Listening to Cressida Cowell at the Hay Literary Festival, I was inspired by her powerful message that to empower our children to be creative we need to empower them to let go. “Children are the most creative people in the world, because they don’t know the rules yet,” says Cressida. “It’s rules that hold us back. Why do children want to be magic? Because adults are so bossy!”
She asks: “Who would like to have a book at school that they write in for 15 minutes on a Friday, they write whatever they want, and the teacher is not allowed to mark it?” The audience erupts into cheers, liberated by the idea of no rules, no marking, no grammar, no spelling correction, no red pen or “purple polishing”.
“We need our children to love writing,” enthuses Cressida, “and we need to get them to love reading, and it’s tough now to get children to read, because the TV is so exciting!” Cressida reminisces about the 1970s, when she and her family were dropped off on an uninhabited island in Scotland for two weeks in the summer – no supermarket, no TV, no contact. Heaven. That exposure to wildness inspired her creativity. “There was a hill on the island that looked like a dragon sleeping. At night, when I heard the noise of the storm, I used to wonder if it was the dragon waking. Vikings had lived on the island and they believed dragons were real, and so did I.” And parenting in the 1970s? “It involved opening the door and saying, ‘Bye, see you when you are hungry, and don’t fall off a cliff’!”
Cressida wants to release our children from restrictions, to allow wildness back into their lives – freedom in nature, freedom in writing, freedom from bossiness. One of the heroes in her Wizards of Once series is Xar, who sees any rule as a challenge to do the opposite. This is what we need from our children, Cressida says. We need creative people: creative engineers, creative politicians – please! We need people to think of creative ways to get us out of the problems we are in. “When I was a child I believed in dragons. We’re going to need that belief in the impossible.”
Cressida’s passion is to inspire young people to believe they can do it. She shows us a picture of a drawing she made at the age of 9. “If I could tell that 9-year-old girl that what she was drawing would be turned into films, she would not believe me. So when you see your children drawing, writing, creating anything, just encourage it. Who knows where it might lead?” Then we see her “Free Writing Friday” book, where she jotted down ideas. “Look!” she points out gleefully. “I couldn’t even spell my name, but now I’m a writer!”
Her exuberance is infectious – you can see the self-belief of the children in the audience lifting. They crane to hear her speak, they raise their hands to ask questions, they laugh when she teaches them rude phrases in dragonish. I love Cressida’s humour – we meet one of her Dragon series characters with the caption, “These bosoms have killed before and they will kill again.” She laughs the loudest and apologises if she seems arrogant when she answers a question about her favourite book, but says that she’s learnt that if you can’t love things that you create yourself, how will someone else love it?
And children do love it. The queue snakes for hours at the book signing afterwards and Cressida greets each child, signs books, chats to them, has her photo taken even though she is melting in the humidity of the tent. Through her imagination she has created modern heroes we can get behind. They aren’t perfect, and they make mistakes – the names of her characters say it all: Hiccup… Wish… characters who’ve not yet quite found their place in life.
Her message to the audience is powerful. Books matter, she says. “Tell your parents to read to you,” she exhorts the children. “I want to make your dad cry, because if you see your dad cry you’re going to think, books are important, they can make my dad cry.” Books teach you empathy. Books teach you words, “and the more words your kids have, the cleverer they will be.”
That afternoon she brings us all along with her on a wave of stories. “Stories are all around us,” she says. You just have to do some research. Cressida is inspired by the natural world and you can quite clearly see how her Wizard Fort is based on an iron-age hill fort, and her Sprite, Ariel, is a combination of traditional fairies, a male ballet dancer, a fashion label and a variety of insects! “Look around you. Look at trees – they look like they have faces, and they do talk to each other! Look around you and write, just write. Think about the magical power you’d love to have, and write about it.” And when you really want to unleash a story, draw a map, and the characters will emerge from it…”
So, how to train your kids, according to Cressida Cowell? Release them from rules (at least for 15 minutes on a Friday). Get them out in nature. Read to them and let them create. And, hopefully, they will lead the way creatively out of the mess we’ve made…
Free Writing Friday – literacytrust.org.uk/resources/free-writing-friday-resource