The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Creativity Is Magic And Magic Is For Everyone

 

By Cressida Cowell

Children's Author and Waterstone's Children's Laureate

 


I have spent twenty years writing for children, and over those twenty years I have lost count of the times people have asked me, ‘Have you ever thought of writing for adults?’ as if writing for children was some sort of second best activity, something you do before moving on to the higher level of writing for adults. As adults we can get confused by trivialities. Children are focussed on the essentials.

I often get asked if I had ever wanted to move to LA and be a screenwriter for How to Train Your Dragon. The answer is no. I wasn’t a film writer, I was a book writer.

I should pause here to say that I LOVE the work Dreamworks have done on How To Train Your Dragon. The most incredible team have worked on the movies – the producer, Bonnie Arnold, the director Dean Deblois, the brilliant animation team, the music by John Powell… They have created something that’s stunning, and absolutely in the spirit of what I spent 15 years writing. Every time I watch the films, I get emotional, not just because the end result is so spectacular, but because something so personal to me also became special to them, and that comes across beautifully on screen. I am grateful to them, beyond words.

But my own personal Quest is to create books and to play some small part in trying to get the children of today to read and write and draw with the same excitement and wonder that I did when I was a kid.

One of my own first rules about writing for children is that: THERE ARE NO RULES. Children are natural anarchists, so breaking the rules is going to attract them. I revel in language, I use buckets of similes and practically a metaphor a paragraph and I don’t care if that’s bad writing, if it’s good enough for Dickens it’s good enough for me, and wouldn’t it be a shame if we ALL wrote like Ernest Hemingway or Elmore Leonard, wonderful though those writers obviously are.

At the beginning of writing Dragon And Wizards, I made the decision I’m going to write these books for 8 to 12 year olds and their parents and carers; books that gets kids reading, that will be funny, clever, visually packed adventure stories that get kids thinking; books that will be written for everyone, mass market. And those choices I make at the beginning affect everything about the way I write the story and how I present it.

Not only is there hot competition nowadays for children’s time and attention, books can also suffer from being perceived by children as something old-fashioned, ‘school-y’. I work very, very hard to overturn that impression, and make sure that the stories are worth the effort the child has to put in to access them. The storylines are pacy, and thrilling, with lots of cliff-hangers and I pay a huge amount of attention to the visual aspect of the story. Even though these books are for older readers, I pack them with illustrations as if they are 350-page picture books.

I make the cover friendly and exciting, and preferably shiny and jewel-like, so that in the mind of the child they are ‘sweets’, not ‘brussel sprouts’. The illustrations are deliberately child-like and scrawly, and look like something the young reader could do them themselves, which is important to me because I want to get them writing as well as reading.

I write the books to be read aloud, and that is a key factor in getting a child to read for pleasure. Books read to you in your parents’ voice live with you all your life. Reading a book aloud is a shared joy, and sends an important message to the children being read to: books are important, books are powerful, magical things, that can make your dad cry, or your mum laugh, and have the sort of wisdom in them that can change your life. With reading-aloud in mind, I think about the books as a performance, and the mouth-feel of the words, the loudness or softness, or bellow-y ness of the characters.

And I never EVER dumb down. Children are natural philosophers, naturally curious, natural linguists. My job is to engage the questioning spirit of children, so these are the kind of questions I’m asking the kids in these little fantasy books about dragons and wizards: do we live in a world of determinism or free will? What makes a good parent? How should we look after the environment?  Is it ever justifiable to go to War?

This all sounds rather grand, but I take a lot of care to present it as fun. Creating for children is often a balance between having the courage to take something silly and make it serious and meaningful, and taking something serious and having the courage to make it a bit silly. Studying at St Martin’s taught me to stick to my guns because when everybody else stood up and said ‘this is my project on Death’, and then the next person would say, ‘this is my project on the rise of Nazi Germany’ and then I would have to present my own work on ‘Mr Orange the Talking Carrot’. But, you know, the talking carrot can also represent something equally worthwhile.

When I was made Children’s Laureate last year, my speech was titled, 'Reading is Magic, and Magic is for Everyone'. I’d now like to expand that statement to: Creativity is Magic, and Magic is for Everyone. Children have an explosive enthusiasm, a need to express their ideas, and a talent for innovation that surpasses a lot of adults.

Creativity is not a ‘soft-skill’; the creative industries made over £100 billion for the UK economy in 2018 and creativity is increasingly important in a complex world. Children need and deserve equality of access not only to books but also equality of access to the time and tools to develop their own creativity.  In my Waterstones Children’s Laureate Charter, I have a point that children have the right to be creative for 15 minutes a week without being marked. No Rules, No Marking, Just Fun.

Creativity IS magic, and we need every single child to grow up with creative skills, no matter what job they have. We should be proud of our creative industries, and part of my role as Children’s Laureate is to champion how vital what we do is, and how important it is to all of us that the UK stays a leader on the world stage.

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