A new exhibition has opened at Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books, all about Cressida Cowell and her incredibly popular series, ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ Laura Fraine reports for Books for Keeps.
A Viking’s Guide to Deadly Dragons is packed full of the same combination of adventure, history and humour which makes Cressida Cowell’s dragon books so irresistible. In the exhibition space we learn about how the author’s childhood holidays to an uninhabited island off the coast of western Scotland inspired the story of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third. While there is a great deal to explore on Cressida Cowell’s personal creative process, there is also information about real life Vikings and their invasion on Britain, making the exhibition ideal for those studying the period at school. Or as Cressida puts it: ‘I was walking around thinking, God this is brilliant. If you were studying Vikings and you were anywhere near the Newcastle area whatsoever – I mean, it’s heaven isn’t it?’
The exhibition is the first of the author’s work. It has been created by a team of four at Seven Stories, including Gillian Rennie, senior exhibition curator and Kate Edwards, chief executive. It will be exhibited there for a year before touring nationally.
‘They came to visit me at my house and we spent an intense couple of days chatting about the books and the inspiration for the books. Then I let them loose in my studio, where they went through hundreds and hundreds – ten years’ worth – of illustrations, and all my notes and letters. And then they put it all together. It’s their exhibition and it was very much their idea. It is just so lovely to come in and see something that reflects what you’re trying to say.’
For book lovers, one of the exhibition highlights is the framed illustrations, which have a clarity and crispness you couldn’t hope to achieve in paperback print. ‘It’s lovely to see the illustrations that are normally printed in book form. You can get right up close and see how scribbly they are and how you’ve worked at them with a rubber,’ says Cressida. ‘It’s a look at the books in a way that people haven’t seen before.’
Most enjoyable, however, is the way that the exhibition, like the books, launches children into a world of imagination. Here you can learn to speak Dragonese, explore the dragon cliffs and sail a Viking longship, map your own island and discover Hiccup in all his forms, from early picture book character to the star of a Hollywood blockbuster.
Now in its tenth volume, the series about Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third has been an enormous success. Cressida says she always knew she was setting out to write a series, but is as surprised as anyone that it’s become so long. ‘The weight of that would have been huge!’ she laughs. In fact, she wrote the epilogue to the final book, which is not yet written, after book two or three, although there is much about the books that has evolved since then. ‘If you know everything from the beginning there is no sense of discovery. There would be sense of excitement in that for me as a writer,’ says Cressida.
‘One of the reasons I’ve made the books in this way, which is open to accident and with a hero who is not fully formed from the beginning, is because that’s what the books are about: the making of a hero. He can’t start out knowing the answers; he has to learn that stuff as he goes along. The face of the villain and the face of the hero are very much intertwined and the villain also changes over the course of the books. So it’s about the making of the villain and the hero. I think that has evolved over the books and it wouldn’t have happened in the same way if I had planned it.’
Writing the stories is ‘a real balancing act,’ Cressida tells me. ‘You have to be very careful not to allow the humour to overwhelm the pathos or the adventure. If it was too humorous you wouldn’t think that Hiccup was in any real peril, when he is. He is alone in his quest. And in later books it really does get very dark. He has to stand up against his father and that has terrible consequences.’
The ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ series is often offered as the solution to that parental plea, how can I get my child to read? Part of the reason the books are chosen by children – reluctant readers or not – is because of the huge effort taken to make them appeal on many levels.
‘I very deliberately try to make the books look as lively as possible, even when it is just text (which it mostly isn’t as the pages are usually spattered with illustrations),’ says Cressida. ‘I get a lot of dyslexic readers, even though I use lots of long and unfamiliar words. I don’t compromise with the language at all because children are really bright and enjoy very sophisticated storytelling.’
‘But what I pay attention to is the visual look of it, so that it doesn’t look intimidating. Film and telly are beamed magically into your head without having to make an effort. A book, when you are a kid, requires a bit of effort. So I try to make it look fun and as child-friendly and as if they could do the illustrations for a reason: so that it looks like an exciting, funny book that is worth the effort. I keep the storylines deliberately very exciting, but I make sure the characters are people you really care about. If you’re a reluctant reader or child with a learning difficulty, you’ve got to have a reason to want to read on.’
On the issue of the fabulous illustrations, which ‘spatter’ most pages of the books, Cressida admits when she started out she had no idea of the ‘absolute nightmare’ it would be creating what she calls ‘400 page picture books’. Laughing with her editor she says, ‘It was only because I was doing this little book that nobody was interested in – with a designer David Mackintosh, who is very interested in original artwork himself – that we were allowed to get away with it. I didn’t encounter very much pressure because I don’t think they thought anybody was going to read them! That’s the lovely thing about being a not particularly well known or successful author at the beginning, is that they let you go your own sweet way. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say this, but this wasn’t even Hodder’s book of the month ten years ago. So I was able to be very creative.’
Never mind ‘book of the month’, the creativity paid off. As an author and illustrator, Cressida clearly goes the extra mile in order to attract and delight her young readers and she has been rewarded with a loyal legion of them, for whom this exhibition will add an extra dimension to their reading. And by drawing out the comedy, emotion and enormous adventure found in the books, I dare say this Seven Stories exhibition will earn her many more fans.
A Viking’s Guide to Deadly Dragons is at Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books until September 2013. Further information from www.sevenstories.org.uk