Margate, a favourite haunt for visitors: Geraldine McCaughrean and the making of The Positively Last Performance

The inimitable Geraldine McCaughrean shares her experience of writing The Positively Last Performance, her wonderful new novel about a seaside town and a theatre full of ghosts, each with their own story to tell.

GeraldineFirst it was Turner, then Tracey Emin.  Even the Rough Guide put it among the world’s ten top resorts.  Karl Marx and T. S. Eliot visited (though Eliot hated it, and I can’t see it made much impact on Marxism).  Now it’s my turn.  I’m the one commending the town of Margate—by way of a novel.


Two years ago I had a phone call from Will, Artistic Director of Theatre Royal Margate.  He asked how to set about finding someone who’d write such a book, then donate some of the proceeds to the Theatre.   Taking this broad hint, I asked if it was likely to become a play afterwards and (taking this equally broad hint) Will said he didn’t see why not.   Game on.

I called the town Seashaw.  Well, the Bong Shop in the book is not quite the one on Margate High Street.  The ‘Royal Theatre’ is not quite the Theatre Royal.  Rockers probably never met the mechanical elephant . . . Better to change the name, than incite irate letters.  Anyone who knows Margate will recognise it.   But, equally, anyone who’s holidayed in any British seaside town will recognise Seashaw.

I benefitted from the best research source of all—the locals.  Two Margate ‘residences’ combined school sessions with information-gathering. The children were better than any guidebook. (Guidebooks don’t mention the autographed photo of Tiger Woods in the Palm Cafe, the tin-can shop, or the man who always wears yellow).  I also visited Dreamland, the Museum, arcades, caves, beaches, graveyards.  And theatres, of course. Because this book’s about theatre, too.


The Positively Last Performance is set in ‘The Royal’.   After a lifetime eschewing ghost stories, I finally succumbed.   All ‘The Royal’s’ ghosts have back-stories they would rather not tell; over the years they have settled into a comfortable, comforting routine, like oysters into a mudbank. But interloper Gracie ruthlessly prises them open one by one, so out spill the stories.

History’s genuine hiccups and absurdities always throw up better storylines than staring into space does, or forking over personal experience.   And astonishing things have happened to Margate:  the sea came half a mile inshore;  Mods and Rockers invaded like Visigoths;  TB patients died under the stars; tens of thousands of Londoners arrived every summer, by steamer, in search of a good time, and then abruptly . . . didn’t.

A cartoon’s caption sums up the town’s social status in Victorian times:

“Good Lord, madam, you must never think of going!  It is so low class and vulgar!”

But naturally, those gaudy, bawdy days are long gone. Modern-day Margate has been blessed with investment and fine art!

Yes, and sea silt, arson, an out-of-town retail park that killed the town centre, love-it-or-hate-it high-rise, and urban seagulls big as dogs.

It was a funny book to write: the children’s recommendations included Primark, Macdonald’s, one-armed bandits, and going to Ramsgate instead.


It was a poignant book to write—got unbelievably more so as it went along.  While T. S. Eliot’s promenade shelter was being repainted a classy green, demolition workers were smashing up the cheap-and-cheerful arcades to make way for a Tesco.  The bucket-and-spade shops were being painted . . . and closed down, for fear their vulgarity detract from the Turner Contemporary.

A year later, arts-funding cuts halted Theatre Royal’s unrivalled community outreach.  Indeed, Will and all his team suddenly became an unaffordable luxury.

So, while I wove my optimistic fiction, real-life Kentish dreams unravelled in hanks.   If only happy endings were as easy to achieve in life as in a novel.

But I’m so glad of the initiative!  Without it I would never have written The Positively Last Performance.  A book’s origins have nothing to do with its worth or how it turns out. The Positively Last Performance will always and obstinately believe in better times ahead.  And readers need to go on believing in those.  So do authors.


Geraldine McCaughrean has written 165 books, from first-readers and picture books to adult novels.  Her awards include the CILIP Carnegie Medal, Whitbread Children’s Fiction Award,  Guardian Children’s Fiction Award, Smarties Prize and America’s prestigious Printz Award.

