Geraldine McCaughrean is one of the most award-garlanded and most prolific of children’s writers today – the two don’t naturally go hand in hand, but McCaughrean’s voice is sure and her imagination unstoppable, whether she’s chosen to make landfall in medieval England, nineteenth-century America, eighteenth-century Madagascar, ancient China, Brazil, the Antarctic, the epoch of the Flood… Not to mention triumphing in the 2004 competition set by Great Ormond Street Hospital, and rising to the huge challenge of writing a sequel to one of the best-loved children’s books of all time, Peter Pan.
McCaughrean originally trained as a teacher, but found her feet working for a publisher, initially with retellings of the classics: the Arabian Nights, the Canterbury Tales, El Cid… She has continued to open up the Greek and Roman myths for very young readers, and world myths and legends as well as stories from British history for slightly older ones. The Greek and Roman Myths published by Orchard Books are sadly out of print although still to be found in libraries and second-hand: no-one else, to my mind, has done the classic myths so well for beginner readers who are beginning to have the imaginative reach for them. The style is direct and even chatty, without losing the magic and atmosphere that makes the originals endure; they are short and easy to read, engagingly illustrated by Tony Ross; my children read and re-read them (they also read aloud very nicely, a valuable thing for a new reader who needs the occasional rest and relay with a parent or other confident reader). For older readers, look out the handsomely-produced Myths and Legends of the World: The Golden Hoard, The Silver Treasure, The Bronze Cauldron, The Crystal Pool.
McCaughrean’s editor then encouraged her to try writing her own fiction: the result was A Little Lower than the Angels, which promptly won the Whitbread Award. As I may have mentioned before, there are fashionable periods (Victorians, Tudors, Romans) and unfashionable ones (Georgians, Dark Ages, Greeks) for historical children’s fiction; before and since Kevin Crossley-Holland, not many authors have turned their hand so convincingly to the Middle Ages, bypassing the brave knights and fair ladies for a real understanding of how lives were so roughly stitched together – the power an exploitative master had over a young apprentice, the power a play could have over an audience desperate for stories, for spectacle, for miracles. Gabriel is apprenticed to the Mason, bonded for twenty shillings and for seven years – and soon sees that it’s in the Mason’s interests to teach him nothing, bully him relentlessly and arrange his accidental death at the earliest opportunity. To be rescued by a band of travelling players seems a truly providential escape; and unlike the Mason, playmaster Garvey sees Gabriel’s potential at once, and installs him as his angel. For a while, everything seems clear-cut: Garvey plays God, and is godlike; his Lucifer is dark-featured, French-born Lucie or Lucier, with his haunted daughter Izzie, and while the men are clearly at odds, Gabriel knows whom he believes and trusts. Then the miracles begin, shaking every kind of certainty and bringing both glory and terror with them.
To follow a Whitbread with a Carnegie medal is, perhaps, an unmatched achievement, especially with one’s second novel for children. A Pack of Lies starts in the most unpromising of settings: work experience week in the local library, where Ailsa Povey has been sent in apparent punishment for her unfailing politeness, and where “as a special treat, you may use the microfiche machine!” It’s not quite clear whether MCC Berkshire, in his ancient corduroy jacket and cricket whites, rescues Ailsa from the librarian, or Ailsa recuses MCC, and it’s not at all clear how MCC inveigles himself into a home and a job at Ailsa’s mother’s struggling antique shop. What is, soon, very clear is that MCC has an uncommon way with a story. Ailsa and her mother watch helplessly, raptly, not a little disapprovingly as MCC invests this unlikely piece of junk or that with a remarkable history, persuading unlikely customers into purchases they would never have imagined. Each episode is in itself a bravura piece of storytelling – an Oriental romance, a pirate yarn, a detective story, a Gothic melodrama – and all the while, Ailsa and her mother’s fortunes slowly begin to right themselves. Only Ailsa remains suspicious of MCC – just where did he really come from, he and his “pack of lies”?
McCaughrean’s retellings and original fiction continued to win acclaim – Gold Dust scooped the Whitbread a second time with the blackly comic tale of a gold rush in a sleepy provincial town in Brazil, and Plundering Paradise, which transposed two sheltered English children to the brilliant, dangerous reality of eighteenth-century piracy on Madagascar, won the Smarties Bronze award. With which, The Kite Rider could hardly be described as a “breakout” novel… but the sheer originality of the story made an impact on a much wider audience, and confirmed that McCaughrean really could write, brilliantly, about absolutely anything. Set in 13th-century China (another little-regarded historical period and place, and certainly not for the under-researched or uncommitted writer), The Kite Rider opens with tragedy as twelve-year-old Haoyou’s sailor father is chosen for the dangerous ceremony meant to augur fair winds for the ship’s long voyage. When Haoyou and his cousin Mipeng try to save his mother from a grotesque marriage, Haoyou finds himself first doing his father’s job as wind-tester, then given the chance to escape the murderous bridegroom by joining the Jade Circus. Travelling inland, the Jade Circus suddenly has the chance to perform for the Emperor, Kublai Khan himself – a privilege that could as easily kill them as make their fortunes. McCaughrean conjures it all: the stink and squalor of the harbour town, the exhilaration of being in the air far above it, the thrall of the circus, the tyranny of ancestors and elders and the restless, shrewd, fearsome, mercurial figure of the Khan at the heart of it.
