Geraldine McCaughrean was born in 1951 and brought up in North London.
She studied at Christ Church College of Education, Canterbury and worked in a London publishing house for 10 years before becoming a full-time writer in 1988. She has written over 150 books, 50 short plays for schools, and a radio play. She has also written under the pseudonyms of Geraldine Jones and Felix Culper.
Her adult novels include Fires’ Astonishment (1990), The Maypole (1990), Vainglory (1991), Lovesong (1996), and The Ideal Wife (1997), but she is best-known for her children’s books. She writes for children of all ages, from first readers, picture books, and younger children’s books, to children’s novels, which include A Little Lower than the Angels (1987), Gold Dust (1993) and Not the End of the World (2004), each of which have won the Whitbread Children’s Book Award, making her the only writer to have won this award three times.
McCaughrean has also written several collections of stories, including bible stories and fairy tales. She specialises in the retelling of classic tales such as The Canterbury Tales (1984), The Odyssey (1993), Moby Dick (1996) and El Cid (1989) and of myths and legends from around the world. These books include The Orchard Book of Greek Myths (1992) and The Orchard Book of Roman Myths (1999).
White Darkness (2005) was shortlisted for the 2005 Whitbread Children's Book Award. In 2005, she was chosen to write the official sequel to J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan. Peter Pan in Scarlet was published in 2006. The Death Defying Pepper Roux (2009) was shortlisted for a Carnegie Medal in 2011. Geraldine McCaughrean thus became the first author to have six titles shortlisted for this award since her first in 1988. Her 2013 novel The Middle of Nowhere was also shortlisted for the prize, and McCaugrean won the award a second time with Where the World Ends (2017).
Her play - Last Call - and a short story - Peanut Butter and Cello - have also been broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Her book, Not the End of the World (2004), has been adapted for the stage.
Geraldine McCaughrean lives in Berkshire. In 2006 she was awarded an Honorary Fellowship by Canterbury Christ Church University. In 2010 she was made a Fellow of The English Association, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Since 2005, when Geraldine McCaughrean (pronounced 'Ma - cork - run') was chosen to write the authorized sequel to J.M. Barrie’s classic novel, her name has been associated with Peter Pan (her sequel, Peter Pan in Scarlet, was published to critical acclaim in 2006). She is, however, a long-established and award-winning author who has written well over 100 books since the early 1980s, most of which are children’s books, ranging from picture books to novels for older children.
McCaughrean does not write ‘typical’ contemporary books - her novels often have historical settings or take place in different cultures (The White Darkness, 2005, is set mainly in Antarctica). She therefore encourages her readers to expand their horizons and explore far beyond their familiar environment. Moreover, her use of language - rich, eloquent and full of vivid metaphors - requires the child-reader to work quite hard, while offering a rewarding, thought-provoking experience to those who make the effort. McCaughrean is particularly interested in Biblical, mythical and legendary stories, and is the author of many re-tellings of these traditional tales, from Greek myths to Noah’s Ark to Shakespeare and Chaucer. As such, she takes stories which would otherwise be obscure and uninviting to young readers, and makes them enjoyable, accessible and sometimes humorous. She also uses these classic stories to explore fundamental and timeless issues of human experience.
McCaughrean’s first publication for children was One Thousand and One Arabian Nights (1982), followed by The Canterbury Tales (1984). At this point her editor suggested a novel, and the result was A Little Lower Than The Angels (1987), which won the Whitbread Children’s Book Award. McCaughrean went on to win two more Whitbread Awards, for Gold Dust (1993) and Not the End of the World (2004). She is the first writer to have received this award three times. A Little Lower than the Angels, unusually for a children’s book, is set in the Middle Ages. It tells the story of a little boy, Gabriel, a cruelly-treated apprentice who escapes his oppressive life by running away with a troupe of travelling players, led by the playmaster Garvey. He becomes the angel in Garvey’s play, but still finds himself at the mercy of exploitative adults: Garvey uses Gabriel to perform fake miracles, and the little boy begins to wonder if he really is the angel Gabriel. McCaughrean sensitively depicts the contrast between the adults’ unscrupulousness and Gabriel’s innocence and heart-felt faith in God, qualities which enable others to abuse him, yet, at the same time, protect him from the corrupt environment which surrounds him. The ending - in which Gabriel asks the inhabitants of a monastery to help him write down Garvey’s plays so that others might enjoy them - is uplifting, without being ‘twee’ or sentimental.
