An English author of children's fiction, she is best known for works such as Red Sky in the Morning (1988) and Kiss the Dust (1991). Her Carnegie Medal and Children's Book Award-nominated works include picture books, novels, and short stories.
She worked as a teacher in Malaysia at age eighteen and later taught English in Ethiopia. She graduated from Bristol University with a degree in French.
Her book, The Garbage King, won the Children's Book of the Year Award from the Scottish Arts Council.
She was the New Zealand-born child of Scottish parents. She had two sons, Angus and William, with her husband, David McDowall.
She is a contemporary of fellow children's book author, Michael Morpurgo.