I’d like to focus on magic, because magic just so happens to be my area of expertise and I have two simple key messages. Point Number One: Books and reading are Magic. Point Number Two: This Magic must be made urgently available to absolutely everyone.
Children are inherently curious, questioning and capable of extraordinarily original pathways of thinking. This ability to think creatively and outside of the box is exclusive to kids because they don’t know the rules yet. To quote Einstein: ‘It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.’
The small child who closes their eyes, and thinks that because SHE can’t see YOU, YOU can’t see HER, in her own mind has the power to make herself invisible. The child who tries to jump off a box, holding an umbrella, in their own mind is not subject to the laws of gravity. A child can say, in the joyous power of the moment: ‘Watch me jump over the whole world!’ – and mean it.
For me, this is magic, and magic is synonymous with childhood, creativity and originality. We need that magic, we need the people of the future to be, if anything, MORE creative, than they have been in the past.
MAGIC is creating something out of nothing, it’s creativity in action. And this is what is happening every time a kid reads a book, or a poem. Without them realising it, new pathways are being forged in their brains as they struggle to make sense of it. Words are POWER. The more words you give kids, the more interesting and intelligent the thoughts they can have.
Books are transformative magic because of their unique ability to develop three key magical powers, INTELLIGENCE, CREATIVITY, and EMPATHY. Books are wonderful at developing empathy because while things on a screen happen ‘out there’, in a book they are happening inside your head, it’s like walking around in somebody else’s skin, to quote ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.
And yet we have a huge interconnected problem in the UK. Libraries and bookshops are closing, librarians are disappearing, telly is glorious, review space is shrinking, parents are knackered, the kids are on the Nintendo switch... The magic of books is becoming harder to access, which is having a knock-on effect on social mobility and on creativity.
Britain needs creative kids – creativity is so important both to an individual’s achievement and to the UK economy. Our creative industries make £101.5 billion a year and are growing twice as fast as the rest of the economy. We must encourage the next generation to continue this strength. Whatever path they choose in life, creative thinking is invaluable – problem-solving, innovative ideas, and dealing with new challenges are skills that children can begin learning at an early age with nothing more than a notebook and a pencil.
Which is why, in my role as Children’s Laureate, I’ve created ‘CRESSIDA COWELL’S WATERSTONES CHILDREN’S LAUREATE CHARTER’ which is basically a great big To Do list with solutions to great big problems. One item on the list is for children to be creative for at least 15 minutes a week.
In my 20 years as a children’s book author I’ve lost count of how many hundreds of people have asked me the best way to encourage creativity in kids. My answer is always: have a notebook to write and draw in just for fun.
In response to this, last year, with the National Literacy Trust, I launched Free Writing Friday for primary school children. Free Writing Friday provides a space at school for children to be creative. Each Friday they are allocated just fifteen minutes to draw or write in their books. No Rules. No dreaded red correction pen. Just fun! In this one notebook, spelling, grammar and neatness should be completely irrelevant – what’s important should be the ideas.
When I was a child my handwriting was terrible, my spelling was incomprehensible but I loved writing stories. I had two teachers who were very encouraging. In year 3, Miss Mellows gave me loads of blank exercise books, letting me write stories in them, even in maths lessons. Miss Macdonald was my history teacher when I was 12, and she set wonderful homework, 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…’
I started writing and drawing when I was very young, and I’ve kept notebooks ever since. Some of the story ideas I had about Vikings and dragons eventually became the How to Train Your Dragon book and film series. I still keep notebooks now – for my most recent series, The Wizards of Once, I kept a big A3 scrapbook for five years, which I filled with poems, drawings and inspiration.
At the end of The Wizards of Once, the raven, Caliburn, gives my heroine Wish one of the feathers from his back and encourages her to start writing her own story. In the same way, I’m hoping to inspire children of today not only to read with the same excitement and pleasure that I read when I was a child, but also to write and to draw, and to address problems and questions in a creative and original way.
Here are some tips to encourage children to write, draw and be creative:
Tip one: Writing is like telling a really big lie
The more detail you put into your writing, and the more you base it on a tiny grain of truth, the more it comes alive in your reader’s head. The example I use for this tip is from How to Train Your Dragon. If I say to you, ‘Gobber has a big red beard’, you can see the image in your head a bit, but not very well. If I say that, ‘Gobber has a beard like exploding fireworks’, or, ‘Gobber has a beard like a hedgehog struck by lightning’, you can see the image much more clearly. An extension to this is to think about your senses when you’re describing. If you use words that encourage your reader to smell, hear, taste, see or touch, then your story is more compelling.
Tip two: Research is a boring word for something REALLY exciting
If you’re stuck for where to start a story, then surprising facts about the real world can give you loads of ideas. For example, I read somewhere that Vikings trained cats for battle, because when you’re sword-fighting an opponent, it’s very difficult to sword fight when a cat is attacking your head. This gave me an idea that I then put in one of my books (How to Fight a Dragon’s Fury). Many of my dragons in How to Train Your Dragon are based on extraordinary fish: for example, the Monstrous Strangulator Dragon is transparent, like a Barrel-Eye fish. For The Wizards of Once, I did a huge amount of reading about Ancient Britain: the Iron Warrior Fort is the same shape as an Iron Age Hill Fort, and the ancient forest Kingley Vale in Sussex gave me the setting for the Wildwood. Both history and the natural world are full of unbelievable facts and questions that you can base stories on.
Tip three: Draw a map of your imaginary place (provide images of WOO and Dragons maps)
A map is a very useful starting point for a story. Many great books begin with a map – Treasure Island, for example, or Peter Pan. I use maps, too for every new world. Draw a map of your imaginary place. Give it boundaries, which can be either sea or land, and give it place names. How long would it take to get from place to place? Are there any obstacles? Maps encourage you to think about your characters too, because as soon as your settings have names, you start to wonder who lives there.
About the Author
Cressida Cowell is currently the Waterstones Children’s Laureate (2019-2021). She is the author and the illustrator of the bestselling The Wizards of Once and How to Train Your Dragon book series, and the author of the Emily Brown picture books, illustrated by Neal Layton. Cressida published her first book, Little Bo Peep’s Library Book, in 1999, and since then has written or illustrated over 20 titles. She’s best-known for her How to Train Your Dragon series, which has sold over 11 million books worldwide in 38 languages, and is also an award-winning DreamWorks film series. The Wizards of Once (also signed by DreamWorks), is a number one bestseller. Cressida is a passionate believer in the transformative power of books, and a vocal advocate for the need to support creative industries in the UK. She’s an ambassador for the National Literacy Trust and The Reading Agency, a Trustee of World Book Day and a founder patron of the Children's Media Foundation. She grew up in London and on a small, uninhabited island off the west coast of Scotland and she now lives in Hammersmith with her husband, three children and a dog called Pigeon.
Cressida's new book KNOCK THREE TIMES (HB £12.99), is out now and is book three in her #1 bestselling, award-winning THE WIZARDS OF ONCE series.