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What’s next from ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ writer?

Children’s writer and illustrator Cressida Cowell is shown in her writing shed at home in Britain.
Children’s writer and illustrator Cressida Cowell is shown in her writing shed at home in Britain. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

In her first book since completing the “How to Train Your Dragon” series two years ago, acclaimed British writer Cressida Cowell hopes to inspire young readers and writers with an ancient tale that offers a modern message.

Cowell will be speaking in Bellingham and visiting Whatcom County schools as part of an ongoing partnership among local libraries and independent bookstore Village Books, making it possible for local students to meet top writers and illustrators of books for children and teens.

When we do everything we can to encourage kids to read, they benefit throughout their lives.

Janice Keller, Bellingham Public Library

Cowell’s newest book, “Wizards of Once,” which will be released Oct. 3, is a fantasy novel about two children from warring tribes. Cowell gives a free talk at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 5 at the Bellingham Public Library.

“It’s about empathy and the ability to see things from other people’s points of view. That’s something we need now more than ever,” Cowell said in a recent phone interview from Manchester, where she was traveling.

“They’ve been taught to hate each other all their lives,” Cowell said. “It’s about what happens when they meet.”

Cowell describes her book as a mashup of “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Lord of the Rings.” Its two main characters, Xar and Wish, have secrets and limitations but eventually form a bond.

They inhabit a fantasyland based on Cowell’s childhood remembrances of Sussex, the rural southeast of England where her grandmother lived near deep forests and an ancient hillfort, an Iron Age defensive settlement.

“It’s a magical place of giants and sprites and warriors,” full of creatures and characters to fuel the imagination, she said. Cowell also did the illustrations.

Cowell’s appearance is a collaboration between the library and Village Books, one of several local events over the past few years that have featured popular and award-winning writers of literature for children and teens.

Earlier in September, Judy Schachner, author of the “Skippyjon Jones” series of picture books about a cat that thinks it’s a Chihuahua, visited Village Books and also spoke with students at Wade King and Lowell elementary schools.

Kwame Alexander, who won a John Newbery Medal and a Coretta Scott King Honor for his 2015 book “The Crossover,” has visited twice in two years, most recently in August. Two-time Newbery winner Kate DiCamillo spoke in 2015 and John Green speaks Oct. 29 at Western Washington University.

The bonus to a school visit is that every child ... has that opportunity to see that writing and illustrating is what grownups can do for a living.

Nancy Johnson, a WWU professor

Green’s upcoming visit is a testament to the reputation that Bellingham has fostered a hub for lovers of children’s literature, said Sarah Hutton, co-owner and children’s book buyer at Village Books.

“It’s his only Pacific Northwest stop. I think that says something about us as a community,” Hutton said.

Unlike most Bellingham author events that are free, Green’s appearance was $29.50 a ticket, which includes a copy of his new book, “Turtles All the Way Down.” All 1,200 seats sold out in less than a week. A portion of the proceeds goes to Northwest Youth Services.

“We’re fortunate to have an engaged and literate community,” said Janice Keller, spokeswoman for the Bellingham Public Library. “Part of our mission is to connect with our community and the world. When we do everything we can to encourage kids to read, they benefit throughout their lives.”

Keller said both Bellingham and Whatcom County library systems have among the largest per capita circulation numbers in the nation. All libraries in Whatcom County, including those at local colleges, allow card-holding patrons access to their collections, she said. Several Whatcom County librarians are nationally known experts and have been on the judging panels for top awards such as the Newbery and the Randolph Caldecott Medal.

It’s absolutely heartwarming to see kids point to a book and say, ‘Mom! She was in my school and she was so great.’

Sarah Hutton, Village Books

Local libraries and schools also benefit from the annual Children’s Literature Conference at Western, an event that has earned a national reputation. Its guest writers and illustrators visit Whatcom County schools and hold free workshops open to the public.

“Bellingham right now is a happening place in the field” of children’s and teen literature, said Nancy Johnson, a WWU professor of children’s and young adult literature and a founder of the literature conference.

“The bonus to a school visit is that every child, regardless of that they think they’re interested in, has that opportunity to see that writing and illustrating is what grownups can do for a living,” Johnson said. “We try to bring in diverse voices and send them out into the schools.

“One of the takeaways is that (children) see writers as real people,” Johnson said. “To think that authors and illustrators are rock stars – and they do – that’s pretty cool.”

Books in your parents’ voice stay with you your whole life.

Cressida Cowell

Although “Wizard” is marketed as appropriate for 8- to 12-year-olds, Cowell said she doesn’t write for a particular age group.

“I wrote the books hoping that they’d be read aloud,” Cowell said. “Books in your parents’ voice stay with you your whole life. I hope (my books are) enjoyable for parents as well. Don’t let those things pass you by. Read to kids beyond their own age. It’s so valuable, even if it’s only 10 minutes a day, it has such an effect.”

Cowell said that during her presentation, she’ll read from her book and show some of her illustrations, and possibly do some impromptu sketches.

“I try and talk about my inspiration for writing. I try and give them tips and encourage them, maybe do a bit of drawing. I tend to do a visual presentation,” Cowell said.

As a child, Cowell said she enjoyed the “Little House on the Prairie” and “Anne of Green Gables” series, and fantasy books such as “A Wizard of Earthsea,” “The Book of Three,” and “The Ogre Downstairs.”

“Part of it, for me, is getting kids reading and writing and being creative. You don’t need to dumb down for kids – but their attention span is shorter. They like sweets, not brussels sprouts. Children have a lot to teach us about creative thinking. Children are immensely creative, which is magic to me.”

“Books have something special as a medium,” Cowell said. “A book, it’s happening inside your head.”

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty

Cressida Cowell

When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 5

Where: Downstairs at the Bellingham Public Library, 210 Central Ave.

Admission: Free

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