Last July, I was lucky enough to be made the United Kingdom’s Children’s Laureate at a ceremony held at the Globe Theatre in London. The Globe is a reconstruction of the Elizabethan playhouse for which William Shakespeare wrote his plays. I was thrilled with the choice of such a culturally significant venue because it represented something important: that encouraging children to read for the joy of it ought to be central to our culture, and that we never need to write "down” to them.
Every child should have the right to read for the joy of it. This is one of the most powerful and life-enhancing gifts we can give to our children. Study after study has shown that the two key factors in a kid’s later economic and educational success are parental involvement in education and reading for the joy of it.
Books and reading are a special transformative kind of magic that we cannot lose.
I am immensely proud of the DreamWorks Animation movie adaptations of my books “How to Train Your Dragon.” I love them, and movies provide wonderful stories that can do things books can’t. A film director can use music, for example, to help shape a powerful, emotional story. And no amount of verbal description of “flying on the back of a dragon” can ever compete with the glory of seeing it happen right in front of your eyes.
However, I am passionately fighting for the survival of books as a medium because of their unique capacity for awakening children’s natural intelligence, empathy, and creative thinking. These are magical powers we are going to need in the future.
Books encourage intelligence.
The more words you give kids, the more they inhale them, joyously. Instead of giving them reading lists, encourage reading for the pure joy of it, and watch the more interesting and more intelligent thoughts they form.
Books encourage empathy.
Things that happen on a screen happen “out there,” but in a book they happen inside your head. Books are the best way I know to “climb into someone else’s skin and walk around in it,” to quote Atticus Finch from Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Books encourage creative thinking and reflection.
Film is a “bossy” medium — it tells you exactly how characters and settings appear, how they sound — whereas in a book the reader has to engage in their own act of creation to fill in the blanks. A book is partly what I write, and partly what you imagine.
So how do you get children — all children — to read for the joy of it? For some children, reading is considered difficult or a struggle.
I work hard to overturn that impression, and make sure that my story lines are fast-paced and thrilling, worth the effort the child has invested to access them. Even though my books are for older readers, I break up the text with as many wild and whirling, messy, child-centric illustrations as I can, to invite the child in, and to reward them for sticking with the story.
But I never dumb down.
Children are natural philosophers, natural linguists, naturally curious. I pre-suppose the intelligence of children, because if you underestimate children, you tend to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Children are interested in the truly important things in life: heroism, bullying, wilderness, our relationship with the natural world, death, love, spirituality, and adventure. (As well as owning your own giant and riding on the back of flying doors and laughing at the naughtiness of sprites.)
My job is to engage the questioning spirit of children, so these are the kinds of questions I ask the kids in these little fantasy books about dragons and wizards: Can we influence our own individual fates and the fate of our society? What is your relationship with your family, and what is your responsibility to your tribe? How should we look after the environment? What makes a good leader?
What I find is that children engage with the questions the books ask. They rise to the challenge. There is nothing in these books so intelligent that a kid hasn’t picked up on it.
Books are powerful, magical things that can make your dad cry, or your mom laugh, and have the sort of wisdom in them that can change your life.
For all of this to happen, of course, children need access to new books, to classic books, to every kind of genre, and to audiobooks, too. I have toured in the United States and seen wonderful libraries bursting with choice. I’ve met passionate librarians, booksellers, and teachers, all of whom are skilled in getting the right book into the hands of the right kid at the right time. I’ve met parents who read together with their kids regularly.
Books read to you by your parents live with you all your life. It’s a shared joy, and sends an important message to a child: books are powerful, magical things that can make your dad cry, or your mom laugh, and have the sort of wisdom that can change your life.
Often in children’s books, the adult protagonists find that they have as much to learn from children as children have to learn from adults. We can learn from children’s hopefulness, their endless questioning, and their belief in the impossible. Children are the most creative people in the world because they don’t yet know the rules.
And we’re going to need every single ounce of the magical powers of creativity, intelligence, and empathy to come up with solutions to the current hydra-headed political and scientific challenges facing an increasingly polarized world.
Everything we do to invest in getting kids to read for the joy of it will be given back to us all a hundredfold in the years to come.
Cressida Cowell is the author and illustrator of the “How to Train Your Dragon” and “The Wizards of Once” series. Her latest book is “The Wizards of Once: Knock Three Times.”