A 20th-century English author of historical children's fiction, he is best known for his World War II novel, The Machine Gunners, which won the 1975 Carnegie Medal from the Library Association. His other popular works include The Scarecrows (1981) and Blitzcat (1989).
His Machine Gunners book, about a group of children who find a crashed German airplane with a working machine gun, was adapted for screen and radio by the BBC.
He received numerous awards for his children's literature; his 1990 work, The Kingdom by the Sea, won the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize.
He grew up in North Shields, Northumberland. His home region served as the setting of many of his books.
His Blackham's Wimpy story, about Royal Air Force bomber crews, inspired Hayao Miyazaki's A Trip to Tynemouth.