The (not very) old dragons
Cressida Cowell is a phenomenon of current children's publishing. Deservedly so. Her How to Train Your Dragon books have done more to support and encourage children along the road to becoming enthusiastic, independent readers than scores of other authors put together. An artist as well as a writer, she has exploited a vital area, helping to bridge the gap between the picture books and full prose fiction. Her books are complete novels, but so copiously illustrated with drawing, diagrams, 'hand written' notations and the like that the graphic elements become fully integrated into the storytelling; as much a part of the reading experience as the printed text. With the addition of bright, lively covers, this does much to make then both attractive and accessible to young readers.
She is not the first or only author to adopt this aproach* but she does it supremely well. And not only does she engage and entertain hugely but she also contributes a great deal to many children's growth and development. Her drawings are sketchy and childlike**, often apparently haphazardly placed and accompanied by scrawled 'handwriting'. This does much to support creativity by giving licence to spontaneity and imperfection, even to mess, banishing insecurity and inhibition. As one who was until very recently heavily involved in primary education, I know that her stories have inspired many children to write, draw and even create their own 'books'.
Yet there is far more to Cressida Cowell's works than their format, splendid though it is. She is one of a select number of authors who understand perfectly what young children most enjoy in a book. She hits their sense of humour on the button, and indulges it extensively. Her enormously likeable heroes have more than enough flaws and foibles to make them easy for children to identify with. She creates ridiculous and entertaining characters with equally ridiculous and entertaining names, yet still makes them totally credible in their context. She keeps her stories relatively simple and straightforward, yet tells them with zest, never short on action, excitement and suspense.
The (very) new wizards
In short, her How to Train your Dragon books are not at all bad. However***, she has now written rather a lot of them. So it is especially welcome to see her launching off in a new direction with her latest offering. Particularly so when that new offering is as special as The Wizards of Once.
First off, it needs to be said that this book will not disappoint her innumerable existing fans in any way. It has every single one of the wonderful attributes of her earlier series. In fact it has them in spades. This said, it seems churlish to expect even more on top, and we probably wouldn't. But that is exactly what Cressida Cowell gives us here. She clearly hasn't run out of spades yet.
Introducing her new 'Wizards', she moves her writing onwards and upwards in ways that are both surprising and delightful. In switching from a world of Vikings, pirates and dragons, to one of wizards, witches and warriors, she seems to find new riches in both that world and in herself as an writer/artist. In exploring deep magic (and its potential loss), in conjuring the ancient forest and its many creatures (both wonderous and terrifying) and in opposing them with a new 'iron' order of rationalism (and military aggression), she subtly plumbs the resonances of old beliefs and archetypal images. And even if young readers are little conscious of such matters, their potency remains. Within this high adventure , she subtly finds humanity with all its vulnerability and enigmas as well as its potential. Can this be done in a book for young children? Can it be done in a funny, exciting, engaging, popular, successful book for young children? The answer is clearly 'yes'. And The Wizards of Once shows how.
Heart amidst the humour
Cressida Cowell has sneaked in amongst her funny, 'sketchy' drawings, one or two much more sensitive 'realistic' images. There is a stunning drawing of the heads of two wolves; the images of Crusher, the thoughtful giant, are amazingly powerful, especially the one which shows him amongst the treetops, contemplating the stars; the hands that hold the injured sprite, Squeezjoos, are not those of a cartoon character, but delicately and touchingly human. The same feeling of sensitivity and thoughtfulness creeps into the writing too, without ever detracting from the excitement of the narrative. There is a beautiful passage when the giant lifts Wish, one of the story's heros, into the treetops, and the really quite long section describing the 'Song of Lost Magic', as heard in the dungeons of the Iron Fort, is just superbly affecting.
This a story that pulls at the heart strings as well as triggering the adrenaline. In fact, at one point it is in danger of stopping the heart altogether. It treats of human relationships and the importance (and danger) to life of free, imaginative magic. It raises issues and asks questions, without necessarily giving answers or even explaining the questions themselves. It even flirts with metafiction and post-modernism when it intrudes the role of an unidentified narrator into the storytelling itself. In the midst of their laughter and excited involvement in the story, will young readers be terribly aware of any of this? Possibly not. Will it affect them, cause them to pause for thought, live with them long after the book is finished. Almost certainly.
Wizards of (more than) once
Without ever losing the qualities that have made her books so deservedly popular, very gently (and cleverly) Cressida Cowell leads her young readers into something deeper, something richer, something even more magical. In doing so, her contribution to children's literature follows exactly the same path. She is a true hero of current children's fiction. Her books are a gift and children, parents, carers, and teachers should all be deeply grateful for it.
The close of this book clearly sets us up for more to come. Joy indeed. Bring it on.
Then, at the end of this rather special story, there is a poem. It is a rather special poem. It may not be as simple as it seems. It may just be magical. You must find it for yourself. In fact you can only find it for yourself. You must find the time when we were wizards. Once.
(I would write these in very scrawly handwriting except that my blogging tool is not that versatile.)
*For example writer Geoffrey Willams and cartoonist Ronald Searle very successfully used a similar approach in creating the Molesworth books back in the 1950s - books which could perhaps be said to be the precursors of Tom Gates and the Wimpy Kid (as well, of course, of a whole stack of extortionately expensive notebooks).
**Of course it takes a great deal of artistic skill to create this impression and still communicate as effectively as she does.
***Alas, poor authors, always that 'however'.