Cressida Cowell’s colourful characters and wild childhood are recalled in a wonderful exhibition at Seven Stories. DAVID WHETSTONE met the popular author there
IF you grew up with the stories of Enid Blyton, you will have had childhood dreams of rip-roaring adventures on remote islands. For children’s author and illustrator Cressida Cowell, this was the reality of a good part of her childhood in the late 1960s and early 70s.
Her time was divided between London and a small, uninhabited island off the west coast of Scotland. She recalls it on her website, painting a truly tantalising picture of a pinprick of a place surrounded by sea.
“There were no roads or shops, just a storm-blown, windy wilderness of seabirds and heather.”
She explains how, as a child, her family would be dropped off by a local boatman and picked up again a fortnight later. “In those days, there were no mobile phones, so we had absolutely no way of contacting the outside world during that time.
“If something went wrong, we just had to sit tight and hope that the boat really did come to pick us up in two weeks’ time.”
At Seven Stories on Lime Street, Newcastle, where an exhibition about Cressida and her books runs for much of this year, I couldn’t help thinking what a waste it would have been if she had become anything but a writer.
She’s a bit of a force of nature herself. The earthy sense of humour – “child-centred,” she calls it – which gave us characters such as Snotlout and Dogsbreath the Duhbrain also finds expression in a loud and infectious laugh.
No wonder so many children have fallen for her How To Train Your Dragon books and their unlikely Viking hero, Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third. She clearly had so much fun creating them.
“My husband says it’s very self-centred to laugh at your own jokes, but I do make myself laugh,” said Cressida.
“I always wanted the books to be funny as well as exciting and scary.” I met Cressida while she was in the state of euphoria common to authors who have had the Seven Stories treatment.
“Full credit to Seven Stories because they’ve done a fantastic job,” she enthused in a gallery alive with Vikings, dragons and a host of colourful, eye-catching exhibits.
“They came down to my studio and spent several days with me, talking to me about the books and the ideas behind the illustrations.
“What is so phenomenal and unusual about this place is that they spend so long on the thinking process.
“They were interested in my old notes and things that didn’t make it into the books so they could show the process involved in writing them and that they’re inspired by a real place.”
The result is a compelling walk-through world of fact and fantasy.
Along with giant representations of the main human characters are dragons aplenty.
There are 3D exhibits both still and moving. On one screen Cressida demonstrates how to speak Dragonese, the language spoken by her dragons and also by the intuitive Hiccup. Cressida’s stories nearly all have a “How to...” instructional title relating to dragons which are, of course, fictional. Vikings, though, were real and Cressida makes no apology for mixing them up. Neither does she believe her books are devoid of real educational value.
She explained: “I do stuff for which the inspiration is the Vikings but it’s not trying to make a serious historical comment. The Vikings are a jumping off point for a fantasy. The clue is the dragons.
“I suppose the books are about growing up and about trying to be a hero. They show you can even be a hero in your own classroom.
“But I am inviting you to look at history. The Vikings have had a very bad press. Perhaps my books will encourage children to become interested in what they really were like.”
As a girl Cressida became interested in the Vikings because, long ago, they landed on the shores of the family island.
“It was a wild place but we knew the Vikings went there. We had to camp at first because the house was a ruin. There was no phone, no radio, no Tesco, so it really was like Robinson Crusoe.”
One exhibit shows how Cressida was inspired by her surroundings at a very early age. It is a story she wrote as a school project, aged 11. It is called The Viking Raid and it begins: “It was a bright and clear day with a slight wind...”
It also bears a teacher’s comment: “What a drama!”
“You don’t have to have had an extreme experience to become a children’s writer,” stressed Cressida.
“A children’s writer can come from any sort of background. However, the one thing that was really helpful to me was that it gave one the space because there wasn’t any telly on the island.
“We were allowed to be bored but of course we created our own entertainment. I made up stories about Vikings and dragons but we (Cressida and her younger brother and sister) also played games together and we drew.
“I suppose we were living like Vikings really. We learned to be very careful of the sea and very aware of the power of nature. We learned how great it can be and how very small we are and how you can be so powerless.
“There wasn’t a hospital nearby. I was always made aware that it was a dangerous place but also an incredible place.”
Cressida told me her father was a keen bird watcher. She didn’t mention that he is also an aristocrat, Michael Hare, 2nd Viscount Blakenham, and a former chairman of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew.
The name of the island in the Inner Hebrides, which Cressida now visits with her own children, can be identified with a bit of internet research but she prefers to call it a secret island. Fans of her books will understand because it is in keeping with the magic world she created.
The Seven Stories exhibition, A Viking’s Guide to Deadly Dragons, coincides with the 10th book in the series – How To Seize a Dragon’s Jewel. There probably won’t be many more.
Cressida said she has always known the arc of Hiccup’s story and wrote the ending to the series some time ago. How many more books come out before the final full stop she couldn’t say exactly. But she agreed it would be a wrench to put Hiccup aside. “I love this world so much but I do picture books as well and there are other things that I can write.”
For the time being, Hiccup and trusty sidekick Fishlegs are making whoopee.
The books are in the shops and details of the Seven Stories exhibition, due to go on a national tour later in the year, can be found online at www.sevenstories.org.uk or by calling 08452 710 777.