Since the late 1980s, McCaughrean has been a prolific writer, averaging several books per year. Equally incredible is her diversity: her titles include El Cid (1989); My First Space Book (1989); Gold Dust (1993); Stories from Shakespeare (1994); Wizziwig and the Crazy Cooker (1995); Moby Dick (1996) and many more. McCaughrean continually returns to Biblical and classic tales: her third Whitbread award was for Not the End of the World (2004), a highly original re-telling of the story of Noah’s Ark. Not the End of the World is quite a dark tale, exploring in acute and sometimes horrifying detail the realities of the experience. We witness the heart-rending pleas of the people who are left behind to drown, and the pain of Noah’s daughter-in-law who has been parted from her family; the killing of a new baby granddaughter by one of the animals; the physical horrors of hunger, stench and a leaking Ark. The narrative is even interspersed with the point-of-view of some of the animals.
Most particularly, McCaughrean emphasizes and identifies with the female experience. Each of Noah’s three sons has a wife, while in McCaughrean’s version, Noah also has a daughter, fourteen year-old Timna. Timna is the central narrator, enabling McCaughrean not only to present the female point-of-view, but to provide readers with an ‘inside’ and human perspective on these well-known figures whose story is usually told in detached, mythical terms. Through Timna, the narrative focuses particularly on patriarchal oppression, as Noah and his eldest son are shown to rule the family through fear and rigid religious doctrine. As Diane Samuels points out: ‘Its grand design seems to be to question patriarchal values and fundamentalist attitudes by revealing the underbelly of human experience, located especially in the women’ (The Guardian, 18 December 2004).
In the same year, McCaughrean also wrote Smile! (2004), which won a Nestlé Smarties Book Prize. This novel, like Not the End of the World, explores a lifestyle and cultural attitudes very different from those with which readers will be familiar. However, rather than a historical setting, Smile! takes place in today’s world, but in an unfamiliar environment. The protagonist, Flash, is stranded in an isolated, primitive village after a plane crash, possessing only a Polaroid camera with 10 remaining pictures. As he learns to communicate with the villagers, and shows them what the camera does, he asks them to choose the subjects for his last 10 photographs. Flash realizes the power of photography to preserve a moment, while simultaneously beginning to understand that the mindset of these people is vastly different to his own, yet no less valid. For example, he is repulsed by the village’s most ‘beautiful’ woman, only to find that the villagers have the same reaction to a photo of his own ‘beautiful’ wife. McCaughrean’s humour therefore encourages readers to examine the subjectivity of their own Western attitudes and perceptions, and to appreciate cultures other than their own.
McCaughrean’s greatest challenge, however, was Peter Pan in Scarlet (2006). She discusses her feelings about the much-hyped Peter Pan sequel in her article in The Guardian, ‘Boy Wonder’ (30 September 2006). She was all too aware of the delicacy of her task, for Barrie’s novel (which started out as a play) is not only an all-time classic, but is one of various early 20th-century children’s books which helped to create an emotionally powerful view of childhood:
'Thanks to Arthur Ransome, Enid Blyton and J.M. Barrie, a kind of archetypal idyllic childhood has evolved in the minds of parents ... Neverland is the place every parent wishes their child to go - somewhere they can explore the outer reaches of their imaginations, dare the dares, feel the fear, conquer the foe - and then come in for tea or a sticking plaster. Parents are so horribly contradictory.' (McCaughrean in The Guardian, cited above)
McCaughrean undertook meticulous preparation, both with regard to researching Barrie and his life, and becoming thoroughly familiar with the style and content of the original novel: ‘Not ... the Disney version or the pantomime or the last movie, but... the 1911 book ... I tried to soak up something of Barrie’s style and sense of humour and quirky asides to the adult reader’ (ibid). She also retains the ambiguity of the character of Peter Pan, for, despite the Disney versions, the original Peter had a certain imp-like arrogance and callousness.
Yet McCaughrean was also careful not to try too hard to duplicate Barrie’s work, and added her own mark to Peter Pan in Scarlet. The end result, which she describes as ‘the matching bookend - same world, but somewhat reversed’ (ibid), has been an astounding success, both critically and commercially, and is a testimony to McCaughrean’s multi-faceted talent:
'From the very first page, only the most stony-hearted, dyed-in-the-wool Peter Pan fan could fail to be charmed by Geraldine McCaughrean’s lightness of touch, sureness of writing and sparkling imagination ... What McCaughrean has done is nothing short of miraculous. It’s enough to make you believe in fairies.' (‘Return to Neverland’, Philip Ardagh, 7 October 2006)
Elizabeth O’Reilly, 2007
I write for much the same reasons as I did when I was a child of eight, forever scribbling stories in an exercise book for no-one's benefit but my own: I like to go somewhere else and become someone else. Most of my central characters lack confidence but overcome their timidity or low self-esteem to win through in the end, so I suppose there is a kind of wish-fulfilment at work. The one thing that makes writing a better pastime than reading is that you can make things turn out the way you want in the end! I like working in children's books, because it gives rise to such a variety of jobs. One month it may be a picture book, the next a retelling, the next a play, a short story or the start of the next novel. I still keep thinking someone will penetrate my guilty secret - that I have been masquerading as a writer all these years while all I was really doing was enjoying myself, pursuing my passion.