Q. What inspired you to create this world of dragons and Vikings?

I spent a great deal of time as a child on a tiny, uninhabited island off the west coast of Scotland. The island had no roads, houses or electricity.

The name of the island is a secret, but it was such a small island it wasn’t really big enough to have a name at all. There were no roads or shops, just a storm-blown, windy wilderness of sea-birds and heather.

When I was four, my family would be dropped off like castaways on the island by a local boatman and picked up again two weeks. There was nothing on it at all, just us and a bit of a tent.

In those days there was no such thing as mobile phones and so if somebody broke their leg or their neck or got horrible food poisoning or acute appendicitis my parents had ABSOLUTELY NO WAY WHATSOEVER of getting help from the outside world.
If something went wrong, we just had to sit tight and hope that the boat really did come to pick us up in two weeks time.

But even then, as a small child, I had a sense of how mad it was of them, but it was also an incredible experience to have a whole island to explore to yourself. I was a bit more of a worrier than my parents and so even as a four year old I thought they were completely crazy.

I thought they were even crazier when they got a boat, because my father was a very confident sailor but he didn’t really know what he was doing. He was clueless but bossy. There was something glorious about the dignified way my father barked out orders while heading us straight into a Force Eight gale, or hitting a rock, or accidentally tying the boat to a lobster pot instead of a buoy.

This was what gave me the idea for the characters of Hiccup and his father Stoick..

By the time I was eight, my family had built a small stone house on the island, and with the boat, we could fish for enough food to feed the family for the whole summer.

From then on, every year we spent four weeks of the summer and two weeks of the spring on the island. The house was lit by candle-light, and there was no telephone or television, so I spent a lot of time drawing and writing stories. In the evening, my father told us tales of the Vikings who invaded this island Archipelago twelve hundred years before, of the quarrelsome Tribes who fought and tricked each other, and of the legends of dragons who were supposed to live in the caves in the cliffs.

It felt like the kind of place where dragons really could have existed and it was, of course, one of the first places the Vikings came to and one of the last places they left… that whole area has that Viking heritage.

That was when I first started writing stories about dragons and Vikings, way back when I was nine or ten years old.

Q. Does the film match the book visually?

Yes and no. The island is actually very close to my vision in the book. The island it’s based on is Scottish, which doesn’t make sense, but it’s very similar in the wildness of that. Of course, in the book you can’t explain the wildness of it but that’s what’s so wonderful about having the movie, it can paint the picture that you can only really hint at in the book. And particularly Hiccup I just think is a deeply satisfying performance, both acting and animation wise.

There used to be a distancing with cartoons in a way, they used to be drawn characters, but he [Hiccup] feels to me like a real little boy, so you can really identify with him and that just gives the story so much emotional power with him and Stoick, and that beautiful father-son relationship that they have where they have those conversations where they can’t quite communicate with one another but they still love each other… So, those are the bits I love in the film. I think it’s an amazing film. I can’t thank the directors enough.

Q. You said this was autobiographical in terms of location. Can we presume therefore that you are Hiccup?

Well…, yes. I suppose so. My dad, who I love and adore, was always someone who I felt was a little bit hard to live up to because he was such a wonderful man and so good at everything and I was a creative person, like Hiccup in the books. So, yes there’s a lot of that in there.

Q. Are any of the characters in the Hiccup books like YOU?

I identify with Hiccup a lot, because I think he is in a really difficult situation, trying to live up to a parent, (Stoick), who is very different from him. However, Hiccup is a diffident person who doesn’t put himself forward as Mr Important, but in fact he is full of clever ideas and very calm in a crisis. (He would actually make a great Leader of the Tribe one day if those stupid Hooligans would only recognize how lucky they were to have him as the Heir.)

I, on the other hand, am a bit of a show-off and in a crisis situation I tend to panic and run around in circles.

Q. Who is your favourite character in the Hiccup books?

I hate this question because I love writing ALL the characters.  It is particularly enjoyable writing characters who have characteristics you really wish you had. For instance I would have loved to have been as naughty as Toothless, or to have had Camicazi’s style and cheekiness and swordfighting skills.

Q. Why are you so interested in dragons?

I have always been fascinated by dragons. So were the Vikings. They thought that dragons were magical creatures because they could live in all four elements, earth, air, fire, and water.

Q. Do you do any research for the Hiccup books?

The Hiccup books are really ‘fantasy’ books pretending to be ‘history’ books. (The dragons are a bit of a clue, here). In real history, the Vikings could never have met the Romans, as they do in How to Speak Dragonese, because they missed each other by about three hundred years. 

