Q&A with author Cressida Cowell

To coincide with World Book Day 2012, we had a Q&A with author and illustrator Cressida Cowell.

She's best known for her Hiccup series of books, including How to Train Your Dragon.



Q. Mashford01: My seven-year-old son and I were wondering what were your favourite books as a child? He absolutely loves The Hobbit. Did this book have any influence over your dragon theme or fantasy writings?

A. Cressida: You and your son are absolutely right, The Hobbit was one of my favourite
books as a child. In fact the 'riddling competition' in the tree-trunk between Hiccup and the Witch Excellinor was written in homage to the glorious scene in The Hobbit where Bilbo first meets Gollum and his 'birthday-present'.

I think these echoes of wonderful books of the past give a story resonance - I plant deliberate echoes of Peter Pan, in particular, a book that (quite by chance, of course) is also about growing-up, and an island, and maps, and flying, and pirates, and a villain with a hook...

Q. Fishlegs: I've been reading your books to my five-year-old son and he loves them. We read them in order and have recently finished How to Steal A Dragon's Sword. He can't wait for the final instalment.

The books read well chronologically, with references back to the previous books, and we loved how the King's Things were all stuff that Hiccup had seemingly accidentally picked up over the series. How much was this planned from the start? For example, was the Slavemark always intended to be revealed at such a crucial point several books later?

"I have to admit, the next book won't be the final instalment after all. I'm having difficulty tying up all the ends in one go."

A. Cressida: I have to admit, the next book won't be the final instalment after all. I am having difficulty tying up all the ends in one go. Yes, I did plan ahead that Hiccup would 'accidentally' find things in every book that later you find out have a significance you did not realise at the time.

It's a very 'Hiccup-y' idea. Plus it's very true to life, I feel - often we don't realise what journey or 'Quest' we are on, exactly, until we are halfway there already. And the Slavemark too, yup, I planted that a couple of books earlier, so you have that lovely feeling of revelation. The great thing about writing such a long book series, is that you can reveal things slowly, over time. 

Q. Trice: My son did a school project on you as his favourite author, and I became very envious of you after discovering you spent your childhood summers on your own Scottish island. Was it actually idyllic or were you bored stiff and desparate to return to civilisation? Do you think all that freedom from distraction helped your imagination develop?

A. Cressida: The island was (is) staggeringly beautiful and it was truly incredible to have that freedom. I guess it was idyllic, but it could also be scary, going out in storms, and it could be wild and windy and wet. I don't remember being bored. If it rained, we played games and read and drew and made things up.

Maybe if you're endlessly being entertained, it stops you from being forced to be creative. I never wanted to return to civilisation, and I do think it helped my imagination to develop. 

Q. DiaryOfaSleepDeprivedMum: My seven-year-old son is (and I'm not exaggerating here) obsessed with your books. He scrutinises the maps of Berk and the surrounding islands and your World Book Day edition inspired his first solo nocturnal reading session last night, so thank you! 

"The character of Toothless was inspired by my own children when they were two, and my cats, Lily and Baloo."

Our question is: who or what inspired the wonderfully drawn character, Toothless? (I have to admit, there are times when I am reminded of my own son when reading about this mischievous little dragon, so it's unsurprising that Toothless is one of his favourite characters).

A. Cressida: I am so glad your son is so into the books, and has he read the World Book Day book already? The character of Toothless was inspired by my own children when they were two, and my cats, Lily and Baloo.

Train your dragon

Q. Babyheave: We don't know each other, but I both love you and could cry because of you in equal measure. My son has ASD and his specialist subject is dragons. All I hear about is dragons, all he draws is dragons, and my husband and I are reading through the books at night as he snuggles down with the cuddly Toothless that one of my friends made for him. But it's a stop-start affair as he interrupts frequently with either a fact or random question about dragons.

While I'd say that I am just a hairs-breadth away from going slightly insane at the thought of yet another conversation about the dragons from How to Train Your Dragon, all is redeemed as it also gives me a way of bribing him or rewarding him, and for that I am grateful.

My son's main topic is,which dragons could win a fight with another dragon under what circumstances - so if I could have the definitive answer to the following that would be great. How can a Gronkle win a fight against a Monstrous Nightmare?

A. Cressida: I get a lot of emails from parents with children with ASD, as it happens, and I'm not quite sure why that is, or if there is something about Hiccup that especially appeals to children with ASD? Or maybe it's the dragons...

A Gronckle and a Monstrous Nightmare are rather evenly matched in one-to-one close combat. In one-to-one combat, a Gronckle will actually win five times out of 10 over a Monstrous Nightmare, because Gronckles are so heavily armed that even the terrible fangs of a Nightmare cannot penetrate its skin. Gronckle teeth are smaller, but they are very, very sharp, and once it locks its jaws on you, it really hangs on, like a pit bull terrier (but much larger).

A Nightmare, however, is a much better hunter, miles faster and speedier, and a much cooler animal to own.

"Of all the books I've written, How to Steal a Dragon's Sword is my favourite, because it brings so many of the plot threads together, and it makes me cry."

Q. Hamandcookies: My son, who's seven, is currently ploughing his way through the series, and would love to know which is your favourite dragon and why? And out of all the books you've written, which one do you like the most? 

A. Cressida: My favourite dragon is Toothless, but I also love Stormfly, because of the wonderful way she changes colour according to her mood, and the Windwalker because he is so shy, but it would be wonderful to fly on his back, as he is& miraculously speedy.

How to Steal a Dragon's Sword is my favourite, because it brings so many of the plot threads together, and it makes me cry.

Q. Archfiend: My daughter (7) loves the books and wanted to ask how you came up with Dragonese - she is currently spending quite a lot of time talking to us in it, so we are learning it, too!

A. Cressida: Well, I love playing games with language so I make up the Dragonese by using word-association – a bit like a poetry game. I am so glad to hear that DD is so fluent in the language.

Q. Scottishmummy: What do you hope the children get from reading the books?  We love your books and read them in a camped-up gruff Scottish accent. 

"I like books that make me laugh out loud, and surprise me, but also make me cry, and make me think."

A. Cressida: 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, why not? So I'm hoping that the books will do all these things.

Q. Florenceuk: Both my kids (10 and seven) and I have really enjoyed your books. We are all on tenterhooks to read the last one, but a bit apprehensive given the foreshadowing of an end to dragons. When can we expect the next and last instalment (and will that really be the end?)

A. Cressida: Oh dear, no, the next one won't be the last one either, I'm afraid, I keep thinking it will be but now I'm halfway through it, I realise it isn't. It will be out 27 September 2012, according to my publishers.

"I'd love to write an adult book, one day. But I'm enjoying writing for children so much at the moment."

Q. slaymill: Many adults enjoy your books in the same way as JK Rowling crossed over. Grown-up men in my family love Train Your Dragon books, while the women love Emily Brown (and the children are obvious fans, too). Do you think you'll ever do a JK Rowling and write an adult book?

A. Cressida: I deliberately write the books so adults can enjoy them too, so I am delighted to hear that this working. I'd love to write an adult book, one day. But I'm enjoying writing for children so much at the moment, and it sort of weaves itself so naturally into my own life as a mother of three young children, that I'm going to carry on writing children's books for a bit longer. I started with picture books, but I've now got a teenager, so perhaps I'll move slowly up the age range! 

Last updated: 7 months ago