In addition to fourteen children’s novels, five adult novels and many stories collections and plays for younger children, she has retold myths, legends and inaccessible classics such as Moby Dick and Gilgamesh.  She is the author short plays for schools, plus radio drama and stage plays.

Her best known book is Peter Pan in Scarlet,  official sequel to J M Barrie’s classic, instigated by Great Ormond Street Hospital and published simultaneously around the world in 2006.

The Positively Last Performance is out now.


Writing reality: Gillian Cross on After Tomorrow

Award-winning author Gillian Cross writes about the inspiration for her latest novel, After Tomorrow – a dark survival thriller scarily close to home . . .

Gillian CrossIdeas can come from very unexpected places.  After Tomorrow takes place in England and France, but it started with a picture of boys in Africa.

I was doing some work with a charity called CORD, putting together an information pack about the lives of Sudanese refugees in Chad.  One of the pictures we used was a photo of boys kicking a football – made out of plastic bags.

How clever was that?

I thought a lot about those boys – and about their parents, who taught in the camp schools or started up small businesses to provide services to other refugees.   Would I be able to cope as well as they did?

Then, one day, I suddenly thought: Suppose it was English boys kicking that ball around.  Suppose we had to be refugees . . . 

And that was when Matt and Taco jumped into my head.  They were squashed into the back of a forty foot truck with a crowd of strangers.  Making a mad dash to get through the Channel Tunnel – before it was too late.  I could see them clearly – and I knew I was going to write their story.


But what was their story?  What made them run away from their home when they had nowhere else to go?  It had to be because life in the UK was breaking down.  Why?  The reason had to be something simple and devastating – and very easy to explain.

Like the collapse of the pound.

That seemed a far-fetched idea (surely no major currency would ever collapse again?) but it was exactly what I needed.  I plunged into the book, inventing the phrase ‘Armageddon Monday’ for the day when the crisis took hold.    That was in early 2010.  Within months, the news was full of the euro crisis and ‘Armageddon’ suddenly became the latest buzz word.

That felt creepy.   My book seemed to be getting more serious every day.  I shuddered – but I kept writing, trying to imagine what it would be like if the pound did collapse.  Riots, I thought.  There would be riots all over the country.   A bit melodramatic, maybe, but I wrote them into the story.

Six months later, in August 2011, riots exploded across the UK.

That was very creepy.  But there was even more to come.  I’d written about the French President closing his country’s borders to British refugees from the UK.  I worried about doing that, in case people thought it was ridiculously implausible.  Everyone knows, after all, that citizens of EU countries have a right to live anywhere in the EU.  But I needed the closure, to make Matt and Taco’s escape as difficult and dramatic as possible.  So I put it in anyway.

In July 2012, when the book was finished, I went to an OUP sales conference to talk about it, with a proof copy in my hand.  Just before I started speaking, someone stood up to report the latest news.  David Cameron had just announced that, if necessary he would flout EU law and close the UK’s borders to Greek economic migrants.  I almost burst into tears.

Am I clairvoyant?  Of course not.  But the whole experience confirmed what I’ve always known.  Fiction isn’t just an amusement.  It’s a powerful tool for exploring the reality around us.   Writing stories – and reading them – stretches our minds and opens us up to new ideas.

It even taught me how to make a football out of plastic bags.

Gillian Cross

Gillian Cross has been writing children’s books for over twenty years. Before that she took English degrees at Oxford and Sussex Universities, and she had various jobs including working in a bakery and being an assistant to a Member of Parliament.

She is married with four children and lives in Dorset. Her hobbies include orienteering and playing the piano. She won the Carnegie Medal for Wolf and the Smarties Prize and the Whitbread Children’s Novel Award for The Great Elephant Chase.

Visit Gillian’s website.


After Tomorrow is out in April. Malorie Blackman has described it as “a fast-moving, incredibly exciting read. And what grips you most is that the story is scarily plausible. Highly recommended.”

On national storytelling week: the power of storytelling

Liz CrossThis week has been designated national storytelling week, and that has turned my mind to the ancient art of oral storytelling. More specifically, it has set me thinking about books in which oral storytelling plays an important part – and what those books can tell us about the power of stories. I thought I would share my thoughts on three such books in particular.