Unusually, McCaughrean returned to the Mongols a few years later in Tamburlaine’s Elephants, set around a hundred years later in India. Her hero is twelve-year-old Rusti, finally of age to be a warrior like his brother in the feared and hated Horde of Timur the Lame, Tamburlaine. By a twist of fate, Rusti is appointed Keeper of the elephants captured by the Horde and disliked and feared by most of the Mongols, and develops a fragile friendship with Kavi, their Indian mahout – to the disgust of his brother’s widow, Borte, now Rusti’s wife to the horror of both. (Shrewish Borte, clanking with the battle plunder she keeps permanently stowed under her clothes, is a fabulously awful character.) In fact, Rusti’s behaviour is altogether unHordelike, and as he comes to know the revered Events Chronicler, with his way of describing Tamburlaine’s victories precisely so that the horror glistens through the glory, he begins to suspect why that might be. It’s an older read than The Kite Rider, I would say 12+, necessarily grim at times but with great sensitivity and flashes of humour – and as vivid and compelling as everything McCaughrean writes.
Between the two, MCaughrean netted a third Whitbread award with Not the End of the World. It takes a writer of exceptional skill not only to take on a Biblical setting but to subvert it, gently, in order to give Noah a daughter, devoted and obedient but also wryly observant of the complicated family politics of a patriarch and his over-zealous son, ill-assorted daughters-in-law and a permanently hungry, smelly, closely-confined, waterborne zoo. Timna is more and more conflicted as she sees her father and brothers without the certainty of having their religious fervour, and perhaps as others might do. She’s horrified when they fend off survivors with staves and arrows, and secretly does the unthinkable: she takes on two small stowaways. How can she possibly keep them hidden and safe? Timna’s account is brilliantly interspersed with others: her brothers and her sisters-in-law, sanctimonious Bashemath, air-headed Sarai and resentful Zillah and, most vividly of all, the animals with their instincts and certainties and each the sure knowledge that their God – the Lion God, the Rabbit God, the Raven God, the Mink God – will be good to them. Gripping, claustrophobic and at times shocking, it’s thoughtful and humane to the end.
Just as Not the End of the World was published, Great Ormond Street Hospital announced a remarkable competition. Given the rights in perpetuity to Peter Pan by its author, J M Barrie, the hospital decided to commission a sequel. McCaughrean was chosen from over 100 entries, and the result was hailed as a triumph, a feat of imagination which was also a brilliant homage in style to the original. Peter Pan in Scarlet finds the Darling children and the Lost Boys all grown up and, by and large, respectable (except for Slightly, who plays the clarinet in a nightclub and writes poetry), but greatly troubled by dreams which leave real traces: a cutlass, a bow, an alarm clock… Sensible Wendy understands: something is terribly wrong in Neverland and they must, somehow, go back there to right it. Which, of course, requires them to become children again, in order to be able to fly… Returning, they find the once summery island deserted and autumnal and decaying; and when he appears, Peter himself is not himself, petulant and tyrannical. It’s Wendy who first meets the unsettling circus-master Ravello, who soon attaches himself to the Lost Boys’ quest aboard the Jolly Peter (once the Jolly Roger, Captain Hook’s old ship) and instals himself as Peter’s obsequious valet – which does nothing for Peter’s character, or for the goodwill of the group. McCaughrean revels in Barrie’s style of breathless descriptions and doesn’t-everyone-know-that assertions (fairies are born when a baby laughs, of course) and has an almost Wodehousean way with a comparison (“Mrs. John drew the pistol from under the pillow and dropped it into the bin, like a kipper found to be not quite fresh”); but she’s not afraid to look into darker undercurrents than Barrie: the Grief Reef made of the prams out of which the Lost Boys disappeared, or the Roarers who are the vengeful Lost Boys cast out by Peter for showing signs of growing up. All is, of course, well in the end, and it’s truly a fine complement to the original Pan.
I can’t hope to cover McCaughrean’s entire range, and I wish I had space (and you had patience for me) to recommend Stop the Train, Pull Out All the Stops or most recently The Positively Last Performance… but I certainly can’t miss The death-defying Pepper Roux, the fabulous picaresque tale of a boy trying to outrun his destiny. His formidable Aunt Mireille had a vision at the time of Paul Roux’ birth (later le pauvre Roux, then poivre Roux – Pepper Roux) in which Saint Celeste quite clearly declared that the boy wouldn’t live past fourteen. Ever since, Pepper has spent a lonely childhood preparing for an early death (and boring his parish priest with almost daily precautionary confessions of nothing very much) – until he finds himself still alive on the critical birthday, his merchant captain father dead drunk in a bar and his father’s new ship all ready to sail. On a whim, Pepper puts on his father’s jacket and cap and steps aboard, and is accepted without question as the new captain… on a ship set to sink in an insurance scam, on which he soon makes a murderous enemy in the loutish seaman Roche. Escaping both, Roux takes on one identity after another, and makes one enemy after another too: jealous Christophe the butcher, Monsieur Jacques the horse thief, the Telegraph Supervisor, Gaspar the grocer, Sergeant Fléau of the Foreign Legion, Big Sal the gangster… Each time, in more and more improbable ways, he makes a miraculous escape, until at last he is prompted to question Aunt Mireille’s one great certainty. It’s a brilliantly funny, exhilarating ride, charmingly set in Belle Époque France, with a sweetly naïve hero and a wonderfully unlikely guardian angel (of the human sort). It’s a terrific novel, and would make an enchanting film or – hey, does anyone have Tim Minchin’s number?
**EXCLUSIVE** McCaughrean’s next novel, In the Middle of Nowhere, is to be published by Usborne this autumn, and my Fiction colleagues can’t praise it too highly. Set in the Australian outback in the early twentieth century, it finds a widowed father and his daughter staffing a remote telegraph station, breaking social taboos by befriending an Aboriginal boy, surviving a murderous attack on the station and causing mayhem with a few mistaken signals. Look for it in bookshops from October.