Interview: Cressida Cowell: Author of the How to Train Your Dragon and Emily Brown books
Tall Stories’ new play Emily Brown and the Thing stops in at the Theatre Royal on Saturday 8th November. The play is based on the popular series of Emily Brown Children’s books written by Cressida Cowell. Cressida has also had huge success with her other series of children’s books How to Train Your Dragon which has been made into the kid’s Hollywood animated movie franchise.
We were able to catch up with Cressida Cowell and ask her about being an author, her inspirations and her advice for aspiring young authors.
Are there any children’s books that made a big impression on you when you were a child?
I read a wide variety of books: domestic books like Noel Streatfeild and Enid Blyton, but my particular preference was for fantasy like Diana Wynne Jones; Ursula Le Guin; Tolkien and Lloyd Alexander.
My favourite book as a child was ‘The Ogre Downstairs’ by Diana Wynne Jones. I loved this book so much that I read it to my younger brother and sister, to my little cousins – to anyone who would listen! It has a wicked stepfather, and chemicals that make you fly, and turn you invisible, and bring your toys to life. My children loved it as much as I did 38 years ago.
How did you become an author? What was your first book?
I have been writing stories since I was about eight or nine years old. But I was about 33 when I had my first book published. It was called’ Little Bo Peep’s Library Book’, and it was a picture book.
What inspires you? How do you decide what to write about?
The ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ books were inspired by the summers I spent as a child on a tiny, uninhabited island off the west coast of Scotland. The island had no roads, houses or electricity, and I used to imagine that there were dragons living in the caves in the cliffs. By the time I was eight, my family had built a small stone house on the island and from then on, every year we spent four weeks of the summer and two weeks of the spring on the island. The house was lit by candle- light, and there was no telephone or television, so I spent a lot of time drawing and writing stories. In the evening, my father told us tales of the Vikings who invaded this island Archipelago twelve hundred years before, of the quarrelsome Tribes who fought and tricked each other, and of the legends of dragons who were supposed to live in the caves in the cliffs.
A lot of the characters are inspired by real people in my life. For instance, my own daughters gave me the idea for Camicazi. They’re not as good at sword-fighting as Camicazi, but they’re every bit as chatty.
What was the inspiration to create the Emily Brown series?
The inspiration for the Emily Brown series was an incident that happened with my daughter Maisie when she was about three or four. Maisie had this small toy dog called Mr Dog, and wherever Maisie went, Mr Dog went too. She and the dog were absolutely inseparable…
Until one terrible day, when Maisie was about to go to bed, and we couldn’t find Mr Dog. We looked everywhere, and I mean EVERYWHERE…under sofas, behind chairs, in cupboards, in the garden…but Mr Dog was nowhere to be found.
For the first time in her life, Maisie had to go to bed without Mr Dog, and she was inconsolable; she cried herself to sleep. But even the next day, there was still no sign of Mr Dog, although the whole family turned the house upside down looking for him.
A couple of days later, I was cooking supper, and I opened up the freezer, and there, sitting on top of the fish fingers, as cool as you please, was Mr Dog! We’d looked everywhere, but of course, we hadn’t thought to check the freezer. So I said to a delighted Maisie, ‘What is Mr Dog doing in the freezer?’
And Maisie said, ‘Oh I remember now, he was looking for the north pole…’
So that was the inspiration for the book, the extraordinary imaginary adventures that children go on with their toys, and also the strength of the bond between the child and the toy.
I have always been very impressed by the following quote from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan:
I don’t know whether you have ever seen a map of a child’s mind… The Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing… It would be an easy map if that were all, but there is also first day at school, religion, fathers… three-pence for pulling out your tooth yourself, and so on, and either these are part of the island or they are another map showing through, and it is all rather confusing, especially as nothing will stand still.’
I wanted fantasy and reality to merge in these books, in the way that it does in a child’s mind, and Neal Layton captured that beautifully in his illustrations.
Are any of the characters in the Emily Brown books like YOU?
I have to confess, I do rather identify with Matilda’s mummy, the hardworking but anxious mother elephant in ‘Emily Brown and the Elephant Emergency’. My children are always telling me that I have a tendency to worry too much about things – and I know they’re right, which is why I wrote the book.
What I love about Emily Brown is her moral compass – she knows the truly important things in life, and she will not be swayed. In ‘That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown’, she will not give up Stanley, even when she is offered the most enormous bribe you could possibly think of: ‘All the toys you could ever desire…’ What a bribe! And she turns it down, all for the love of Stanley.
Writing for children is a constant reminder of what is truly important in life, because children are only interested in the truly important subjects.
Why do you like to write for young people?
I love being able to reach kids that wouldn’t ordinarily pick up a book to read.
Who are your favourite authors?
Ooo dear, I’m terrible at favourites; there are just too many wonderful writers to choose from. I love David Almond, Lauren Child, Louis Sachar, Eva Ibbotson, Michelle Paver, and so many, many more.
What is your preferred genre of writing and do you write across any other genres?
All writing is difficult, as well as exciting. I like writing comedy, but making sure that the comedy does not overtake the book can be challenging – I want the books to be moving and thought- provoking as well as funny. Finding the balance is tricky.
It was very satisfying to write ‘How to Steal a Dragon’s Sword’ because in this book, the reader suddenly realises that things that seemed to happen accidentally in earlier books have a significance that was not clear at the time. This is a very ‘Hiccup-y’ idea. It’s also very true to life – often we don’t realise what journey or ‘Quest’ we are on, exactly, until we are halfway there already.
How old were you when you realised you wanted to be a writer?