Perhaps the most obvious example of a story about storytelling is One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. In this story Scheherazade saves her own life through the power of storytelling – by beginning a new story to the cruel sultan each night, but leaving it unfinished so that he has no choice but to leave her alive until the next day so he can hear the end of the story. This clever ploy rings so true because we have all felt that total absorption in a well-told story, and the almost desperate need to hear it through to its conclusion. Stories matter to us for so many reasons, but one of the most important factors has to be the fact that stories are complete in themselves, that they do come to an end, and then leave us to make sense of what we have heard. In our own lives we yearn to impose narrative order, looking for happy ever afters and final resolutions – but of course that is not how life works.


Of course this is not to say that stories always end neatly, or in the way we might expect. A recent book in which oral storytelling plays an important part is Patrick Ness’s wonderful A Monster Calls. Here, the monster that comes to Conor tells him a series of stories, which twist off in unexpected directions, challenging all Conor’s assumptions and certainties. As Conor comes to realize, “Stories were wild, wild animals and went off in directions you couldn’t expect.” But for the monster and, eventually, for Conor, stories are about Truth – and while the stories go off in unexpected directions, they are never random directions: they are always heading towards the right ending, the ending that carries the Truth of that particular story. This has to be one of the most magical parts of storytelling, and the one that is hardest to analyse – that sense of completeness, of rightness, at the end of a well-formed story. The ending can be funny, or heart-warming, or startling, or heart-breaking – but it will just in some undefinable way feel right.

A Monster Calls

Geraldine McCaughrean’s new novel, The Positively Last Performance, published next week, is also packed with stories. In this wonderful, rich novel, Gracie and her parents move into a disused theatre in a seaside town. Only Gracie can see and hear the many ghosts that live there, and as she urges them all in turn to tell her how they got to be there, the power of the stories they tell transforms everything – for themselves, for the theatre, and for Gracie. This is a book in which the stories told fulfil a myriad different functions – they entertain (of course), they inform, they share secrets, they help the storytellers make sense of their own experiences, and they bring teller and listeners together in a truly meaningful way. It leaves us with a real sense of how storytelling is a powerful shared experience, and can be equally powerful for teller and audience. (And of course, it’s an enormously entertaining, enjoyable story in its own right – do get hold of a copy!)


These are three extraordinary books in which oral storytelling plays an important part, each of which illuminates the power of storytelling in a different way. Of course there are also many books in which books themselves – real or imaginary – play an important part, and I will come back to some of those in another blog post soon. In the meantime, I am sure there are many more wonderful books in which the characters tell each other stories with all sorts of differing effects – I would love to hear your favourites.

Liz Cross, Head of Publishing, OUP Children’s Books

Liz Cross

Find out more about National Storytelling Week

Find out more about:

One Thousand and One Arabian Nights

A Monster Calls

The Positively Last Performance

Editing children’s books – a love story

Jasmine1Let me introduce myself. I’m Jasmine Richards and I have been a senior commissioning editor at Oxford University Press Children’s Books for four years. I have worked in publishing for nine years or so and one questions that I often get asked is: ‘how do you become a commissioning editor?’ I’ll do my best to answer that in this post or at the very least tell you a little bit about my path into publishing and why I think my job is AWESOME!

How I became a commissioning editor

Everyone’s route into publishing is different but I think they all begin with a passion for books. I have been a lifelong reader of children’s books. Indeed, the fact that I was still reading children’s books when I was an adult was my first clue that I should work in children’s publishing!

I studied English Literature and Language at Oxford University and learnt lots about analysing books and talking about them. After I left university, I worked for a year going to state schools around the country where I talked to young people about higher education and its benefits. I realized how important books were in terms of raising aspirations and how they had raised my aspirations as a child without me even really noticing! After that epiphany, I just knew I had to work with books.

I started off on the Penguin Graduate Programme. It was an eighteen month programme where I got to work in lots of different parts of the business—marketing, publicity, sales, a stint in the Penguin US office as well as children and adult editorial. Because I got to work in so many different parts of the business I was absolutely sure that I wanted to work in children’s editorial at the end of the programme.

After my time at Penguin ended, I took up an editorial position at a company called Working Partners where I developed and edited books such as Rainbow Magic and Beast Quest. I then moved over to OUP Children’s Books where I would become the editor of authors like Gillian Cross and Julia Golding.

