Joanna Quinn on her best-selling novel 'The Whalebone Theatre'

A woman rests her head on her hand and poses next to a book
Joanna Quinn’s debut novel, “The Whalebone Theatre,” was a best seller in England in 2022.
Courtesy photos

When we first meet Cristabel, the heroine of Joanna Quinn’s debut novel, “The Whalebone Theatre,” she is only three. But she is already sure of herself, in the pure and defiant way that young children often are. She knows she was born to be a leader.

But how does she get there? That’s the story at the heart of Quinn’s delightful book, which follows Cristabel and her half-siblings as they grow up on the family’s lush estate in 1920s England.

The grownups are dizzy with relief that World War I has ended, so they mostly exist in a haze of alcohol and amusements. The children are mostly left to themselves. That’s how they end up staging their own theater, in the skeleton of a beached whale, which provides a backdrop and a direction to their young lives.

When World War II breaks out, Cristabel and her siblings, now grown, find themselves in a more serious production: playing roles in the allied military effort. And they don’t know how this story ends.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

Quinn’s novel takes us from seaside England to occupied Paris, from the height of luxury to the horrors of war. “The Whalebone Theatre” was an instant best seller in the U.K., and a New York Times best seller.

This week, on Big Books and Bold Ideas, she joined host Kerri Miller to talk about the insightfulness of children, how art helps us to recognize ourselves, and why — despite the glamour — she would not want to live in 1920s England.


  • Joanna Quinn is as fiction writer with a background in journalism. “The Whalebone Theatre” is her first novel. She lives in Dorset, England, where her book is set.

To listen to the full conversation you can use the audio player above. 

Subscribe to the MPR News with Kerri Miller podcast on Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcasts or RSS.

Subscribe to the Thread newsletter for the latest book and author news and must-read recommendations.