Cressida Cowell's dragon training inspiration

Published on: 25 January 2017 Author: Cressida Cowell

The incomparable author and illustrator Cressida Cowell, creator of the How to Train Your Dragon and The Wizards of Once universes, became our fourteenth Writer in Residence back in 2016. In this blog Cressida told us how writing the How To Train Your Dragon series was deeply connected to her own experience of being a parent.

Cressida Cowell

I started writing How to Train Your Dragon 18 years ago, when I had just had a baby. Any parent will know the moment when you come away from hospital and you look in the back of the car where there's this tiny little car seat with a real live baby in it and you think to yourself: 'They're going to let me out of hospital with a BABY? But I know nothing ABOUT babies!'

How to Train Your Dragon

So, the books could really have been called 'How to Train Your Parent.' Hiccup is learning to be a parent to his dragon, Toothless, just as Stoick is learning to be a parent to Hiccup, and I was learning to be a parent to my own three children. Some of the conversations Hiccup has with Toothless are direct transcripts of conversations I had with my own children when they were two.

Each book begins and ends with the older Hiccup looking back and reflecting on his own lost childhood, just as I was looking back on mine, and the parent reading the book with the child is looking back on theirs. The books explore themes of growing up, bullying and war, and what it takes to make a hero and a leader, to stand up for what you believe in and the difficult choices that a leader has to make.

And they answer the question - what happened to the dragons? Are we able to look after this beautiful world that has been loaned to us, and all the creatures and animals that share the delicately balanced environment of our planet?

The books also talk a lot about empathy

That is one of the things that books encourage: empathy and creative and original thinking.

To quote To Kill a Mockingbird: 'You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.' Reading is one of the best ways to develop the skill of empathy. I love films and telly, but things that happen on a screen happen 'out there', whereas in a book they happen inside your head.

You can be given endless history lessons on World War I but when you read a book you ARE poor Private Peaceful walking out to the Front. The How to Train Your Dragon books are filled with scenarios in which characters are made to see the other person's point of view.

I like books that make me laugh out loud, and surprise me, but also make me cry, and make me think. I like books that are wise, and stories that are told with a little poetry and panache to them.

So, I hoped that the How to Train Your Dragon books would do all these things. I wanted elaborate plots, genuine pathos, thought-provoking content, masses of illustrations, fleshed-out characters who felt 'real', all in a nice short page extent. I wanted side-splitting comedy, hair-raising excitement, and bits where the reader actually cried. I wanted the books to be easy to read, yet still have a sophisticated and poetic use of language.

Yes, it was an Impossible Task. But I'd rather aim high, and fail in a big splashy mess, than not strive forever for the Impossible Goal.

I have LOVED writing that big splashy mess, the highs, the lows, the dramas, the failures and the triumphs, just as I have loved being a parent.

How do I feel about ending this series?

Well, the baby in the car seat is now eighteen years old, and I have finished the last book in the series just as she has left home. And anyone who has ever had a child who leaves home will know how I am feeling...

The How to Train Your Dragon book series has been so entangled with my own experience of being a parent, my own childhood, that on finishing it I cannot but feel a bittersweet sadness. I am already looking back on the lost joy of it. However, endings, as Hiccup would say, are really only the beginning to a new and glorious adventure...

My new book series comes out in September.

It's going to be bigger. It's going to be better. It's going to be...

One of the nice things about human beings is how hopeful they are.

Meet our latest Writer in Residence

Every six months, BookTrust appoints a new Writer in Residence to write blogs, run competitions and give us their own unique perspective on the world of children's books. Our current Writer in Residence is Rashmi Sirdeshpande.

Find out more