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Awkward, Preteen Wizards Charm Readers In Iron-Age Cressida Cowell Novel

"The Wizards of Once," by Cressida Cowell. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"The Wizards of Once," by Cressida Cowell. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

What happens when you’re a 12-year-old wizard with no magic? Or an enemy warrior girl with no interest in fighting? In Cressida Cowell‘s new novel “The Wizards of Once,” you embark on a series of adventures involving giants, wildcats, sprites, domineering parents — who happen to be rulers — dungeons and magic.

Cowell (@CressidaCowell), best known for her “How to Train Your Dragon” series of books and movies, joins Here & Now‘s Robin Young to talk about the new novel, which Cowell says is the first in a series.

Interview Highlights

On the book’s setting

“It’s a world split in two. It’s set in the Iron Age, 3,000 years ago, a world in which magic really exists. It’s wild woods, giants, sprites. And the two protagonists are from tribes that are at war. So this is a community that is split in half — the warriors and wizards are fighting each other to the death.”

On her message for young people in the book

“This isn’t just about young people. I suppose the core message is about empathy. On a screen, things happen out there. And in a book, they’re happening inside your head — you are that person. So this book is very much about empathy, and trying to provoke empathy. The two protagonists have to try and see things from each other’s point of view.”

On her books’ tone

“It’s a complicated tone, because I want my books to work on a number of different levels. I want them to be very grabby, make children want to read them. I always think that books should be like sweets, not Brussels sprouts. They make you laugh, they maybe make you cry or they make you think. And so I have a real mixture of things going on in the books all the time. It makes it complicated with the pacing and the rhythm of it. But I think you should never dumb down to children. I have confidence in the intelligence of children.”

On the inspiration behind the book’s illustrations

“I did a lot of looking at traditional ideas of fairies and sprites, and Arthur Rackham, who illustrated ‘Peter Pan,’ and in the same way I looked at a lot of traditional texts about magic. … But I also want to make things feel relevant and modern for children, so I look at things like punk in the illustrations, and there’s a British fashion designer called Alexander McQueen who uses punk and insects in his designs, and I try and get that sort of modern kind of reinventing-a-classic kind of feel into the illustration, to overturn the idea in the kid’s mind that books are something schoolie, they’re something old fashioned. While at the same time, not dumbing down. So it’s a complicated process I’m going through.

“The other thing that books are very good at igniting in a kid is creativity, because books don’t tell you everything. So presenting them with problems that need to be solved in the books — and not necessarily giving them the answers — but also in illustrations, presenting them with a magic that they maybe haven’t seen before. That then ignites hopefully their own creativity. I love it when kids send me in pictures of their own dragons, because of the ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ series. But also I’m hoping they’re going to send me pictures of their own imaginations of magic.”

On how her childhood helped inspire her work

“I have to say, my dad was a businessman, so I grew up in London in a house without a garden. But he’s also an environmentalist, and so his heart was in the wilderness. Every year from when I was a baby, we would be taken by a local boatman to an island off the west coast of Scotland. We’d be dropped off by the boatman, and picked up again two weeks later. Absolutely no way of contacting the outside world if something went wrong. By the time I was 9, my dad had a house built on the island so we could spend the whole summer there. That was where the Vikings first came to, that part of Scotland, when they invaded Great Britain, and it was the last place they left. The Isle of Berk is that island, in ‘How to Train Your Dragon.’ So, extraordinary childhood which totally ignited my imagination.”

Book Excerpt: ‘The Wizards Of Once’

By Cressida Cowell

Excerpted from THE WIZARDS OF ONCE by Cressida Cowell. Copyright © 2017 by Cressida Cowell. Republished with permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.


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