'You don’t need to dumb down for children in any way whatsoever': Cressida Cowell on her new book, writing for children and Einstein's quotability
Published on: 19 September 2018 Author: Emily Drabble
Cressida Cowell is continuing The Wizards of Once, her first series of books since How to Train Your Dragon, with the brilliant Twice Magic. She spoke to us about creating magical worlds, tackling weighty themes in children's books and why kids will save us all.
Tell us about the world and the characters of The Wizards of Once.
The Wizards of Once is set 3,000 years ago at a time when magic really existed, so it's a world full of giants and sprites and these little hairy fairies which are very sweet – they're so small they can fit on top of your finger. And there are werewolves and wonderful magical creatures.
There are two tribes living in this world – one tribe are the Wizards, and they are magic. And the other tribe are the Warriors, and the Warriors are trying to get rid of all the magic, so these two tribes are at war.
And my two heroes are from these two different tribes that are at war, so they've been brought up since birth to hate each other like poison.
Xar is a wizard boy and he has no magic, but he'll do anything to get it. Wizards aren't born with magic, the magic comes in when they're about 13, and Xar hasn't got any magic so he'll do anything to get it.
I love Xar. He's the kind of kid who acts first and thinks later. He means well, but he's always getting into trouble. In the first book, he decides he's going to catch a witch, to take its magic and use it for himself. And you can see what a bad idea that is!
Wish is a warrior, but she has this magical secret and Warriors really aren't supposed to be magic but she has this magical secret. In case you haven't read book one, I don't want to tell you what the magical secret is!
How do you go about creating a fantasy world?
When I'm starting to create a whole new world, it takes loads of work because you've got to make it feel like that world really exists. I started with an idea of something that I really would love to be true. When I was a kid, I really wanted to be magic! I often go to schools and say, 'Who here would like to be magic?' And every kid and all the teachers stick up their hands and say they would like to be magic.
So I started with that idea and then, I grew up – well, my grandmother grew up in Sussex so that landscape was full of magic. It felt like it was full of magic because there were all these Iron Age hill forts which there were legends about – that they were so big, these forts, they must have been built by giants. And then there were these amazing woods with 3,000-year-old trees where I used to imagine all the fairies used to live.
So I was inspired by that and I did a lot of research – people throughout the ages have believed in fairies and giants, so I did loads of research into different types. I mean, it's fun! I did lots of research into different types of fairy tales and different giants and really extraordinary other creatures. I found out there was a creature called a Grey Annis which was a witch with really long talons, you see, so that kind of research gave me the idea for how my witches might look. I come up with ideas and then I do loads of research to make you feel that my magical world is really true.
What was the thing you were saddest to leave behind in the world of How To Train Your Dragon?
I was very sad about leaving the How To Train Your Dragon world, which was 12 books and I loved the characters and I wanted to be the characters! But, you know, things have to come to an end and the saddest thing I suppose I had about leaving that world was that I really didn't think I could put dragons in the Wizards world, even though they would have fitted in, because I had so many dragons in the Dragons world that I couldn't put the dragons in.
How central is the message of tolerance and acceptance to The Wizards of Once series?
It's incredibly important to me that the message which is really hard-wired into these books is about learning to see things from other people's points of view, because that is what I think books do better than anything else. I love films and telly, but in films and telly it happens out there – in a book, it's happening inside your head. You are that character.
Great quote – this is from To Kill a Mockingbird – it's like walking around in someone else's skin. That is what a book can do. So I want children to read books with the same pleasure I read them, as well as watching films and telly. So right from the beginning in this book it's so important that Wish and Xar are from different tribes that are fighting, but they're meeting and learning to see things from each other's point of view and that was right at the heart of what I wanted these books to be doing.
Do your real life concerns often leak in to the themes of your books?
I do take on really big weighty themes.
I have always believed that children are incredibly intelligent. You don't need to dumb down for children in any way whatsoever – if anything, they're more intelligent than adults, and they're more creative because they don't necessarily know what the rules are yet!
So I never dumb down. I do take huge themes, important themes, but I try and treat them in a very light way so you don't feel like you're being lectured or somebody's telling you what to think. I'm just trying to get you to think about these things, because children are interested in these things. Children are interested in the most important things in life. We've a lot to learn from children, actually. They're interested in heroism, standing up to bullies, looking after the environment – all of these themes, children are engaged in and want to read about. So I write about these things, but I try to write about them in a light, humorous, enjoyable way in the context of the adventure story. But all the themes are there, because children are the cleverest people in the world, in my opinion.
Do you think children's books have the power to change lives?
I absolutely believe – this is one of the reasons that I write for children. I believe that children's books have the power to change individuals and therefore change their impact on the world. I'm trying to write so that children can start to question, to think, 'What is my place in the world and how can I do good?'
Or I'm trying to bring things out in children like their natural creativity. Children are the most creative people in the world because they don't know what the rules are yet. I'm going to quote Einstein, very clever man: 'Knowledge is limited, imagination encircles the world'. If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy stories. If you want them to be more intelligent – this is Einstein again – read them more fairy stories. It's creativity. Children – Einstein again, he said, 'No problem can be solved with the same mindset that created it'. Children don't know the rules. They can create impossible things. And we're relying on these children – the world is in a rather difficult state so we need creative, empathetic politicians. We need creative scientists, like Einstein, who can think outside the box, who can be creative, who can come up with solutions that we don't know what they are yet.
This is what children can do. They are the future. That's why I write for children. That's why I'm trying to get them to think – to think in imaginative and clever ways. That's why I use interesting language, because language is the pathway of thought. And if you create interesting pathways of thought, children start thinking more creatively.
