Educated at St Paul’s Girls’ School and Marlborough College, best-selling and award-winning author Cressida Cowell was the Waterstones Children’s Laureate 2019-22.

Cressida Cowell school
Cressida Cowell

What school did you go to and when?

In 1979, after primary school, I went to St Paul’s Girls’ School in London. At 16, I went to Marlborough College in Wiltshire for A-levels. 

Boarder or day?

I was a day girl at St Paul’s and a boarder at Marlborough.

Your A-level choices?

English, history, art and history of art. I moved to Marlborough for A-level because I wanted to take four subjects – and at the time St Paul’s didn’t want me to do art. They said I was an academic child and advised me to do Latin instead.

There’s still a problem with art not being taken sufficiently seriously. As a writer and illustrator, I use art in my job every day and the creative industries make over £100 billion a year but there is a worrying decline in the take-up of art at GCSE in schools.

What were your passions at school?

I was in trouble a lot at school because I was very forgetful and extremely disorganised – I think today it might be called something like attention deficit disorder. But I was really engaged intellectually, especially in English, history and art.

I’ve always loved making up stories and drawing. As a child I spent a lot of my time on an uninhabited island off the west coast of Scotland, in a house lit by candle-light with no telephone or television. 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. That was when I first started writing stories about dragons and Vikings, way back when I was nine or ten years old. 

Did you have a memorable teacher?

Miss Mellows in Year 3, who gave me free rein to write whatever I liked – my own stories in these special books that she didn’t correct. This was joyful and liberating and inspired my Free Writing Friday campaign, which launched in 2018. The campaign encourages teachers to use a short period of time on Fridays to allow children to free write in a notebook that’s off limits to parents, teachers and the dreaded, demoralising red correction pen.

At St Paul’s, I had a wonderful history teacher called Miss McDonald, who set homework such as ‘Write a story about a child living in a village on the west coast of Scotland, who sees a Viking sail on the horizon…’ At Marlborough, a third of my year studied art at A-level, which was very unusual. The art school was next to the dining hall and at the heart of everything, largely thanks to Robin Child, the head of art, who was very inspiring.  

What do you remember about school food?

I remember it vividly for being less than yummy. The pink wobbly puddings… The bacon with funny bits in it, the pie. Not great. 

Can you recall the smell (and if so what is that)?

Yes, smell is one of your strongest senses. I went back to my primary school recently and recognised it instantly. 

Any regrets?

I regret not telling the teachers who inspired me how much it meant to me. There were teachers who affected the rest of my life.

Have you been back since? 

Yes, I went back to my primary school to plant a tree, and back to Marlborough, too.

If there was one perfect day at school you could relive, what would it be? 

I’d go back to the Marlborough art department, or to performing Oh What a Lovely War

Quickfire Round

Maths or English? English
Hockey or Tennis? Neither
Uniform or mufti? Mufti
Piano or guitar? Neither
Head girl or Cheeky Rebel?  More of an accidental cheeky rebel

Cressida Cowell’s brand new series, WHICH WAY TO ANYWHERE (Hodder Children’s, HB £12.99) launches on 15 September 2022. Cressida is an ambassador for the National Literacy Trust.

See Spring Summer’s celebrity school report with Tamzin Merchant here.