I was born in 1974, in Northumberland, which is possibly the one part of England where more animals live than people.
My father Paul worked for the family engineering business in Newcastle, while my mother Jane ran a children’s bookshop in Hexham called Toad Hall Books. Alongside my younger brother Nick, I spent my very early years crawling around on the floor of that shop, surrounded by piles of books right from the start.
I was extremely lucky to come from a writing background. My grandfather Roger Mortimer was a racing journalist who wrote hundreds of very funny letters to his children and grandchildren, and you can learn the extraordinary story of his life in Dearest Jane, by him and my mother, Jane.
I enjoyed reading, writing and drawing from an early age. My parents loved reading to me, and I particularly enjoyed books with good pictures – such as the Moomin stories by Tove Jansson, The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien and Hergé’s Tintin graphic novels. Other favourites included Roald Dahl, C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series and Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. My mother was always writing as I was growing up – newspaper articles, gardening and cookery books, local history – and it seemed a normal thing to want to do.
My first cartoon, aged 7, was about a superhero called Super Sid, which won a competition in a local newspaper. Then I started making comics, and my first one was about all the sheep who lived on the hills around us, called…The Sheep! At school, I spent most of my time in the library or the computer room, where I wrote short stories and funny articles for the school magazine. Then I went to university, where I was meant to study English but mainly wrote, directed or produced plays and comedy shows.
My first job, in 1996, was in a fringe theatre in London, The Pleasance, where I started working behind the bar but was eventually allowed to read a few scripts and then help choose what plays were put on, both in London and at their Edinburgh Fringe Festival venue. Then I co-ran a theatre production company, touring new plays and promoting comedians. I also worked in TV for several years, including a short spell in Los Angeles, coming up with ideas for everything from reality shows to hidden camera pranks.
On a break between TV jobs one summer in 2008, I booked myself onto an Arvon writing course at Ted Hughes’s old house on the West Yorkshire moors, and it was there I began writing the adventures of a boy called Kester who can’t talk to people but can talk to animals, in an environmentally precarious world.
Finally, after 17 drafts, and many early mornings and late nights later, The Last Wild was published in 2013 by Quercus Children’s. It was nominated for the Carnegie Award shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, the UKLA Award, and won both Stockton Children’s Book of the Year and Calderdale Children’s Book of the Year. The book has been published in 13 other countries, including the USA, and the film rights have been optioned. I am currently working on the screenplay.
That same year, I married Will Tosh, an academic.
In 2014, the sequel to The Last Wild, The Dark Wild, came out, and won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. The third and final book in the series, The Wild Beyond came out in 2015, and was shortlisted for Islington Book of the Year.
After my father died in 2013, I found his last unfinished novel (a political thriller for adults) amongst his papers. With the agreement of my brother and his agent and editor, I finished the book for him , and The Death of an Owl was published in 2016 by W&N.
That Christmas, my fourth book for children, There May Be A Castle was published by Quercus Children’s. It was a Children’s Book of the Year in The Times and has just come out in paperback. You can also read some new short stories by me in Winter Magic (curated by Abi Elphinstone), Wisp of Wisdom and Scoop magazine.
I also occasionally write articles and book reviews for The Guardian, The Daily Express and The Spectator, amongst others. I have judged the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, and the Costa Book Award.
My adaptation of John Masefield’s classic The Box of Delights recently opened at Wilton’s Music Hall in London last Christmas, directed by Justin Audibert, designed by Tom Piper, starring Matthew Kelly and Josefina Gabrielle. I am now delighted to also be an Associate Artist at Wilton’s.
My latest book is called The Lost Magician, and will be published in August 2018.
I am currently also working on the sequel to that book, alongside a new play and a new film, but spend most of my time wrangling our very naughty – but adorable – puppy, Huxley.
The Ministry of Stories
The Ministry of Stories is a local writing and mentoring centre in east London, where anyone aged eight to 18 can come and discover their own gift for writing. It lives in a secret space behind the fantastical Hoxton Street Monster Supplies.
Through a range of innovative writing programmes, and one-to-one mentoring, The Ministry helps young people discover and realise their own creative potential. It builds confidence, self-respect and communication skills in both workshops for schools and out-of-school writing clubs. And they provide a publishing platform for young writers, so these fresh, exciting voices are shared with the world.
I’m delighted to have joined as Trustee and look forward to helping them in their mission to make writing fun and accessible, and help young people find their voices. If you would like to support the Ministry’s work, or even get involved yourself, click on the link below
Beanstalk is a national charity that provides one-to-one literacy support to children who struggle with their reading ability and confidence. They recruit, train and support volunteers to provide consistent, one-to-one literacy support to primary school children who need our help. Those trained reading helpers give them the support they need to improve their reading ability and confidence.
I am very lucky and proud to have been one of those volunteer reading helpers since 2012, working with children in Islington and Haringey. Our regular sessions are a highlight of every week. Volunteering with Beanstalk not only helps children who need it the most, but you can get so much out of it too, and I learn something new with every visit.
To find out how you could volunteer with Beanstalk or support their work in other ways, please follow the link below.
Pleasance Theatre Trust
The Pleasance Theatre Trust, established in 1995, is a charitable arts organisation dedicated to giving young people their first opportunity to watch, perform, produce and create live work, from theatre to stand up comedy. With a permanent two space theatre in Islington, Pleasance London, and an annual multi=space operation at the Fringe, Pleasance Edinburgh, each year we support dozens of young practitioners and emerging artists both financially and in kind.
The Pleasance gave me my first job – and break – many years ago, and I am delighted to now be a Trustee, trying to help others in the same way.
To find out how you can get involved, either by working with us, or supporting our work, click on the link below.
Find out more about my school visits, or where you can come and see me at a festival or bookshop near you.
- I was inspired to write The Last Wild by the shocking discovery that Earth has lost over half its wildlife in the last 40+ years. What will happen in the next 40 years. Will there be any animals left, and if not, what are we going to do about it? What are YOU going to do about it?
Yes. If you would like me to visit your school, please ask your teacher, school librarian or a parent/carer to email Authors Aloud.
Not for the time being. “The Wild Beyond”, the third book in the series, is the conclusion of Kester, Polly, Aida and all their animal friends’ adventures as I see it for now. I firmly believe that those left at the end of that story have very exciting futures ahead of them! But never say never. There might be a fourth book one day, you never know…