Still waters run deep. Certainly this is true of English author Geraldine McCaughrean ("mih-KOK-re-in"), an author perhaps best known in the United States for her retellings of stories from mythology, legends of various cultures and traditions, and classic tales from literature. I had the privilege of meeting her and hearing her speak during a school visit in 2006. Younger than her years, she is quiet, polite, perhaps even timid. On stage, however, with a microphone in one hand and her latest book in the other, her voice came across strong and assured as she led an auditorium full of eager school children deep into the suspense of her latest publishing success. Her gift with narrative seems effortless as she leads her readers on original adventures or adaptations of classic works from literature. She is a born storyteller.
McCaughrean is responsible for more than 130 books, a phenomenal output when you consider that she only really began publishing for children just twenty-five years ago. That's an average of five books a year, most of which are adaptations admittedly, but to call them mere adaptations sells her creativity short. She is no hack, churning out abridged classics by snipping and cutting a thousand page book down to thirty-five. Far from it. Her adaptations start with the essentials of a classic text and rework them almost from the foundation up, making them understandable and digestible to youngsters who otherwise would not be able to process the rarified language or outdated syntax of the original translations. In this role as the reteller of tales from our cultural heritage, McCaughrean very much follows the tradition of the likes of James Baldwin, Roger Lancelyn Green, and Charles and Mary Lamb.
Many of her reworkings for children such as The Canterbury Tales, The Orchard Book of Greek Myths, and Stories from Shakespeare have become much-used and much-beloved student and classroom resources, providing young people accessibility to venerable tales and texts. Far from being Disney-fied versions, her retellings remain true to the original works, rendering them in a style that is contemporary but at the same time respecting the integrity of the original. McCaughrean preserves the simplified essence of the original and breathes new life into the tales, creating a resonance and relevance to today's young readers. Compare the first line of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, written in Middle English in rhyming verse above, to McCaughrean's lines which start her retold version of this monument of English literature below:
Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
April rain was dripping off the branches as I rode beneath them. But the last sunlight of a fine spring day made the leaves shine…
Her goal is not to translate tales that children could easily read in the original version on their own, but to rewrite stories like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales that would otherwise, due to vocabulary and style, remain impenetrable until a much later age. Such is her talent as a storyteller." Publisher's Weekly once remarked, "that [she] could probably weave a mesmerizing tale from the copy on the back of a cereal box."
Further examples of classic tales adapted by Geraldine McCaughrean include Moby Dick, Cyrano, The Odyssey, King Arthur and the Round Table, and El Cid.
Of her childhood the author stated, "We did not have a television at home until I was nine [and not having one] made a bigger impact on me than it did on the rest of the family, I think-- on the way I imagine and the way I write… The only place where I could make things happen was in my imagination, writing stories." Although from an early age McCaughrean was always writing, she did not set out to be a writer and was unsure of her professional ambitions. She took a degree at Christ Church College of Education in Canterbury, Kent. Because of her quiet demeanor, she admitted herself that a career as a teacher was an unlikely path to follow.
After working for some years at secretarial posts at various British publishing houses, McCaughrean began proofing magazine copy on fishing, music, cooking, and children's stories. Eventually she became a staff writer, writing stories to fill pages when the "regular" authors' copy didn't stretch to fill the requisite space. Her first commission as a children's author came about quite by accident. McCaughrean recounts it this way: "I went to church, in those days, with a children's publisher. One day he mentioned that he was planning a version of the Arabian Nights. 'Let me write it!' I pleaded." Her pleading worked, the church friend gave her the commission, and her first published children's book was a retelling of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. When it appeared in 1982 the book was extremely well received and immediately praised for its inspired storytelling and the author's ability to make the familiar stories of Sinbad, Aladdin, and Ali Baba fresh and original. "That was the start," McCaughrean said, "but still it did not occur to me to earn my living by writing. From this chance entry into writing for children, McCaughrean never turned back and replicated her initial success with Arabian Nights again and again, establishing her current reputation as a formidable talent in children's literature.
