tell me they wouldn’t normally read, but once they’ve seen the film and loved the characters, they know the book is worth their investment.”
MFM: You’re involved with the National Literacy Trust. How do you get kids to want to read and write more?
CC: “You have to tell kids not to worry. They put so much pressure on themselves. They’re 7 years old and think they have to be able to write like me, they have such high standards. Children need to learn not to be put off by the mechanics of it. If they struggle to write, they should tell their story out loud, get mum to write it down. Kids who say they can’t think of anything, I say, I just saw you in the playground making up games. It’s the same thing just written down.”
MFM: Did you set out to write such a long series?
CC: “What’s great about a series is kids start to learn the pattern. Children begin to realise that things from the first book weren’t an accident but were part of the story. There’s a real power when kids have lived and loved for nine books.”
MFM: Have you always had an ending in mind?
CC: “The books have always been exploring the question, ‘What if dragons actually existed?’. At the same time readers want to know what happens to the dragons and what it’s like to grow up. The books were always going to have to end because it’s about growing up.”
MFM: What secrets can you tell us about the last book?
CC: “There’s a lot of ends to tie up, I’m on the second to last book at the moment. My publishers want 12 books but I’ve said it’ll be 11. I’ve written large chunks of the last book. I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but the dragon rebellion has begun and Stoic has been taken to the slave land.”
MFM: What’s this we hear about you liking David Tennant?
CC: “He reads the stories on tape. His voice is just perfect – he gets so into it. Stories on tape are great for kids and parents in their cars. I imagine the voices in my head and enjoy how the stories sound when read aloud – David’s just great at it.”
MFM: Will you ever write a book for adults?
CC: “I like getting children reading, they’re the readers of tomorrow. As I have my own children it feels natural to write for children, but maybe I will. I like an adventure and love a fight! Because books are often read by parents to their children I’m always writing on two levels anyway. Kids often sense there’s more to it than they understand, but they know it gives the story depth too.”
MFM: Has becoming a parent affected how you write?
CC: “It’s a real shock when you’re first handed a baby. You have no idea what type of parent you’re going to be. You look back on your own childhood a lot. This is seen a lot with Hiccup, it’s almost a how to bring up your child. It’s from his viewpoint and also looking back as an old man.”
MFM: Will you be sad the see the series end?
CC: “What’s great about a series for kids is that if you get a kid into it from the beginning, by the end they’re a fluent reader. As a writer, you build up an emotion. You know the characters. I get so involved, I’ll be very sad to see it end. Luckily, the films take so long they’ll still be going come 2014. And I’m in my 40s – I think I’m young. I’ll keep writing for a while yet.”
Cressida Cowell is one of eight children’s authors releasing a new £1 book for World Book Day, available for free with a World Book Day £1 Book Token. Visit www.worldbookday.com for more on how you can participate in the Biggest Book Show on Earth.