I was about eight or nine. When I was a child my handwriting was terrible, my spelling was incomprehensible but I loved writing stories… Aged nine I entered a writing competition which, to my amazement, crowned me the winner! It gave me the confidence to think, ‘I could be a writer one day’.
How can we inspire more of our children to love writing?
Well, to start with, inspire them to start from a young age and encourage them to keep going throughout their childhood and make them appreciate that writing is important for their adult lives. I don’t mean just writing stories but writing anything at all! It doesn’t matter if they don’t finish writing the stories, as long as they’re practising their own stories as much as they possibly can and creating something unique.
Ask them to make up stories about people they know. Some children may struggle to come up with characters’ names and personalities so to resolve this encourage them to write about their favourite characters from TV or film – or perhaps one of their friends or family.
Reading books to a child is a great way of sparking their imagination, even to an older child. Once children learn to read, you could be tempted to let them get on with it, but if you read a book with a child, you’re enjoying the book with them. You’re sending a message that books are important, reading is important, and therefore writing is important.
Of course grammar is essential later in life, but I can’t emphasise enough that grammar can’t and shouldn’t prevent creativity. Quite simply, if a child starts their creative writing by thinking they have to be perfect, they won’t express themselves in the way they want to.
Enter competitions. I am a testament to the positive impact they can have on a child’s confidence so when you see any writing competitions, encourage them to enter! You never know that competitive element might bring out the best in them! How did you go about becoming a writer and was it difficult getting your first novel published?
I read English at university, and I took an M.A. in Narrative Illustration at Brighton. I won a ‘Highly Commended’ in a competition for students called the ‘Macmillan Children’s Book Competition’, and at the awards ceremony I met an editor who published my first picture book the year after I left the M.A. So I was very lucky.
What advice would you give kids who would like to become writers?
My top writing tip would be to read lots, to give you a feel for the way different stories can be told. Also practise writing as much as you can – write, and re-write – don’t worry if you don’t finish a story, as long as you are practising, that’s what matters.
What advice would you offer to parents who want to encourage their kids to read more or love books?
Reading a book with a child, even an older child, is the most important thing you can do for improving literacy and communication skills: books read to a child in their parent’s voice will live with them forever. Sharing a book with your child, whatever their age, communicates how important books are. I read aloud with my children, even now they’re older, both picture books and older books, and we also listen to audio books in the car. I take them to libraries, bookshops and second-hand bookshops – libraries and second-hand bookshops are particularly good for children experimenting and trying books that they might not have expected to like… I think it’s also vitally important for children to see their parents reading so they know that it’s a lifelong enjoyment.
Is it true that there’s another How To Train Your Dragon film coming out?
There is one more How to Train Your Dragon film to come in 2016. I am very excited, because the wonderful director and screenwriter of the first 2 films, Dean DeBlois, will be directing and writing the whole trilogy, and the entire cast and crew are back for all three films as well, including the producer, Bonnie Arnold.
If you could be someone famous from history, who would you be and why?
I would love to be William Shakespeare, not only because he wrote those wonderful plays, but also because he wrote them as an actor, performing in the excitement and hurly-burly of Elizabethan London.
Were you encouraged to start writing by anyone in particular when you were young?
Yes, I had two teachers who were very encouraging. In year 3, Miss Mellows gave me loads and loads of blank exercise books and she let me write stories in them, even in maths lessons. Miss Macdonald was my history teacher when I was 12, and she set wonderful homework’s, such as ‘Write a story about a child living in a village on the west coast of Scotland, who sees a Viking sail on the horizon…’
What do you like about being a writer and what do you hate about it?
There are so many things that are wonderful about being a writer – the pure pleasure of making things up, the glorious moment when you write something that you feel is poetic or moving or makes you cry, meeting children and parents who read the books together, and tell you that the books have meant something special to them…
I hate it when I get to the point in the process of writing a book when I have written reams and reams of words but the book hasn’t ‘come together’. That is like being lost in a very tangled, dark wood with no obvious hope of rescue, and it can be a very bad moment indeed.
Tickets for Emily Brown and the Thing cost £6 and Family of 4 tickets are £20 and are available here
Cressida Cowell – Quick Facts
Cressida was born on 15th April 1966 in London.
She still lives in London. She is married to Simon Cowell (not THAT Simon Cowell), and she has three children, Maisie, Clemmie and Alexander.
She studied at Oxford University (English), and St Martin’s and Brighton University (Illustration).
Books & Ideas
Cressida has been writing books since she was 9 years old, but the first book she had published was in 1999, when she was 33. It was called’ Little Bo Peep’s Library Book’, and it was a picture book.
Cressida illustrates the Hiccup books herself, but she also writes picture books that other people illustrate. She has had over 20 books published, including 11 How to Train your Dragon titles, and ten picture books, including the Emily Brown books, illustrated by Neal Layton.
She got the idea for the Dragon books from childhood holidays spent off the west coast of Scotland.
She doesn’t quite know how she thinks of the funny names for the characters. She tries to make the names sound like the character of the person they are describing, so a rather unpleasant, stupid person will be called ‘Dogsbreath the Duhbrain’, for example. The Vikings really did have very descriptive names, such as King Magnus Barelegs, Olav the Stout, Eric the Red.
Films & Awards
The film of How to Train Your Dragon came out in 2010; the next one is coming out in 2014.
That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown won the Nestle Children’s book award in 2006 and the How to Train Your Dragon film was nominated for the 2011 BAFTAs and the Oscars.
Likes & Dislikes
Dragons, books, movies, plays, musicals, boats, the sea in general, chocolate, drawing. Cressida dislikes:
Spiders, limpets (for eating – trust me, not nice).
Cressida’s best friend at school was Lauren Child, writer of the Charlie and Lola and Clarice Bean books.