Although McCaughrean began as a reteller of tales, and this still represents the bulk of her literary output, her forays into original fiction for independent and young adult readers have gained her critical acclaim and a dedicated readership. To date she's written about a dozen books in this category, though her reputation in this genre might be more firmly established in her native Britain. Five years after her debut with One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, A Little Lower than the Angels, an historical tale set in medieval England, represented her first attempt at original fiction for children. Her talents as a writer were not restricted to retellings as A Little Lower than the Angels was quickly recognized with one of the UK's top honors in writing for children, the Whitbread (now called Costa) Award for Children's Literature. In fact, she has won the prestigious Whitbread Children's Award twice more: in 1994 for Gold Dust and 2004 for Not the End of the World. No other children's author has won the Whitbread as many times as McCaughrean, proving that what she does, she does exceedingly well.
McCaughrean was further distinguished with the Carnegie Medal (the UK's "Newbery") in 1989 for A Pack of Lies. Her popularity has translated internationally and she has even received awards outside of the English-speaking world, including the Katholischer Kinderbuchpreis (Catholic Children's Book Prize) in Germany for the local translation of A Little Lower than the Angels and the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis (German Youth Literature Prize) in 2004 for Der Drachenflieger, the German translation of The Kite Rider. White Darkness, a recent original work of fiction for young adults, was shortlisted for the Whitbread Children's Book Award 2005.
In the United States McCaughrean's books have been distinguished with numerous accolades by the American Library Association, though the big awards have, as yet, eluded her in this country.
By her own description McCaughrean is timid and retiring, but when she sets pen to paper her voice is strong and compelling. In particular, her novels written for older independent readers are characterized by a wonderful creative use of language and an advanced vocabulary. There is no "dumbing down" in her books, and consequently her novels for youth can be enjoyed by independent readers of all ages and can also serve as suitable read-alouds with younger children.
Geraldine McCaughrean was awarded a unique accolade when she was commissioned by the Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital in London (the copyright holders of J.M. Barrie's classic children's tale Peter Pan) to pen an authorized sequel to the tale of the boy who never grows up. Given the iconic nature of this story, the search for a talented writer capable of such a delicate mission was long and thorough. Entitled Peter Pan in Scarlet, this new book combines McCaughrean's skill both as a reteller of tales and her reputation as an original writer of fiction. The sequel is set in 1926, the Lost Boys are known as the Old Boys, and Wendy Darling has become a wife and mother. And what of the boy who never grows up? With McCaughrean's strong voice and gift for imaginative storytelling, Peter Pan in Scarlet will undoubtedly gain a large readership and become a classic in its own right.
McCaughrean's writing talents have gained her success in the adult fiction market as well, but it is her acclaim in penning original fiction for independent readers and her penchant for artfully retelling such cultural icons as the stories of classical mythology and Shakespearean plays, and making them accessible to a younger audience, that have formed the foundation for her reputation. The British newspaper The Guardian said of McCaughrean, "[she] writes every sort of book and she seems to produce them in the way a rose bush produces flowers."
1001 Arabian Nights by Geraldine McCaughrean
A Pilgrim's Progress by Geraldine McCaughrean
Blue Moon Mountain by Geraldine McCaughrean
Casting the Gods Adrift by Geraldine McCaughrean
Cyrano by Geraldine McCaughrean
Father and Son by Geraldine McCaughrean
Gilgamesh the Hero by Geraldine McCaughrean
Grandma Chickenlegs by Geraldine McCaughrean
Greek Gods and Goddesses by Geraldine McCaughrean
Greek Myths by Geraldine McCaughrean
Hercules by Geraldine McCaughrean
King Arthur and the Round Table by Geraldine McCaughrean
Knights, Kings, and Conquerors by Geraldine McCaughrean
My Grandmother's Clock by Geraldine McCaughrean
Not the End of the World by Geraldine McCaughrean
Odysseus by Geraldine McCaughrean
Perseus by Geraldine McCaughrean
Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean
Smile! by Geraldine McCaughrean
Stop the Train! by Geraldine McCaughrean
The Canterbury Tales by Geraldine McCaughrean
The Canterbury Tales by Geraldine McCaughrean and illusttrated by
The Jesse Tree by Geraldine McCaughrean
The Kite Rider by Geraldine McCaughrean
The Odyssey by Geraldine McCaughrean
The Stones are Hatching by Geraldine McCaughrean
The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean
Theseus by Geraldine McCaughrean