Report: Creative Keynote – Cressida Cowell

Posted on: Wednesday 08 July 2020 10:44pm by Catherine Trewavas


  • “Creativity is magic and magic is for everyone!”
  • The key to succeeding is finding your personal quest.
  • Have confidence in your own style, write without rules and create characters to care about!

This session opened with Changemaker and comedian Aaron Simmonds who talked about his creative process in lockdown, particularly the importance of trying out ideas and making mistakes to get that spark. During the past few months, he has created a new podcast which is due to be released in the next couple of weeks. He also talked about how comedy has given him the opportunity to redefine how people see his cerebral palsy, saying, “stand-up has opened up a conversation”.

Then we joined Waterstones Children’s Laureate and best-selling author-illustrator Cressida Cowell from her writing shed at the bottom of her garden, surrounded by stacks of books, illustrations and toys. This is the place where everything starts, before ending up in books, TV series and cinemas around the world. “Everything has to start somewhere!”

The importance of creativity

Cressida Cowell is a passionate advocate for children’s creativity. She drew her first dragon aged 9 years old, and her ‘How To Train Your Dragon’ series is now a billion-dollar franchise with Dreamworks. She is also author-illustrator of the ‘The Wizards of Once’ series and author of the ‘Emily Brown’ picture books. She believes that “creativity is magic and magic is for everyone”.  

Finding your personal quest

She always wanted to be an author, and said that children tend to know what their quest is.

Her preference is for stories that move the reader, stories that “make you laugh, make you cry and make you think”. These plots ask questions like: what makes a hero? Or what is our relationship with the natural world?

Her own personal quest is to create books that give the wonder she found in stories as a child. For young people looking to follow on a similar path, she advocates determination. She referenced the power of an inspiring teacher who at a very young age, showed faith in her imagination and encouraged her to record ideas and sketches in a notebook.

 Writing with no rules

She wants to get children reading and feeling inspired in a similar way through exciting adventure stories: “There are no rules when writing for children. You have to know your own style and have confidence in it.”

Her book covers glitter like sweets to attract young readers, but these are not simply mass-market publications; they are intelligent, intent on holding children’s attention and sparking their interest. The plots are wildly unexpected, “rattling out of control” with a rollercoaster-like energy but with space for thoughtful moments. She likened the stories to music because it’s about “balancing text, thoughtfulness and humour.”

She also pays attention to the visuals and packs her books full of beautiful illustrations. “They are very scrawly and you can see the mark making. They look like something a child could do themselves. They are very immediate.”

“Part of my job as a writer is to kickstart children’s creativity.”

Creating characters to care about

Cressida Cowell says one of the most important aspects of writing is engaging children by creating characters they truly care about by presenting them with a different kind of hero. “Heroes like Hiccup … an inventor, solving problems through his creativity, empathy and intelligence.”

Her intention is that her books are read aloud. “‘Books read to you in your parents’ voice live with you all your life. It’s a shared joy. They are magical, powerful things and have the sort of wisdom in them that can change your life.”

 Looking to the future

In her role as Waterstones Children’s Laureate, she looks ahead to an ambitious programme that is focused on reading and supporting libraries, in particular school libraries. She described how going to schools and meeting with children, hearing their questions and their thoughts has been extremely instructive.

Now in this period of lockdown, creativity is more important than ever and should not be underestimated. She says children deserve equality and access. This includes a space in their school week to create – even just for 15 minutes. No marking, purely for fun! “We need to tap into that potential!”

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Catherine Trewavas

About the author

Catherine Trewavas

TV Researcher

Catherine began writing for The Children's Media Conference blog in 2017 and is delighted to be back this year! She works as a TV Researcher at Avanti Media and Nine Lives Media, previously having worked in various departments at the BBC. These included Blue Peter, CBeebies Radio, BBC Children’s Acquisitions… Read more