However, even though the history in the Hiccup books is not to be relied on, I still do masses of research. History is full of fascinating facts that give me ideas for storylines. For instance, I found out that in the harsh, snowy winters, the Vikings used skis to get around, and this gave me the idea for the ski-chase at the beginning of How to Cheat a Dragon’s Curse.

Q. What was your favourite subject at school?

I had this wonderful history teacher called Miss Macdonald who used to get us to do homework like ‘Imagine you are a child in the Palace of Knossos in ancient Crete’ or ‘Imagine you are Christopher Columbus on the way to America’. Thankyou, Miss Macdonald. I also loved English and Art. I quite enjoyed Maths, even though I wasn’t very good at it, because in Maths there is always a right and a wrong answer, and I wish life was more like that.

Q. How do you get the idea for all the funny names in the Hiccup books?

I love playing games with words. I try to make the names sound like the person they are describing. ‘Snotlout’ is called Snotlout because he has a large nose, and ‘snotty’ can also mean ‘superior and thinking you’re a bit above everybody else’. A ‘lout’ is a brutish, brainless sort of person.

I make up the Dragonese in the same way. Therefore a ‘bird’ in Dragonese is a ‘song-munch’, because they sing and the dragons regard them as food.

Q. Was a cat the inspiration behind Toothless who seems to have all the mannerisms of a cat? If not, what was?

The Toothless in the books is different from the Toothless in the film. The Toothless in the books is a small, disobedient Common-or-Garden dragon, who speaks to Hiccup in Dragonese (with a stammer). In the films, Toothless is a large, frightening Night Fury, who cannot talk. Both Toothlesses have a sweeter, gentler side to them than is at first apparent. And both Toothlesses were indeed, inspired by cats, in both look and in character.

I wanted to make the dragons feel like they could really have existed, so I based each dragon species on real animals. The Gronckle, for example, is inspired by a warthog mixed up with a toad. The Toothless in the books is a cat with some reptilian and dog-like characteristics.

In the case of the Toothless in the books, I was inspired by my own cats Lily and Baloo. Lily and Baloo are very beautiful, mischievous Burmese cats, and their curiosity and adventurous spirit always gets them into trouble.

The look of the Toothless in the film is a mixture of cat and bat. The animator of Toothless tells me that the way Toothless moves and acts is inspired by watching his own cat.

Q. How was it seeing your story brought to life on the big screen?

It was amazing to watch the process of the movies being made. It took seven years to make the first film and five years to make the second. The artistry and creativity of the animators, directors, writers, story-board artists, not to mention the actors, is truly astonishing.

I love the movies, and so the whole experience has been very enjoyable for me. It is a little mind-blowing to think that a story that began in my head is now giving pleasure to so many people across the world.

Q. What did you think of How To Train Your Dragon 2, the second film in the series?

I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to have the same team at DreamWorks making the entire trilogy of movies, and Dean DeBlois (the screenwriter/director) and Bonnie Arnold (the producer) took four years to make the sequel, so that they could be absolutely sure that it was as good as the original. The entire cast and crew are back for all three films as well, which makes a huge difference.

The new movie is absolutely stunning, with, quite literally, the best animation I have ever seen. It’s had such a fantastic reception, and deservedly – the movie team have done a really brilliant job.

Like the first film, it is not only spectacular, but also funny and touching and moving. I would advise everyone to go see this film in the cinema if you can, don't wait for the DVD, it's one of those films that really is worth experiencing on the big screen.

There is a third movie coming in 2015.

Q. What was the inspiration to create the hero Hiccup and the other boys?

I wanted to write a story about a boy who was finding it hard to ‘fit in’ with his peers and to live up to his father.  Hiccup is eleven years old at the start of the book. I think that is a very interesting age, when a child is beginning to leave childhood behind and enter adolescence. At that age in particular children begin to wonder what kind of adult they are going to be. Hiccup is very different from his father, and that is difficult for him. Children very often think that they ‘ought’ to be like their parents, and it can take time for them to realise that it is okay to be themselves, to find their own way of doing things.
Hiccup’s father is the Chief of this very macho, bullish Tribe called the Hairy Hooligans, and Hiccup is supposed to inherit the Chiefdom one day when his father dies. This adds an extra layer of pressure on poor old Hiccup who isn’t shaping up to be the kind of violent bully-boy that the Hooligans admire, like his cousin Snotlout.

The other boys look down on Hiccup as ‘weak’, but in fact Hiccup is quite the opposite, he is very strong in resisting the pressure to conform and be the kind of Hooligan both his father and his Tribe want him to be.

