The Dragon lady

Cressida Cowell, author of the How to Tame Your Dragon series
Cressida Cowell, author of the How to Tame Your Dragon series

WITH animated movies, a Cartoon Network series and live spectacular touring American arenas, the creator of How to Tame Your Dragon, Cressida Cowell, could be forgiven for thinking she has created an unstoppable monster.

But as she prepared to come to Sheffield this weekend to give a talk for the Off the Shelf festival the author of the children’s adventure series insisted that all the multi-media spin-offs could do nothing but good towards her primary ambition of encouraging children to read.

She will be introducing How To Seize a Dragon’s Jewel, the tenth in the series which has sold more than two million copies in the UK alone and is read in more than 35 languages,

Although she is not directly involved in the film version – the second and third animated movies are in production at DreamWorks - or the How To Train Your Dragon TV series coming to the UK on Cartoon Network next year, she is in close contact with the producers.

As a writer of books she was happy to hand over to screenwriters. “When they bought the film rights I had only two books out of what is going to be a series of 12. But I knew they had the right background and understood the story was about a boy growing up as well as an excitng story about dragons and Vikings. They were very inclusive and told me what they were doing and showed me the script but I was aware it was their film.

“There are major differences, there are 12 books and it’s a film trilogy. There are things that work in films and not books and vice versa. The dragon flying sequence doesn’t occur until book six but for a film you have to do it straight away.”

She recently went to New York to meet the film and TV producers. “I also got the chance to see this arena show which will be coming to the UK next year,” she reports. “There’s a robotic dragon which is as big as a room. It’s amazing what they can do these days. They breathe fire and fly over your head.”

Cowell credits summer holidays spent on an uninhabited Scottish island with firing her imagination. “My sister is an artist, my brother a philosopher and I am a writer and I don’t think it’s coincidence,” she says. “It was Scotland in the Seventies and it often rained and there was no electricity so we made up plays and drew and read and did those kind of things. Plus it was a Viking settlement and there was a feel through 400 years of genetic inheritance and local folklore. There were the stories my dad would read about dragons and caves and dragons turning into Viking people. There seemed a direct link and that’s what makes it more real.”

Degrees in English from Oxford and in graphic design and narrative illustration set her on a path of producing picture books initially. “Some writer-illustrators consider themselves as artists and will draw the illustrations first but I am a words person, although I do draw as I go along. I mostly write first although sometimes I draw characters and scenes before I write just to get a sense of the physical proportions.”

With book No 10 out, she is no doubt well on the way with No 11. “Give me a chance,” she laughs, “I only finished this one in July. With children’s books there is a very fast turnaround for one thing because your readers are growing up.”

Her readership is now boader than the ages nine, ten and 11 she initially aimed for. “I thought they might be read aloud by a parent which I think is a wonderful experience, like audiobooks on car journeys. It can be appreciated on two levels. There might be things the younger kids don’t understand and need explaining. But the books are also about grown-ups and being a parent which I happened to be when I started out.”

And still is, of course, “When I started my oldest, Maisie, was three or four and it was useful for me to be able to write from a parent’s perspective. As she got older she read the books and loved them and made suggestions which I responded to. Initially there were no girl characters – I was writing for reluctant readers who are predominatly boys – and lots of girls started to write in saying the same thing. so I created the coolest girl I could think of.”

l Cressida Cowell appears at The Auditorium, Sheffield University, on Sunday at 1pm. How To Seize a Dragon’s Jewel is published by Hodder Children’s Books at £5.99.