There can be no argument that Cressida Cowell’s children’s book series HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON has been extraordinarily successful. Testament to this, perhaps, is the fact that Cressida calls me for our interview from a cab between meetings, but that is not to say she doesn’t give me her full attention. In fact, Cowell is as genuine and enthusiastic as you could possibly want. We talk isolated Scottish islands, what it’s like being a parent, and that last How To Train Your Dragon book
Cowell discovered she wanted to write seriously after studying English at university, during a brief stint as an Editorial Assistant. "I realised that I didn’t want to be on the business side, I wanted to be on the other side – the creative side – so I then went back to art school," she says. "I was quite a long time in education. In the end I did an MA, but now I look back and think I couldn’t have missed any bit of it. It was all kind of crucial even though it took a long time."
She did an MA in Narrative Illustration, and it was at art school that she wrote her first published book, which she submitted to the Macmillan Children’s Book Prize. There, she met her editor, Anne McNeil, and they still work together, fifteen years on. In recognition of the prize’s importance in giving her a leg-up to getting published, Cowell has recently written a book for the inaugural Carmelite Book Prize, launched by Hachette, for entrants to illustrate.
"For me, that’s what gave me my first break, so I wanted to encourage that. Many authors and illustrators find that leap of getting their first book published almost the hardest," she reflects. "I was thirty by the time I had my first book published. I wasn’t an overnight success: How To Train Your Dragon was not by any means my first book, I wrote four or five picture books which we kind of moderately successful beforehand. I’d been working for five or six years as a writer with nobody paying any attention in particular, then How To Train Your Dragon came out! I hope publishers would have the patience nowadays to stick with somebody who didn’t have a huge success."
How To Train Your Dragon was Cowell’s first fiction book, published in 2003, and has now stretched to a twelve book series. It has even been turned into a film by Dreamworks. "That was extraordinary! Very early on I had a lot of telly and film interest, which took me slightly by surprise, and I did say no to a lot of things. Then Dreamworks came along, and I knew that they would do it well. Dragons should make you go ‘Wow’ – I really wanted that feeling. You have to have that feeling. The books were all about that feeling, the wonder of the dragon world and looking after it."
That first film has since expanded into sequels, short films, a television show and video games. It was nominated for a huge number of awards, including the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and won many more. "It’s so funny, because I didn’t write it thinking about it being made into a film at all. Looking back, the first book wasn’t even Hodder’s Book of the Month! It was a paperback! Nobody was really expecting it to be a big thing. I never planned any of it, it was just a lovely thing that happened."
End of an Era
The final installment of the series, How To Fight A Dragon’s Fury, came out in paperback yesterday. "I always wrote it to have an ending. It was about growing up, the boy becoming a hero and what happened to the dragons, and those things require an ending. It’s a very bittersweet feeling for me to come to the end of it, because I’ve put so much of myself into it. Also my eldest daughter, who was the inspiration, has just turned eighteen. I’ve written the last book and she’s about to leave home, so it is the end of an era."
Cowell has moved on to writing something new, due out next year, though a bond of secrecy prevents her revealing what it is yet. "I really enjoyed writing about the dragon world. It was never a struggle in that sense. It was very stressful writing the book though, because if you’ve written a twelve book series that’s taken you this long, you need the last book to be worth it. I’m really proud of this last book, so it was satisfying to end it in that way."
"It was deliberately a long series," she adds. "One reason is that I’m very interested in getting kids reading and getting into a long series is a fantastic way to make that happen. I think every child who struggles with the mechanics of reading, when they find a series they love and they’re hooked on it, they know it’s worth the effort and they’ll carry on making that effort. I get a lot of dyslexic readers.
"I’m interested in the survival of books as a medium alongside films and telly because I think they can offer something different. Things on a screen happen out there, but in a book things happen inside your head, so it’s very good for building empathy in children. A screen is very prescriptive, it tells you exactly how something is, whereas a book allows the child to fill in the gaps. It promotes creativity, argument and deep thought around a subject. It’s not that I think we should ban all these screens but children do those things as well as reading! By having my books made into a film, I’ve sort of embraced that. I get children coming along to book things who aren’t bookish children, but they start reading my books because they’ve seen the film and they love the characters and world, so they think it’s worth having a go. I try and work with those things rather than fight against them."
Writing for parents and children
Cowell doesn’t just write her books for children, however, she also writes them with the parents specifically in mind as well. The story is told from Hiccup’s point of view, both as a child at the time and as an adult looking back on his childhood, as well as from his father’s viewpoint. "I wrote the books very deliberately to be read aloud by parents to their kids, because I think that’s a fantastic way to get kids reading. I tried to make it a moving experience for the parents, looking back to their own childhood and remembering what it was like to be a child."
Cowell was initially inspired by having children herself: "You know when you have a kid and you look in the back of the car and you think, ‘Oh my god, they’re going to let me out of hospital with a baby? I don’t know anything about babies!’ You start looking back to your own childhood and how were brought up. All those thoughts about being a parent are in How To Train Your Dragon."
The books also draw strongly on Cowell’s own childhood. She grew up in London, but every summer her father, an environmentalist, took the family to a deserted island (that Cowell is sworn not to reveal) off the west coast of Scotland. "We would be dropped off by a local boatman and picked up again two weeks later. By the time I was nine, my dad had a house built on the island, so we spent to the whole summer there, and he got a boat. But still we had no telephone, no electricity – no Tesco! We caught fish to eat.
"All over this little island, there were real houses where real Vikings used to live. Imagine as a kid how exciting that was! And of course Vikings believed that dragons actually existed, so I thought, ‘What if they did?’ When I was a kid, I went all over this island looking for dragons. In Scotland it rains a lot though, so I also would spend a lot of time indoors, making up stories as well. So, the roots of the story came from a childhood experience. I put a lot of my own childhood in the books, and I based the father very much on my own father. Of course it’s fiction, but because I put so much of myself in, it is very bittersweet."
The environmentalism of Cowell’s father also bleeds through into her work. "The environmental thing wasn’t something I consciously set out to do, but I was brought up in an environment where no bird was just a bird – it was a lesser-spotted warbler! So no dragon was just a dragon, they were different species of dragon. My dad was passionate about looking after the environment, and that’s absolutely there. Dragons are under threat and, in the end, it becomes a war between dragons and humans. I was writing that, not consciously, but very much with the environmental messages my dad had given me in my head. It is about looking after the world.
"I also took something personal between me and my dad, which is that my dad is an incredible person, who I looked up to immensely, but wasn’t at all like. It’s something that so many children recognize, that anxiety about trying to live up to being like a much-loved parent. The books are also quite a lot to do with masculinity, and a changing view of masculinity, and that’s about an intergenerational difference. The idea of what it is to be a boy is very different now from what it was 20 or 30 years ago. And I was mining something that was quite personal, which was that the previous generation as much less likely to express their emotions.
"I suppose from the personal point of view, it must be quite strange for my dad. What’s very sweet is that he’s very proud of what I’ve done and he’s a lovely, lovely man, so he’d probably be too polite to say if he minded," she pauses, then adds. "But then if you don’t talk about things that are true – if you don’t base things on real emotions, how are you going to move you readers?"
How To Fight A Dragon’s Fury (Hodder Children’s Books) is now available in paperback. Cowell is currently touring schools and bookshops across the UK as part of the launch, culminating in an appearance at The Hay Festival on 28 May, 1pm.