Interview with How to Train Your Dragon Author Cressida Cowell

We were lucky enough to get the opportunity to sit down with Cressida Cowell, author of the How to Train Your Dragon books, to discuss The Book People's Bedtime Story Competition, her favourite bedtime stories, inspiration and a little-known fact about Cressida and a fellow author...

Interview with How to Train Your Dragon Author Cressida Cowell

Do you have a favourite picture book from when you were a child?

The Lorax by Dr Suess.

What about the book did you love so much?

I loved the rhythm of the book, and the message, which is about protecting the environment. (If you read How to Train Your Dragon you will see that I include a lot about the environment in them - is that a coincidence? Who knows...)

Do you have a favourite bedtime story to read to children now?

Oh goodness, so many! Classics like Peepo or We're Going on a Bear Hunt or Where the Wild Things Are. For more contemporary books, Charlie and Lola, or Hugless Douglas or Oi Frog. But what I would say is that it’s really important to be led by what children like themselves - if they love a book then I would read that. I actually like reading my own picture books to children - the Emily Brown series or How to be a Viking picture book - because I like seeing children's reactions!

I think it's vitally important that we carry on reading to children beyond picture books. It's tricky finding the time, I know, but some of the most enjoyable moments with my children have been reading together when they were older, and studies show that it makes a real difference to their academic attainment and mental health.

What do you think they like about them?

Books are wonderful for a variety of reasons. Some have a brilliant rhythm that carries you along with the story. Some are funny, or silly. All great picture books have one thing in common, though: the pictures and text work together to tell the story. And the greatest picture books appeal to both parents and children, and they become part of your family life.

What inspired you to become an author?

As a child I spent my summers 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.

What was the first character you created?

For publication, it was a twist on a very traditional character - Little Bo Peep, who goes to the library to get out a book on finding sheep… This is a good example of how you can get inspiration from stories that might already exist.

What do you think makes a great bedtime story?

A story that moves you. Whether that's because it's funny, or sad, a good bedtime story is one that makes you FEEL something.

What makes a great opening line for a bedtime story?

Whatever you want it to be! The brilliant thing about bedtime stories for children is that nothing is off limits. Don't get too worried by creating a first line immediately - I often go back and change that when I've written the rest. Sometimes people can get paralysed by the pressure of creating a brilliant first line and struggle to get started.

How important are the characters in a bedtime story?

Characters are everything. For your reader to care about your book, they have to care about the main character and what happens to them.

If you could give an aspiring author one piece of advice what would it be?

Read lots, and write lots. Even if you don't finish what you write, just carry on and don't worry. Copy authors you like (this isn't cheating as long as you don't send your book off for publication!) to practise. A lot of children tell me they are worried that what they are writing isn't long enough as what's in a published book - I tell them, neither was my writing when I was nine! To try a picture book, get your adult to fold bits of paper to make a picture book format for you, then you can also experiment with what bits of the story you want where.

Why do you think it's important to read children bedtime stories?

Because every single bit of research shows that reading for pleasure makes a HUGE difference, not only to the obvious things like attainment in English, but even in maths, in future earnings, and in the development of emotional health and empathy. And apart from all of that, reading together is fantastic for keeping a close relationship. I truly believe that books read in your parents' voices stay with you all your life.

Tell us a fun fact about yourself...

The author-illustrator, Lauren Child, is my best friend from school. My daughters Maisie and Clemmie were the first voices of Lola in the telly series.

We've so many more great interviews with best-selling authors and top illustrators to inspire your bedtime story on The Blurb!