Cressida Cowell reveals How To Train Your Dragon is ‘very autobiographical’

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Cressida Cowell is made a MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) by the Princess Royal (Aaron Chown/PA) (PA Wire)
Cressida Cowell is made a MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) by the Princess Royal (Aaron Chown/PA) (PA Wire)

Cressida Cowell has revealed the central storyline of her fantasy series, How To Train Your Dragon, is “very autobiographical” as she was recognised for her writing with an MBE at Windsor Castle on Wednesday.

The Children’s Laureate said the relationship between the books’ central Viking characters, Stoick and Hiccup, is based on her own relationship with her father.

Cowell received her honour for Services to Children’s Literature from the Princess Royal in a ceremony she described as “really thrilling and exciting”.

The storyline of How To Train Your Dragon, which sold 11 million copies and became a DreamWorks film series, centres around a macho father and Viking leader called Stoick the Vast, and his small, clumsy but inventive son Hiccup.

In a world where Vikings are the mortal enemies of dragons, Stoick is the chief dragon slayer, but Hiccup cannot bring himself to follow in his father’s footsteps after growing attached to a dragon named Toothless.

The story is set on the uninhabited Scottish Isle of Berk, where Cowell spent every summer since she was born with her father.

She said there was no electricity on the island, and while her father pursued fishing and bird-watching, she delved into fantasy tales written by real-world Vikings who once lived there.

Speaking at Windsor Castle, Cowell told the PA news agency: “The series is set in a real place, it’s really about Viking Scotland.

“When I was a child my dad worked in London but he was a very keen bird-watcher.

“Every year from when I was a baby we would be dropped off on this uninhabited island off the west coast of Scotland.

“Scotland was the first place the Vikings invaded in Britain and the last place they left, so real Vikings lived on that island, and Vikings believed that dragons really existed.

“So I would be reading tales, we spent the whole summer on this island and there was nothing on it, no houses, no electricity, my dad had one house built there.

“I used to go about that island looking for dragons, so it’s actually rooted in reality, and I suppose Stoic, who is the father, is my father.

“Hiccup’s relationship is very much my relationship with my father.

“It’s all very autobiographical, although that sounds crazy.”

Cressida Cowell receives an MBE (Aaron Chown/PA) (PA Wire)
Cressida Cowell receives an MBE (Aaron Chown/PA) (PA Wire)

Cowell said she felt she was accepting her award on behalf of the “whole world of fiction” but her latest aspirations are set in the real world.

In April this year, Cowell warned of a “vast inequality” in the provision of primary school libraries, and called for Boris Johnson to ring-fence a yearly investment of £100 million.

Along with former Laureates including Michael Rosen and Sir Quentin Blake, Cowell signed a letter to the Prime Minister highlighting how children, particularly those from the poorest communities, are missing out on the opportunity to read for pleasure.

When asked how important it is that children who have grown up during the pandemic have access to fiction like her own, she said: “The two or three factors in a kid’s later economic success – one of them is reading for pleasure, the other is parental involvement in education.

“How can a child read for pleasure if their parents can’t afford books and there isn’t a library in their school?

“And one in eight primary schools doesn’t have a library, and children on free school meals are twice as likely to be in a school which doesn’t have a library, and that’s just not fair.

“So I’ve been trying to talk about this, because I think a lot of people don’t realise that.

“I’ve been campaigning to make schools able to have a library.”

Cowell said she is “determined” to keep asking the Government to ensure all children have access to libraries.

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