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How To Train Your Readers? Fire Their Imaginations

Author Cressida Cowell knows a thing or two about getting young people to pick up a book...

  • How To Train Your Readers? Fire Their Imaginations

My first role as a book writer for young people is to get as many of them as possible reading for pleasure.

It has to be ‘for pleasure’ because, as many will know, numerous studies from the National Literacy Trust show [PDF] that the two key factors in a child’s later educational success are 1) parental involvement in education and 2) reading for pleasure.

Make no mistake – encouraging children to read for pleasure is not a luxury, but of paramount importance for our society.

Fighting for survival

How do I see my job, as an author? It’s simple, really. I’m passionately fighting for the survival of books as a medium, because of what I believe is books’ unique capacity for awakening empathy and creative thinking.

When I was a teenager the telly was terrible; there was no internet, no PlayStation. Now, TV programming is glorious and incessant; parents who work full time are knackered and therefore less likely to have the time and energy to read to their children before bedtime; libraries are closing on high streets and even more worryingly in schools

It’s an Impossible Quest! But everyone who has read my books will know, I do love an Impossible Quest…

Because it’s worth it…

Things that happen on a screen happen ‘out there’, but in a book they happen inside your head. You can be given endless history lessons on WWI, but when you read a book, you are poor Private Peaceful walking out to the Front.

Reading requires effort, whereas telly is magically ‘beamed’ into children’s heads. My job is to therefore make the books as worth the effort as possible.

When I was a kid living on a little island, I was prepared to put up with some ‘boring bits’ because there was no competition for my attention. Young people nowadays will not tolerate that, so I have to make my books more visual, because readers are more visual. I break up the text with ink splats; I put in wild and whirling child-centric illustrations.

I’m also trying to get them reading something that makes them more intelligent; that stimulates their natural curiosity and inquisitiveness, without them realising it. I never, ever dumb down. Why would you need to? I presuppose the intelligence of young readers, because if you underestimate them you tend to create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I want to engage their curious spirit, so these are the kind of questions I’m asking them in these little fantasy books about dragons...

• Can we influence our own individual fates and the fate of our society?
• What is your relationship with your parents and family, and what is your responsibility to your Tribe?
• How should we look after our environment, the wilderness and the natural world around us?
• What makes a good leader?
• Is it ever justifiable to go to war?

I don’t present them with easy answers, because there aren’t any easy answers out there. Just as teachers encourage students to apply their learning to the world around them, I want their reading to provoke curiosity and critical thinking.

Creative solutions

I’ve been going into schools as an author-illustrator for over 20 years now – 10 of them as an Ambassador for the National Literacy Trust – and I’ve seen much that’s inspiring. I strongly believe that today’s children are inherently curious, creative and imaginative.

I also believe that teachers and librarians, despite the extreme pressures they and their libraries are under, are doing a fantastic job of nurturing that creativity and encouraging their students to think. I’ve been sent not only wonderful dragon drawings and stories, but also loom band dragons, photos of libraries transformed into the Isle of Berk, videoed interpretations – the list is huge.

I’m often asked by teachers, what is the one thing I believe they can do or provide to encourage creativity? My answer is this – make space for it.

Logic and imagination

I know that time is perhaps the most precious resource a teacher has, and I know that it’s increasingly under pressure, especially in timetable-restricted secondary schools. However, I believe passionately that asking young people to create something in a notebook on a regular basis, which is never corrected or even looked at unless the child offers, is one of the most valuable things a teacher can facilitate.

This doesn’t just have to be in an English lesson or a library study period. Creativity and imagination can take place in any subject, and both are integral to every student in every lesson.

One of my favourite quotes on this is from Albert Einstein: “‘Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”

We need to teach young people logic, but we also need to enable their imaginations.

Enthusing children to read for pleasure is a group effort. Teachers, librarians, booksellers, parents, authors, the work of the teams at World Book Day and the National Literacy Trust… We are all part of the same campaign, and I can think of no better cause, or team, of which I’d rather be a part.

Cressida Cowell is a writer-illustrator and creator of the ‘Hiccup’ books, subsequently adapted as the How To Train Your Dragon films and TV series, Riders of Berk; for more information, visit www.cressidacowell.co.uk or follow @CressidaCowell

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