The children's author Cressida Cowell made her name legendary with her best-selling series, How to Train Your Dragon. Now her new book The Wizards of Once is out, steeped in the magic of the chalk and woods of the Sussex South Downs. Set in a time of magic and dark forests, Warriors have driven the Witches to extinction using Iron swords, and now they want to wipe out the Wizards too.
Discover the hotly anticipated story for ages 8–12 now £12.99 hachettechildrens.co.uk and read our exclusive interview with the children's author:
As I stand, ringing the doorbell of an imposing stucco townhouse, I’m imagining the woman inside. As a little girl, her parents took her and her siblings – Castaway style – to an uninhabited Hebridean island. They fished, walked and (sometimes) got bored. Her father entertained them with stories of the Vikings and of the legendary dragons that lived in the cliffs. When the stormy winds blew, the little girl scared herself silly imagining the dragons breaking free of the rocks. That’s when Cressida Cowell started writing her stories.
Cut to 40 years later and Cressida’s How To Train A Dragon series now includes 12 bestselling novels and two highly successful films. She opens the door and leads me to the place where she writes and illustrates her books. By rights, it should have been a thickwalled mud hut with a turf roof not a sweet garden shed backing onto Ravenscourt Park. But the stories haven’t suffered for it. On the wall is a pencil drawing of the Isle of Berk, the fantasy location of her childhood adventures. There are lots of pencils in a jug on the desk, just like in Roald Dahl’s writing hut but without the sharpenings on the foor. There is a daybed in the corner, where Cressida does the majority of her writing. “I always used to do my homework in bed. It’s so much more comfy. I have been known to have the odd little nap. It’s very creative,” she guffaws.
Today, Cressida is wearing what she calls her ‘uniform’: a pair of jeans and a waistcoat. “I wear it for meeting people,” she says. “I think it’s good for the boys and girls to see authors looking approachable.” She likes fashion though. There are a few designer shops she’s loyal to – Ann Fontaine, for instance, because it suits curvy women, and the classic cut at Paul Smith. With a bag from Lulu Guinness and anything from Agnès B. She’s stylish and quirky, all rolled into one.
From the way she talks, her passion for words is clear. “I’m involved in the National Literacy Trust so I know the statistics about the two key factors that determine the future financial success of a child – the first is that they read for pleasure and the second is that their parents are involved in their education. So, nothing at all about their economic background. Reading puts children at such an advantage.”
Does that mean Cressida still reads to her children? “It’s a bit like still breastfeeding them at 10, isn’t it?” she laughs. “Well, the older ones (17 and 15) won’t let me but I still read to the 11-year-old. One of the older ones didn’t like reading until she was 12 and that’s a real lesson – don’t ever give up. They just haven’t found the right book yet. My daughter found Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging and it never stopped after that.”
Today she’s got the young one, lying with chickenpox on the sofa and the two teenagers upstairs. The teenage stage is of course a whole new ballgame. “You worry about everything as a parent, don’t you? Do they go out too much? Not enough? It’s like your heart going out there, wandering through the streets.”
Cressida’s childhood thirst for the outdoors still pushes her to walk a few miles a few times a week with her “walky friends”. Not her family. “When they were little we were always going to Chiswick House – I’m a great one for a walk a day or even a couple of walks a day to Kew or the Wetland Centre. And there’s always the park next to us. I do see some mothers who push their teenage kids out on walks with them but I’m not going to force them. I can’t get them to do anything. Should I lie about that?” she laughs. She pauses, desperately thinking of something they do together as a family. “Oh, we have supper together every night at 7pm sharp. I think that is really, really important because then we do chat. Oh, and they will still just about go on holiday with us, when we go surfing. We can get them out to restaurants – as long as we pay come to think of it.”
She invites us to stay and eat. Her big dinner table is clearly the focal point of the house. Her fridge door is covered with their timetables and school projects. And a beautiful pencil drawing of a hawk. “One of yours?” I ask. “No, one of my daughter’s.” The love for words and drawing is being passed on. I’m hardly out of the door before I hit Amazon hard, ordering new books for my family. This thing is clearly contagious.
Best read for kids? The Ogre Downstairs by Diana Wynne Jones. “This was one of the first books that I really loved and I have read it to all my kids and they all loved it.”
Kindle or book? “I loathe Kindles. I love the feel of a book.”
Grown-up reading? “I love to read a few books at a time. At the moment I’ve got about four on the go: The Telling Room, The Letter Bearer, H for Hawk and A Spool of Blue Thread.