Stuck at home with your little ones – it’s time to look at the positives! Shut down all screens and let them fall in love with books all over again. Now is a great time to reflect on the importance of reading and who better to extol the magic of reading than Cressida Cowell…
I’d like to focus on magic, because magic just so happens to be my area of expertise and I have two simple key messages.
Point number one, books and reading are Magic and point number two, this Magic must be made urgently available to absolutely everyone.
Children are inherently curious, questioning and capable of extraordinarily original pathways of thinking. This ability to think creatively and outside of the box is exclusive to kids because they don’t know the rules yet. To quote Einstein: ‘It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.’
The small child who closes their eyes, and thinks that because SHE can’t see YOU, YOU can’t see HER, in her own mind has the power to make herself invisible. The child who tries to jump off a box, holding an umbrella, in their own mind is not subject to the laws of gravity. A child can say, in the joyous power of the moment: ‘Watch me jump over the whole world!’ – and mean it.
For me, this is magic, and magic is synonymous with childhood, creativity and originality. We need that magic, we need the people of the future to be, if anything, MORE creative, than they have been in the past.
Magic is creating something out of nothing, it’s creativity in action. And this is what is happening every time a kid reads a book, or a poem.
Without them realising it, new pathways are being forged in their brains as they struggle to make sense of it. Words are POWER. The more words you give kids, the more interesting and intelligent the thoughts they can have.
Books are transformative magic because of their unique ability to develop three key magical powers, INTELLIGENCE, CREATIVITY, and EMPATHY. Books are wonderful at developing empathy because while things on a screen happen ‘out there’, in a book they are happening inside your head, it’s like walking around in somebody else’s skin, to quote ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.
And yet we have a huge interconnected problem in the UK. Libraries and bookshops are closing, librarians are disappearing, telly is glorious, review space is shrinking, parents are knackered, the kids are on the Nintendo switch… The magic of books is becoming harder to access, which is having a knock-on effect on social mobility and on creativity.
Britain needs creative kids – creativity is so important both to an individual’s achievement and to the UK economy. Our creative industries make £101.5 billion a year and are growing twice as fast as the rest of the economy. We must encourage the next generation to continue this strength. Whatever path they choose in life, creative thinking is invaluable – problem-solving, innovative ideas, and dealing with new challenges are skills that children can begin learning at an early age with nothing more than a notebook and a pencil.
As Children’s Laureate, I’ve created ‘CRESSIDA COWELL’S WATERSTONES CHILDREN’S LAUREATE CHARTER’ which is basically a great big To Do list with solutions to great big problems. One item on the list is for children to be creative for at least 15 minutes a week. Here are some tips to encourage children to write, draw and be creative:
Tip one:Writing is like telling a really big lie
The more detail you put into your writing, and the more you base it on a tiny grain of truth, the more it comes alive in your reader’s head. The example I use for this tip is from How to Train Your Dragon. If I say to you, ‘Gobber has a big red beard’, you can see the image in your head a bit, but not very well. If I say that, ‘Gobber has a beard like exploding fireworks’, or, ‘Gobber has a beard like a hedgehog struck by lightning’, you can see the image much more clearly. An extension to this is to think about your senses when you’re describing. If you use words that encourage your reader to smell, hear, taste, see or touch, then your story is more compelling.
Tip two: Research is a boring word for something REALLY exciting
If you’re stuck for where to start a story, then surprising facts about the real world can give you loads of ideas. For example, I read somewhere that Vikings trained cats for battle, because when you’re sword-fighting an opponent, it’s very difficult to sword fight when a cat is attacking your head. This gave me an idea that I then put in one of my books (How to Fight a Dragon’s Fury). Many of my dragons in How to Train Your Dragonare based on extraordinary fish: for example, the Monstrous Strangulator Dragon is transparent, like a Barrel-Eye fish. For The Wizards of Once, I did a huge amount of reading about Ancient Britain: the Iron Warrior Fort is the same shape as an Iron Age Hill Fort, and the ancient forest Kingley Vale in Sussex gave me the setting for the Wildwood. Both history and the natural world are full of unbelievable facts and questions that you can base stories on.
Tip three: Draw a map of your imaginary place (provide images of WOO and Dragons maps)
A map is a very useful starting point for a story. Many great books begin with a map – Treasure Island, for example, or Peter Pan. I use maps, too for every new world. Draw a map of your imaginary place. Give it boundaries, which can be either sea or land, and give it place names. How long would it take to get from place to place? Are there any obstacles? Maps encourage you to think about your characters too, because as soon as your settings have names, you start to wonder who lives there.
And finally, research shows that as long as you are reading for the joy* of it you’re likely to be happier, healthier, more likely to vote, more likely to own your own home, more likely to not be in prison….these are powerful, measurable real-life benefits that can transform lives, and the great thing is that it doesn’t seem to matter what social class you are from, these powers can still apply and develop if you’re reading for the joy of it …
Books ought to be available to all. But if your parents can’t afford to buy books, and your primary school hasn’t got a school library, how on earth are you supposed to become a reader for pleasure?
*beingableto read does not give the same benefits as enjoying it