I have been a children’s author for 20 years and am constantly reminded of the importance of reading for pleasure at school visits, festival events and through my work as an ambassador for the National Literacy Trust.
Study after study has demonstrated how crucial reading for pleasure is for academic success, mental health and even later economic success: being able to read does not give the same benefits as enjoying it. Getting the right book into the right child’s hands is crucial for helping children to discover a love of reading.
Even as a children’s author, I found it a struggle to find books that would turn one of my kids into a reader for pleasure. In my own case, it wasn’t my son who didn’t get into reading, it was my active daughter who wouldn’t sit still. It took a lot of persistence, and I sympathise hugely with parents and teachers trying to get children reading for the joy of it when they’re fighting against ever-more pressurised school exams and targets.
Books 'open doors into other worlds'
I work very hard to try and make the storylines of my books pacy and thrilling, and I break up the text with as many wild and whirling illustrations as I can, to invite the child in and to reward them for sticking with the story. I make the cover shiny and jewel-like so that, in the mind of the child, books are sweets, not Brussels sprouts.
Books are like opening doors into other worlds, and reading fiction is the finest way of encouraging empathy in a child. When you watch a movie or television, all the action happens "up there", on the screen. But in a book, it is happening inside your head. In a lovely quote from one of my favourite books, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb in his skin and walk around in it." Books are a unique medium that allow you to do this, to walk around in somebody else’s skin.
Here are some of my favourites – all of which are glorious for an adult to read aloud to a child:
The Ogre Downstairs by Diana Wynne Jones
This book has wicked stepfathers, and chemicals that make you fly and bring your toys to life. When I was nine years-old, I read it to my brother and sister, my cousins, to anyone who would listen, and years later, I read it to my own children. I have never met a child who does not love this book.
Charlie and Lola: I Will Not Ever Never Eat a Tomato by Lauren Child
Lauren is a childhood friend of mine, and I remember her very first sketches of Charlie and Lola. My daughter Maisie played Lola in early episodes of the TV series, 10 years ago. It’s hard to pick a favourite of Lauren’s books, but this is such a brilliant example of Lauren’s genius and wit.
The Lorax by Dr Suess
This is an incredibly important book with a message about environmentalism. “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot/Nothing is going to get better, it’s not." You have a heart of stone if you’re not moved by this book.
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
My childhood summers were spent on a remote Scottish island, and this was a favourite of mine – a thrilling adventure story with compelling characters. I use this book as an example when I’m talking to children, because Robert Louis Stevenson began the story by drawing a map, which is a great way of encouraging creativity. (You might also notice that I begin the first How to Train Your Dragon book by drawing a map of the Isle of Berk. This is not a coincidence…)
Holes by Louis Sachar
Stanley Yelnats is a young delinquent who is pointlessly digging holes at Camp Green Lake as punishment for a crime he did not commit. A thrilling story of crime, redemption and how the past haunts the present.
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
Pippi Longstocking was so strong she could lift a horse above her head. She had independent means, no visible parents, the cheek of several Peter Pans and her very own monkey. I longed to be her when I was a child.
Wonder by RJ Palacio
I think this is one of the best children’s books of recent years. A wonderfully moving story that encourages children to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.
The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien
Tolkien created the most complete, immersive world, which was a real inspiration for me when I began writing How to Train Your Dragon.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, illustrated by Jim Kay
I love books and writers that make you feel something, whether that’s because they’re funny or sad or exciting. This a beautiful, moving book, and I recommend the edition with truly stunning illustrations by Jim Kay.
Cressida Cowell is author and illustrator of the How to Train Your Dragon and Wizards of Once books. She appears at Hay Festival 2019, 23 May to 2 June, as part of the festival's Programme for Schools and in Haydays events for families over half term.
Hay Festival has partnered with Tes to celebrate inspiring books for young people. To support the #BooksToInspire initiative, you can nominate your favourite titles here. Everyone who nominates a book will be entered into a prize draw to win the selected titles for a school of their choosing. A blockbuster panel of writers including Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Tishani Doshi, Huw Edwards, Daljit Nagra, Chris Riddell and Jeanette Winterson will discuss the campaign at Hay Festival 2019. Book tickets here.