Kathleen Hale was born in Broughton, Salford, Lancashire, and was brought up in a suburb of Manchester. Her childhood was far from idyllic: her father died when she was very young and she was forced to endure long periods of separation from her mother. This, along with the frustrations of an unexpressed artistic talent, produced a rebellious reaction in the young girl's naturally ebullient nature. However, her talent as an artist was recognised at school by a sympathetic headmistress at Manchester High School for Girls and she went on to attend art courses in Manchester and at the University College, Reading from 1915 to 1917, where she was taught by Allen W. Seaby.
In 1917, Kathleen moved to London to make a life for herself as an artist. She worked for some time as Augustus John's secretary whilst developing a wide circle of friends in the artistic community, such as Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. During the 1920s she earned a living as an illustrator, accepting commissions for book jackets, posters and illustrations for children's books, as well as selling her own drawings. She also attended the Central School of Arts and Crafts. Hale spent time in Paris in 1923, where she met the couple Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines.
In the late 1930s the Orlando series was among the earliest picture books produced using photolithography. In 1941 Orlando's Evening Out was the first fictional picture book published by Puffin Books, the children's imprint of Penguin Books.
She married Douglas Maclean, a young doctor working in medical research. They settled in Hertfordshire where they could bring up their two young sons and entertain their friends. She created Orlando and his world to entertain her children at bedtime. Orlando the Marmalade Cat 'with eyes like twin gooseberries' was one of the classic children's book characters of the 1940s and 1950s. The stories are known for their quirky wit and extravagant illustrations. They combine adventure with friendship and family life. As the creator of Orlando, Kathleen was awarded the OBE in 1976.
Hale was the 'castaway' on the 30 October 1994 edition of BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs, where she was interviewed by Sue Lawley. Hale choose the Catalan song "Cobla La Principal de Peralada" among choices including pieces by Anton Karas, Gertrude Lawrence and Scott Joplin as her favourite record, Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time as her choice of book, and a djellaba made from golden cloth as her luxury item.
- Orlando the Marmalade Cat: A Camping Holiday (1938)
- Orlando the Marmalade Cat: A Trip Abroad (1939)
- Orlando's Evening Out (1941)
- Orlando the Marmalade Cat: Buys a Farm (1942)
- Orlando's Home Life (1942)
- Orlando the Marmalade Cat: His Silver Wedding (1944)
- Orlando the Marmalade Cat: Becomes a Doctor (1944)
- Orlando's Invisible Pyjamas (1947)
- Orlando the Marmalade Cat: Keeps a Dog (1949)
- Orlando the Judge (1950)
- Orlando the Marmalade Cat: A Seaside Holiday (1952)
- Orlando's Zoo (1954)
- Orlando the Marmalade Cat: The Frisky Housewife (1956)
- Orlando's Magic Carpet (1958)
- Orlando's Country Peepshow (1959)
- Orlando the Marmalade Cat: Buys a Cottage (1963)
- Orlando and the Three Graces (1965)
- Orlando Goes to the Moon (1968)
- Orlando and the Water Cats (1972)
- Henrietta, the faithful hen (1943)
- Henrietta's Magic Egg (1973)
- A Slender Reputation: An Autobiography (1994)
- Oxford University Press (21 June 2012). Benezit Dictionary of British Graphic Artists and Illustrators. OUP USA. p. 502. ISBN 978-0-19-992305-2.
- Souter, Nick and Tessa (2012). The Illustration Handbook: A guide to the world's greatest illustrators. Oceana. p. 213. ISBN 9781845734732.
- David Lewis (12 November 2012). Reading Contemporary Picturebooks: Picturing Text. Routledge. p. 143. ISBN 978-1-135-12152-5.
- Valerie Grove (6 May 2010). So Much To Tell. Penguin Books Limited. p. 10. ISBN 978-0-670-91885-0.
- "Desert Island Discs - Kathleen Hale". BBC Radio 4. Retrieved 23 August 2017.
- Daniel Hahn (2015). The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature. Oxford University Press. p. 433. ISBN 978-0-19-969514-0.