The moment Cressida Cowell stepped up to the lectern, it was clear that the very same energy and fun that characterises all her books were right here in front of us. We settled back with the happy anticipation of a child who’s about to be read to.
Though her work has been transported to the big screen, for Cressida it is still the printed page where the real magic happens. “Books are our tool to make sense of the inexplicable,” she said, “to articulate to ourselves what we feel but cannot always say. They’re our comfort, our distraction, a way to travel when life seems dark and is closing in on us, a way to laugh when not much seems funny.
“I remember every book that was read aloud to me as a child,” she went on. And it is those early memories that have sustained a wonderfully generous impulse to welcome successive generations into the life-giving world of books. It is clear that she remembers not only every story she heard, but also every detail of the experience. Like many of the most successful children’s writers and illustrators, she has an acute awareness of what it is like to be a child reader, and an almost supernatural ability to home in precisely on what will capture their imagination.
With a clear sense of vocation to be a children’s author, Cressida made a decision at the outset that she would write books that “get kids reading; that will be funny, clever, visually packed adventure stories that get kids thinking; books that will be written for everyone, mass market”. As she welcomed us into the world of her own creations, she went on to demonstrate how every choice is made with the invitation to the child in mind. Rule-breaking text packed with wit and wisdom; pacy plots and captivating characters; words that feel good on the tongue when read aloud; “slightly scrawly” drawings such as a child might produce. (Though her books are aimed at 8–12 year olds, illustrations abound and are an integral part of the text.) Even the drawing materials are considered: the softest of pencils for images conveying heightened emotion, for example. It might seem calculating – and in a way, it is. But all the reckoning is done with so much loving care and attention – like planning a surprise party for someone you love and know well and so want to make everything just right for them.
If Cressida is training her reader, what you see in these books is itself the result of a thoroughgoing training. An Oxford English degree was followed by an illustration course at St Martin’s – a course that taught her more than how to be an artist. “It taught me to stick to my guns because when everybody else stood up and said ‘this is my project on Death’, or ‘this is my project on the rise of Nazi Germany’, I would then have to present my own work on ‘Mr Orange the Talking Carrot’. And, as in the best of quest stories, everything turns out to have its purpose. “Nothing is ever wasted,” she insisted, “not even the Anglo Saxon literature … And the talking carrot can also represent something equally worthwhile.” But what makes the difference is figuring out your own quest. That’s what helps you make decisions. And hers, she knows, is all to do with creating readers.
As Cressida moved on to talk about her work as Children’s Laureate, it became apparent that this was indeed part of the exact same quest. As Children’s Laureate, she embarked on an ambitious project to champion libraries, and in particular school libraries – which, as research shows, are instrumental in getting children to become people who read for pleasure. She thinks of a library just as she thinks of one of her own books – a creative, creating, child-enticing space. What she calls a “Life-changing library” delights the eye and calls to the ear; it provides safe, cosy corners in which to retreat; it’s a portal to other worlds; it’s an invitation to encounter others, and to meet yourself.
And yet, when schools are forced to make cuts, the library is very often the first thing to be shelved. One in seven primary schools now has no library at all, and statistics for some areas – especially those with a high proportion of disadvantaged families – are worse still.
The ‘Life-changing Libraries’ project succeeded in getting £100 million pounds a year ring-fenced for school libraries, and in getting them onto the political agenda. Then, because the library is something of a threatened habitat and few people seemed to know what a good one would look like, Cressida worked with BookTrust to set up six “gold-standard” Life-changing Libraries. Each received a transformative package that included a thousand books, an interactive audio-book facility, an ebooks subscription, furnishings and bespoke wall art, and staff training and support for embedding a whole-school reading culture. As Cressida’s video and the BookTrust report show, the results have been extremely encouraging – most especially, perhaps, in the way each school embraced and made the library its own.
It was, and is, an extraordinary achievement. And the source of this drive? What else but books? “Booky People,” said Cressida, “have tenacity and resourcefulness because we are passionate about what we do.”
This, of course, was a lecture addressed to an entire auditorium of Booky People, so not the ones who need persuading. But as Cressida said, “It is when times are hardest that we need the transformative magic of books and reading the most.” So in what are unquestionably hard times, it was good to be reminded of that, and of the need to ensure that what we have been privileged to enjoy is passed on to future generations. Cressida’s final rallying call left us in no doubt: “As Waterstones Children’s Laureate, I pledged to fight for children’s reading with passion, conviction and action. My quest will continue. I hope you will join me.”