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The author and illustrator of the How to Train Your Dragon series arrives in Blackpool this week to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the books beloved by children and parents alike. She chats to Blackpool Social Club about her ambitions for every child to have access to books and stories.

Cowell, who was Children’s Laureate in 2019, will visit the Winter Gardens conference centre on Thursday (15th June) where school children will visit to hear her top tips on becoming an author or illustrator.

The series of 19 books is now a film and TV franchise and she’ll also be giving children insight into the behind-the-scene process of transforming her stories from page to screen. She’ll also be discussing her inspiration for the series and performing live illustrations.

Tickets are available to the general public and each child in attendance will receive a complimentary copy of the How to Train Your Dragon Anniversary Edition (RRP £12.99), which includes a brand-new story, How to Train Your Hogfly.

How does it feel to be celebrating 20 years of the series?
Astonishing, because in some ways it seems like no time at all, but also wonderful. I’m now meeting teachers, booksellers and librarians who read the book when they were young, and are now passing them on. There is no better feeling, as an author.

What can we expect from your Blackpool event?
I want to inspire the children (and adults!) to love reading, and to think of themselves as creative people too. We need the authors and illustrators of the future! I’m going to be talking about how How to Train Your Dragon is sort of a true story (really!) and giving them writing and illustration tips.

You have spoken before about how your illustration and story writing was developed as a child while spending weeks in your family’s cottage on an uninhabited Scottish island with no television or phone. Is technology is hindering children’s creativity?
I think the key is balance. I don’t want to tell parents what to do – one summer my kids watched so much telly that one of them started to get an American accent! But we read loads, too.

Did your own children inherit any of your story telling or artistic abilities?
All of them! I’m much less good than them, sometimes – I have a terrible visual memory, and the whole family once laughed at me for drawing a pear with a stalk on the wrong end. My older daughter is an artist, my younger daughter has just finished an English and creative writing degree and my son has just started uni.

You joined the likes of Quentin Blake and Jaqueline Wilson as Children’s Laureate in 2019. What did the role mean to you and did you achieve what you set out to?
I’m ambitious, so I started out with a Children’s Laureate Charter, which sets out what I believe in. One of my main projects was Life-Changing Libraries. One in seven schools do not have a library, and for a lot of children who do not have books at home, they are vital. We did a study of the difference a school library can make, and the results startled even me. It has been estimated that if all children were to read for pleasure, the economic impact of their increased skills and therefore increased incomes, would raise the UK’s GDP by £4.6 billion per year within a generation.

Only 61.3 per cent of children in Blackpool reached the expected level of literacy at the end of the reception in 2021/22, compared to 67.1 per cent nationally and 63.6 per cent across the North West. Can reading be transformative in itself, or does deprivation and regional inequality need tackling for literacy to follow?
I don’t think it’s an either/or. Of course, children need to have enough to eat, and a safe place to live, first and foremost, but to say that they cannot also have access to books is a very low bar in the UK in 2023. We know from literally years of research that the benefits of reading for pleasure are life changing, across all social backgrounds, and whoever children’s parents are. Children who read do better at school, they are happier, they are less likely to be in prison, they are healthier. Money put into school libraries will be repaid to us all. Reading for pleasure is not a soft skill, it is vital.

Do you think rigorous standardised testing in schools and the pressure of homework associated with them actually obstruct children from reading and, vitally, enjoying it?
Again, the key is balance. Of course we need to ensure children learn key skills, but we also need to leave space for creativity. My nickname at school was Messy Cressy, but stories I started writing age nine is now a billion dollar franchise. The creative industries make £100 billion a year for the UK economy, and we need creative people throughout society to tackle the complex problems in this world.

 

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    Antonia Charlesworth Stack is a journalist and editor from Blackpool. She was deputy editor of Big Issue North magazine and is editor of Blackpool Social Club. Antonia is also the founder of Reclaim Blackpool, a women's safety campaign that began life as an article she wrote for Blackpool Social Club. She's a contributing author to the Lancashire Stories anthology with her story about a Blackpool performer, The Call of The Sea. The book is available for free in libraries across the county.

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