I suppose I was inspired to create these characters and write this story because I think that these are very common pressures that children face day-to-day. I have exaggerated the situation for Hiccup, and put him back in fantastical Viking times, but the problems are the same. I get lots of letters from children saying how much they identify with Hiccup.

Q. And what about the dragon Toothless?

I have always loved dragons. My premise for the books was, what if dragons really existed? And the question my entire book series is answering is, if dragons really existed, what happened to them? Where are they now?

Although I really enjoyed books about dragons as a child, such as Tolkein’s ‘the Hobbit’, I always wondered why they always seemed to look the same, like a big green lizard with wings. Surely dragons would have developed along the same lines as dinosaurs, into all sorts of different species, specially adapted to their environments in different ways?

I have great fun creating all these species. I mix up different real-life creatures to make a new fantastical animal. For instance, in How to Break a Dragon’s Heart’, I had a giant Bee-eating dragon that was a mixture of a Basking shark and a giant ray. It glided through the treetops with its mouth permanently open, to catch bees rather than plankton. And then there are chameleon dragons, and see through dragons, and dragons with horns on the ends of their noses like narwhals…great big Seadragons many, many times larger than a Tyrannasaurus Rex, and teeny little nanodragons no bigger than your fingernail.

Once I had begun to create all these wonderful species, I thought, how wonderful would it be if you could have a dragon as a PET? It would make the best pet in the world. So it was thus that I began to create the character of Toothless, who I saw as a very contrary little pet indeed. When I write the conversations between Hiccup and Toothless I always have in mind a parent, slightly at the end of their tether, talking to a rather difficult little two year old.

Q. What kind of dragon do you love the most?

I love Toothless the most, but I have a soft spot for Stormfly, the Mood-Dragon owned  by Camicazi, the Heir to the Bog-Burglar Tribe. Stormfly first appears in book 6. She is a very beautiful Mood-Dragon, a chameleon who changes colour according to her mood.

I think children love dragons and dinosaurs so much for many reasons. One might be that children love the thrill of being scared, and dragons and dinosaurs are so awesomely, wondrously huge, and so magnificently adorned with fangs and teeth. So you have the thrill of being scared, but the comfort of also knowing that they are very thoroughly extinct.


Cressida Cowell – Quick Facts


Cressida was born on 15th April 1966 in London. She is 44.

She still lives in London. She is married to Simon Cowell (not THAT Simon Cowell), and she has three children, Maisie (12), Clemmie (10) and Alexander (7).

She studied at Oxford University, (English), and St Martin’s and Brighton University (Illustration).

Books & Ideas

Cressida has been writing books since she was 9 years old, but the first book she had published was in 1999, when she was 33. It was called Little Bo Peep’s Library Book, and it was a picture book.

Cressida illustrates the Hiccup books herself, but she also writes picture books that other people illustrate. She has had 18 books published, 8 Hiccup fiction titles, and ten picture books, including the Emily Brown books, illustrated by Neal Layton.

She is currently writing the ninth Hiccup book, How to Steal a Dragon’s Sword. There will be ten books in the series.

She got the idea for the Hiccup books from childhood holidays spent off the west coast of Scotland. (See the About Me section of this website)

She doesn’t quite how she thinks of the funny names for the characters. She tries to make the names sound like the character of the person they are describing, so a rather unpleasant, stupid person will be called ‘Dogsbreath the Duhbrain’, for example. The Vikings really did have very descriptive names, such as King Magnus Barelegs, Olav the Stout, Eric the Red.

Films & Awards

The film of How to Train Your Dragon came out in 2010. There will be three more films, and the next one is coming out in 2013.  There will also be a How to Train Your Dragon t.v. series, and an arena show.

Cressida won the Nestle Children’s book award in 2006 and the How to Train Your Dragon film has been nominated for the 2011 BAFTAs and the Oscars. Cressida won Philosophy Now magazine’s ‘Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity Award’ in November 2015.

Likes & Dislikes

Cressida likes: dragons, books, movies, plays, musicals, boats, the sea in general, chocolate, drawing.

Cressida dislikes: spiders, limpets (for eating – trust me, not nice),

Odd Facts

Cressida’s best friend at school was Lauren Child, who wrote the Charlie and Lola and Clarice Bean books.

Question 5 of 469

In the seventh book, Hiccup requested something from Madguts, but not from Big-Boobied Bertha, although her tribe also lost. Did he request anything from her?

 good point, Lilliana, he did as a matter of fact, but it was nothing important, just something the Bog-Burglars had stolen from the Hooligan Tribe years before, when they were less friendly.

Click here to ask Cressida a question.

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