What I do all day

I love being a senior commissioning editor at OUP because there is no such thing as a typical day. I can often be found in meetings, be they marketing meetings, cover meetings, or acquisitions meetings. I might be busy writing book blurbs or additional information for sales sheets, or maybe a piece of passion for a website, a letter to booksellers, or indeed a blog post like this!

A big part of my job is finding new talent and so that means reading new submissions. I love the fact that every time you are reading a submission you could be about to find the ONE—it’s a bit like speed dating and rather exciting (especially as I have never actually been speed dating)!

Another part of my job that I adore is editing manuscripts from authors already on our list.  I really enjoy working with authors and realizing their vision for a book.

Other elements of my job include negotiating with agents over contracts or talking to my colleagues about scheduling and progress of current projects. I’ll speak frequently to our rights team about possible angles to help pitch a book to foreign publishers and I’ll often be on the phone to an author talking about a new idea or how a book event went. I’ll attend book launches, writing conferences and book fairs.

If I’m honest, there’s really not enough hours in the day to do the job but it is always varied and stimulating and I get to work with books all day long (and get paid for it). Result!

Choosing books: how I fall in love

Now another question that I often get asked is: ‘what makes you acquire a book?’

And the answer is simple— I’ve got to fall in love.

In the first instance, it might be an idea that I’ve fallen in love with. An idea that makes you sit up and go WOW, that’s something a bit different.

A killer idea would make me dip straight into a script right there and then even if I have a million other things to do.

A good first line would keep me reading.

When I first started in this role, I had a wish list—dark fiction, thrillers, some classic adventure stories for 9+ readers. But the longer I do this job, the more I feel that genre is not my main focus. It is those books that refuse to let you off the hook that find their way into my heart.

That hook may be a driving plot that won’t let you put the book down. It might be characters that move you so deeply that you can’t stop reading because you need to know that they will be okay. It might be the way that a book makes you feel—happy, excited or scared and the fact that you don’t want that feeling to end.

These books don’t come along every day.   Authors who can make you laugh and cry, gasp and cheer all in the same novel are rare. Which is why when you find them, it is a bit like striking storytelling gold.

Discovering Dave Cousins, author of 15 Days without a Head and new novel Waiting for Gonzo, was a golden moment for me.  I came across his writing in an anthology called Undiscovered Voices and immediately knew that I wanted to read more of his writing. Very soon after that first reading we put in an offer for his debut novel 15 Days Without a Head.

Waiting for Gonzo, Dave’s second book, follows the character of Oz and his move to a small village up north called Slowleigh. Oz has big mouth and it soon gets him into big trouble with Isobel Skinner the school psycho.

Oz is not a character that you will forget easily. He’s flawed yes but charming and funny, and underneath it all has a good heart. The cast of characters that surround him are also unforgettable. There’s Meg, Oz’s older sister who has a problem of her own which is getting bigger by the day. Then there’s Oz’s friend Ryan and a pair of notorious hobbit feet.

Dave’s writing manages to be funny and emotional, surprising and satisfying. There’s a lovely accessibility to his writing but you know every sentence has been crafted and honed. Don’t wait too long to read Waiting for Gonzo—you’re in for a real treat. And it is a reminder to me why I became an editor and how lucky I am to do the job that I do.

Jasmine Richards, Senior Commissioning Editor

Waiting for Gonzo publishes in March.

Visit Dave Cousins’ website to hear the Waiting for Gonzo playlist, and watch the amazing Waiting for Gonzo trailer on You Tube.


The story comes first: teaching playfully in picture books

Picture book author Ann Bonwill on the key to tackling preschool social issues in picture books (without need of a soapbox)

annWhen my editor, Helen, expressed interest in a sequel to I Don’t Want to be a Pea!, I was thrilled. I had come to love my characters, Hugo and Bella, and the chance to write about them again was exciting.

hugo and bella

Endpapers for I am not a Copycat!, featuring Hugo the hippo and Bella the bird

But while their first story had come to me rather easily, the second one did not follow that same path. I found it challenging to stay true to the characters, voice, and tone of the first book while simultaneously crafting an original storyline and adding enough new elements to make things interesting.

