Cressida Cowell, the bestselling author of the How to Train Your Dragon series, is an animated storyteller both in her books and over the phone. While speaking passionately about history and magical worlds she makes jokes and laughs uproariously. She says she acts out her books as she writes them – and it’s easy to imagine her in her home studio doing voices, performing sword fights, and casting spells. On Sept. 19, Cowell releases the first book in a new middle-grade adventure series, Wizards of Once. The novel follows two 13-year-old children – a wizard and a warrior – who are meant to be enemies but are drawn to each other. DreamWorks has already bought the film rights for the new series – and Cowell is excited to introduce her newest characters, X’ar and Wish, to the world. She spoke with Quill & Quire about dragons, wizards, and the responsibilities of being a successful children’s author.
On ending the Dragon series
I loved doing a long series. I think they’re great for children, especially ones who are having difficulty reading. With a series, they know they love the characters and the world and it’s going to be worth the effort. But the How To Train Your Dragon books always had an end point in my mind. It’s a story about growing up and one day, unfortunately, that does happen. It was a story about what happened to dragons, why you don’t see them anymore and how [the main character] Hiccup was involved.
On starting a new series
The thing about a new series is that when you loved something so much – as I loved Hiccup and the locale where the books were set – you want to love the new one as much and for the reader to love it as much. So I started researching and doing pictures for the new one about five years ago. I’ve been working on it for a long time, which is necessary to work my way into the world and into the characters.
On the setting of Wizards of Once
My grandmother grew up in Sussex and I spent a lot of time in that area. Just behind the house was this 3,000-year-old Iron Age hill fort. Britain is just stuffed with that sort of thing. There was no sign saying, “3,000-year-old hill fort, be careful.” We used it to toboggan down. It was incredible for a child. You can see why there were all sorts of legends about how giants had made these hill forts, they’re enormous. There was another hill where I used to think that fairies lived. You can understand why a millennial of people thought that giants and sprites and magical creatures really existed. So I started thinking what if they did and what if all these legends are true and I set the book in ancient Briain at the dawn of the Iron Age.
On making her books fun to read out loud
I always think that a book read to you in your parent’s voice lives with you all your life. If your mom laughs or your dad cries while they’re reading aloud to you and you can see them being moved or excited, that sends such a message to kids that reading is important, that books matter. But parents are not necessarily doing this, they think once kids can read by themselves you leave them to it. And I think it’s really important to carry that on even if it’s 10 minutes at the end of the day. That’s why I make up languages and give characters a stammer or a lisp, so there can be voices, so it can be a performance.
On becoming a successful children’s author
It took a long time. I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I studied English at [Oxford] University then I went to art school for five years, did an MA in narrative illustration. I came from a balanced illustrative and writing background, it was always pictures and words. For the first five years, I was writing picture books that nobody was reading at all. How to Train Your Dragon  was my first fiction, but that wasn’t instant fame and fortune. I always tell children, writing books isn’t a reliable way to fame and fortune, my god. But I do encourage kids to go into creative industries, because we are good at it [in the U.K.] and there are jobs here. I feel they’re not being told that at school. But you have to go into it for the love of it.
On her personal quest
For me, writing for children is all bound up with the survival of books as a medium. I have a quest to help be part of that movement to save books, which are under threat from the screens, internet, the telly. I want to work with teachers, librarians, and parents to create the readers of tomorrow. My most important contribution is to make books that children want to read. That’s why I make them very visual, pacy, exciting, funny, but not dumbed down – children are just as clever as they ever were. The lovely thing is that over here the children’s book market has been expanding. We sold twice as many books in 2013 than in 1998, which is astonishing. We’re winning the fight, but not for all children. Some children we just aren’t reaching. That’s one of the reasons I’m very happy to have my books turned into films, because they reach children who are not from book-reading families. Maybe they’ll see the film and come to the book.
On her childhood friendship with Lauren Child, author of the Charlie and Lola series
Not many other children’s book authors were best friends at school, it’s one of those weird coincidences. I happened to be in the same high school with Lauren, and her father was the art teacher. He was very charismatic and a brilliant teacher, he encouraged both of us to go into art. When we left school, Lauren and I went our different ways. Then, 10 years later we both had our first book published.