Which books from your childhood led you to think in interesting ways?
That's a very interesting question. The books I suppose that had such an impact on me – so many of them! I am going to pick out The Wizard of Earthsea because that is a book that directly influenced The Wizards of Once very much – I love that book. And Jed unleashes this – I don't want to spoil it, but he unleashes this shadow that eventually he discovers actually comes from inside himself. And something like that had a profound impact – I found that very interesting.
Or something like The Lorax - this is a picture book – a picture book! - which had a massive impact on me and influenced how I think about... I mean, my father was an environmentalist anyway, but the simple words in that, 'I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees...', the truffula trees. The Once-ler comes down and chops all the trees down and at the end, he sends down this seed to the little boy at the end and says, 'This is the last truffula seed of all, and nothing's going to change unless somebody like you cares' – unless, one word, unless. It's a picture book but it made me think about the environment and nature and what's our responsibility to it? Books have such power and they made me.
To Kill a Mockingbird - I think I read that book when I was 12 or 13. It made me think. It made me think, 'What is it like to be somebody else?' It made me think about another world I didn't really know about. Books have such power to shape and change you and the way you think about things. I'm choosing very different books here. Something like Pippi Longstocking, for instance, which was a book I loved, gave me a girl hero protagonist that I wanted to see. I didn't get that from a lot of other books when I was growing up! Pippi was so strong. She could lift a horse above her head – she was this strong woman. She's cheeky towards authority. Books shape you.
Who is your favourite character from your new series and why?
I always find favourite questions so difficult! I guess I've got to say here my favourite characters are Xar and Wish – I'm going to choose both. I love them for very different reasons. Xar means well but he's always getting into trouble and he has a lot to learn, but I love his confidence, his cheekiness – he is very creative. They have lots to teach each other actually, these two characters and they will through the course of the series. Wish, I love for very different reasons. She's probably my favourite character in the same way that Hiccup is my favourite character in the Dragon books. And it's because she has such belief in the goodness of other people and that sweetness – she's not as confident as Xar, and that is something that she needs to learn through the course of the books, but her moral sense, her sense of what is right and her belief in the goodness in other people is often what brings out the best in others, so I love her character. She's just a very sweet, loving character, so she's probably my favourite.
Which of your characters are you most similar to?
I put bits of myself in all of the characters, so it's hard to say – I think Kamikaze who is from How to Train Your Dragon, I have a lot in common with her, because I'm very chatty. Wish, I have quite a bit in common with because I wasn't dyslexic as a child – Wish is dyslexic – but I really struggled with handwriting and organisation so I'm very empathetic to that aspect of Wish. My family say I'm most like Fish-Legs. I have no idea why! I don't know why that is. But you put bits of yourself into lots of the characters. For instance, I'm not that like Hiccup, but Hiccup's relationship with his father is very much like my relationship with my father. And Wish's relationship with her mother, maybe is slightly like my relationship with my mother! You have to put in these true things because then they feel true to the person who's reading them.
Are we going to find out who the anonymous narrator of The Wizards of Once series is?
There was a wonderful book that I read as a kid growing up called The Treasure-Seekers by E Nesbit in which it was narrated by a character who you didn't know who they were, it didn't say. It was one of the children, but you didn't know who they were! But you guessed because the narrator kept on saying, 'Oswald, who was the bravest and the cleverest and the best of the children...' so you thought, 'Ah, maybe he's the narrator!' I loved that, I loved that idea of a narrator who you don't know who they are and it keeps you guessing. So I put a narrator, you don't know who the narrator is, but I don't tell you at the end of book two who it is. I want you to keep guessing! I go into schools and kids always guess somebody different – 'Maybe it's Wish, maybe it's Calibre, maybe it's...' I've had pretty much everybody! So I'm keeping everybody guessing as to who it is and I'll tell you right at the end of the last book.
How important are the illustrations in your books?
The illustrations are incredibly important to The Wizards of Once and to How To Train Your Dragon. I love books that are for older kids, that are exciting and adventurous, but still have loads of illustrations. Why can't you have illustrations in books for older people? I just don't understand it. So it's really important to me that they have all these illustrations. And I like to think I'm getting better at the illustrating! I'm not a natural. It's funny. I used to draw Snoopy as a kid but I used to get so frustrated because I couldn't get the Snoopy in the picture to look like the real Snoopy, and I used to think, 'Oh no, it means I'm not going to be an illustrator one day'. It didn't mean that. It meant I was only nine! Don't forget that you're only nine or whatever age you are, so don't expect to be immediately brilliant at this stuff.
Some people are. I don't know if anyone's ever seen Chris Riddell illustrating, but it's like magic. He has an idea in his head about how something's going to look and he can just do it just like that. I was not like that. Not all illustrators are like that and I want you to know that. I have to get a – I have to do research and I have to practise and I just haven't got a very good visual memory for stuff. So sometimes you have to work at stuff. I went to art school for three years to learn this stuff. So don't worry if you're having to use research or you're having to copy something in order to get the illustration right. You can do that!
Did you want to be an author growing up? And do you have any advice for children about becoming one?
Oh, I would have loved to know that I would be an author one day because I loved writing and I loved reading. I would have loved to have been an author. But my handwriting and my spelling was terrible, and for some reason I thought that was what was going to make you be an author – I don't know why! At the end of the day, kids, it's not about your handwriting and spelling! It's about your ideas.
So I don't want a kid who has difficulty with the mechanics of reading or the mechanics of writing to think that that's what being a writer is about. I don't want a really imaginative kid to be put off. It's about your ideas at the end of the day.