A few days ago, I took my younger son along to an event organised by our lovely local indie bookshop. A very big, very sad event. Big, because Cressida Cowell was on tour, talking about How To Train Your Dragon, and sad, because she’s just published the last book in the series. Sad for her, and sad for us. After so many years growing up with him, we’ll miss Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third.
Cressida’s a great speaker – funny and dramatic. She does the dragon voices (there’s a bit in Dragonese about Toothless’s less savoury bathroom habits – you don’t want to know) and shares pictures of her idyllic and slightly mad holidays on the deserted Scottish island that became Berk in the books. She’s also, for a fellow children’s writer, fascinating. She talks about how the books are designed to rival other calls on a child’s attention, and get him or her to read. They’re funny. They’re beautifully illustrated (by Cressida herself). And to start off with, they’re quite gentle. It’s not too difficult for Hiccup to be a hero, even though he doesn’t seem cut out for it at first.
Hiccup himself always used to be my favourite character, but now he’s been eclipsed for me by Camicazi (a name they felt they couldn’t use in the films, as Cressida explained), a ‘small, chatty and recklessly brave Bog-Burglar, with a lot of wild blonde hair that looked like squirrels had been break-dancing vigorously in the back of it’. She often feels the need to (and frequently does) rescue Hiccup, because he is ‘only a boy’. The hero, surely of any girl who hearts books.
But in the run up to How to Fight a Dragon’s Fury, Cressida explained how the series gets darker, and her illustrations become more epic. She said this really happens in book 8, and having read it recently, I know the moment exactly. I was shocked to my core. And worried. This wasn’t quite the jolly series my sons and I had started any more. Did Cressida know what she was getting us into?
Turns out, she did. And she LOVED it.
Hiccup has to deal with being marked out as an Outcast and a slave. Being a hero requires enormous courage and very, very difficult decisions. It turns out he’s been preparing for it all his life, but he had no idea what he was letting himself in for. Cressida is dealing with some of the biggest issues of our times, in ways that any 8 year-old can understand. The books are still funny, and exciting, but she’s right – they’re epic.
I think she’s written a new classic. Not just entertaining, but important. Just as I did with the early books, to get boys (and girls) to read, I shall be pressing the whole series into friends’ hands, telling them to do their families a favour, and share these stories. I love the films, and the TV series too, but, as is so often the case, the books are amazing.