This interview was transcribed from a recorded conversation between Cressida Cowell & Just Imagine on 25th April 2018.
- JUST IMAGINE: What do you think makes these awards so special?
- CRESSIDA COWELL: Well, I love the fact that it’s an open competition and that children can write about anything at all. I think that there is so much of the corrective “red-pen” in schools today (she then talks about the fact that tomorrow she is launching her ‘Free Writing Friday’ campaign – see more below). In the Wicked Young Writers Award they can write about whatever they want to; any subject matter. I won a creative writing competition myself when I was 9, run by the National Gallery, and it was the first time that I actually thought “I could be a writer”. I think children need that encouragement and to write about things that they enjoy writing about, rather than school work. They need to know that being a writer is something they could be – it’s not like going to law school; deciding to be a writer is something quite difficult for a child to decide to be. All these reasons are why I support the Wicked Young Writer’s Award and I’ve been judging the competition for 4 or 5 years now.
- JI: How important is it for children that this type of award exists?
- CC: So, so important! When children are very young, it can be so much about handwriting and grammar, but I say to children when I go into schools that it’s about their ideas. I don’t want children who are incredibly creative with wonderful ideas to be put off and think that writing is all about handwriting and spelling. In this kind of competition, which we very much judge not on handwriting, we are looking for the quality of the ideas and the joyfulness of the storytelling and the naturalness of the ideas. We have poems, some very serious subjects, some that are just joyful, natural storytelling with a twist and we’ve chosen very different winners in order to emphasise that we’re not looking for a specific style or subject matter. Some are very deep and some are just a cracking good story, wonderfully told.
- JI: What is the quality of the work like this year? Does it improve yearly?
- CC: The standard is very, very high and I’m constantly amazed about how high it is. It’s not particularly higher this year – I always think it’s high & surprising in a lovely way. I don’t think it’s got better or worse, it’s just different. Each year there is just by chance one of the sections that happens to be particularly strong, say 8-10 or 11-12s. This year may have been stronger overall actually and it gets harder to judge as they are all so strong. Another thing I try to emphasise is, I’ve entered competitions where I haven’t won, but have been a runner-up, so anyone who has made it to this stage of being on the shortlist is amazing & you could have won. Many of us judges chose as our first choice works that then didn’t win, so I always say to children, “don’t worry if you don’t win, you’ve done incredibly well to have got this far”.
- JI: Is there a fair split between entries from boys & girls this year?
- CC: There were more girl entries than boys, so as a result we have more girl winners, although there are winning entries from boys too. Sadly, we do get more entries from girls and I don’t know why that is… Boys can get put off by the handwriting thing, because they think it’s about that. I remember thinking that the best writer in the class was the one with the best handwriting! Although this is a bit stereotypical, boys can struggle a bit more with messy handwriting & with sitting still, so they can easily think books aren’t for them or writing isn’t for them, it’s a girl thing. That is a problem that we are trying to overturn.
- JI: Did the judging panel agree generally on the winning entries?
- CC: I think that we always have a lively disagreement! But that’s why it is subjective and it’s something you have to stress to children in particular, because you can be very downcast if you don’t win, is that it is subjective and it is about encouraging writing in general, but it’s not objectively that this one entry is miles better than another, because how can you judge that? So we do disagree, but I think enjoyably and I quite like disagreeing! A nice discussion is good! This is a lovely competition and we really need it.
Cressida Cowell is the award-winning author and illustrator of the How to Train Your Dragon and The Wizards of Once series, as well as the Emily Brown picture book series. She is also an Ambassador for The National Literacy Trust.
On 26th April 2018, Cressida Cowell, in conjunction with the National Literacy Trust and Hachette Children’s Group, launched ‘Free Writing Friday’. Cressida’s aim is to inspire children, once a week, to write whatever they feel like in a designated book and explore creativity.
There is a new Free Writing Friday website, on which you will find all the resources to support this within schools, including writing tips from Cressida, a letter, FAQs and more.