Helen and I agreed that there were two aspects we wanted to keep consistent in the books. The first was the technique of telling the story almost entirely through dialogue. This proved to be enjoyable, as I have a lot of fun hearing the voices of Hugo and Bella in my head. The second aspect was less enjoyable – the task of examining a preschool social issue and (I shudder to say it) teaching a lesson about it.

As the mother of a four year old, I am surrounded by preschool social issues. Observing my son playing with a friend generates a laundry list of social skills that he is beginning to negotiate – how to share, how to take turns, how to open a juice carton without squirting the other person. I had no end of options for social issues to examine, but what did I want to say about them? What lesson did I want to teach? Or, more to the point, did I want to teach a lesson at all?

Teaching a lesson is the kiss of death in picture books. If you’ve read aloud to a group of children and tried to hold their attention, you know that making an overt point must be avoided at all costs. Children need story, not lecture. After all, would you rather relax in the bath with a juicy novel or a self-help book? (Please ignore that I’m writing this in January, when we’re all optimistically leafing through the pages of self-help . . . think back instead to the hedonistic days of December when all you wanted to do was avoid yet another family gathering by escaping into the world of a book, preferably with chocolate close at hand.) Children are no different from us. If anything they need less didacticism in their books than we do, as they are force fed it all day long by a culture that attempts to civilize them at every turn.

That said, the reality is that all my favorite picture books teach a lesson, in that they impart some basic truth about life and give us an example of how (or how not) to respond to it. Even a book that appears to be wholly about fun is sending the message that it’s good to let your hair down now and then. I Don’t Want to be a Pea! certainly has something to take away. It is, at its heart, a story about compromise, about putting friendship first, about making yourself happy by making someone else happy. But I didn’t set out to write about compromise, and therein lies the difference.

Hugo and bella falling out

Spread from I Don’t Want to be a Pea!. Hugo and Bella can’t agree on what to wear to a fancy dress party

In my mind, the distinction between a didactic book and one with a message is that, with a message, the story comes first. The ‘lesson,’ if we need to call it that, grows out of the story in a way that isn’t forced and preachy, it just is. If the story doesn’t come first, we run the risk of losing our audience, losing the magic.

So, imagine my surprise when I found myself trying to do just this – trying to craft a story around a moral rather than letting the story speak moralistically for itself. Usually when I write, the story drives me. The characters, tone, voice, and yes, message, evolve as I go. With the sequel, I already had the characters, tone, and voice, and I knew that I needed a similar type of message. Danger zone.

After abandoning a few drafts as hopelessly didactic, I returned to my rule. The story must come first. I stopped thinking about the issue I’d chosen to tackle (copycat behavior) and focused instead on the antics of a hippo and a bird at the swimming pool, doing synchronized swimming of all things. Writing dialogue helped immensely with this, as I was able stay in the moment through their playful language. I was back to my story.

hugo and bella synchronized swimming

Spread from I am not a Copycat!  

In the end, I am not a Copycat! does have a message. Sometimes it’s fun to be the same. Sometimes it’s fun to be different. Sometimes it’s just fun to make a splash. Oh, and don’t forget the chocolate.

Ann Bonwill is the author of eight picture books, including Bug and Bear, Naughty Toes, I Don’t Want to be a Pea!, and I am not a Copycat!. She grew up in Maryland in the United States, surrounded by good books from her mother’s library and good food from her father’s kitchen. Books and food still bring a smile to her face, especially enchiladas with extra guacamole. She shares her life (but not her guacamole) with her husband, son, and crazy corgi dog.


I am not a Copycat!, Ann Bonwill’s latest book, is out now, illustrated by the wonderful Simon Rickerty.

Hugo the hippo is annoyed about Bella the bird constantly copying what he does. But then, at the swimming pool, Hugo discovers that when his moves are perfectly copied by Bella, their friends are very impressed indeed . . .


Hugo and Bella first appeared in I Don’t Want to be a Pea!, shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2012, and chosen by Julia Donaldson as one of her favourite picture books of 2011.

Hugo and Bella are getting ready for a fancy dress party. Because they both want their own way, they can’t agree on a costume and they almost don’t go to the party at all. In this laugh-out-loud comedy of manners children will discover that compromise is what makes any friendship tick.

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