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Blue John

Blue John is a magical story set in one of the Castleton Caverns in the Peak District. The Queen of Darkness makes a beautiful child from ice and fire, and says he must never leave her cave under Mam Tor. But when he sees children, he longs to be with them. 5+ dyslexic-friendly.

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Available from Amazon.

Barrington Stoke Little Gem, February 2017. Illustrated by Alexandria Neonakis. ISBN: 978-1-78112-578-6. Barrington Stoke is a dyslexia-friendly publisher.

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“Blue John” she whispered, “Your name is Blue John, and you are mine for ever.” The Queen of Darkness kissed her child, and fell into a deep, deep sleep of enchantment that was to last for thousands of years.

Excerpt from ‘Blue John’, read by the author


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Beautifully written picture books, where the words are cut and polished like jewels, have been all but eclipsed by the current vogue for funny, quirky books. Which is why we should treasure writers like Berlie Doherty who are incapable of writing a mediocre sentence.

The Sunday Telegraph, 20 April 2003

What is ‘Blue John’ about?

My story Blue John is a made-up folktale or legend set in Castleton, in the Derbyshire Peak District, very near to where I live now. The Queen of Darkness creates a child from the purple-blue heart of a glacier and the gold of the sun to live with her in the deep, dark caverns under the mountain called Mam Tor. He knows he must never leave the darkness; that he cannot live in the light. If he does, he will turn to stone. One day children visit the cavern, and he falls in love with a little girl. He longs to see her again. Outside, he can hear children playing. Dare he go to them and find his friend? And what will happen to him if he does?

Now, why did I write ‘Blue John’?

The internationally celebrated violinist Peter Cropper invited me some time ago to write a ‘story to music’ for the Lindsay String Quartet’s Christmas children’s concert. I chose the haunting piece by the Czech composer, Smetana, From my Life. The music made me think of ice and darkness and sunlight, loneliness and joy. I walked over the Mam Tor mountain near my home with the music in my head, and looked down towards the caverns. I thought of the darkness below the mountain, and the sunlight above it. I thought of the semi-precious stone called Blue John that is mined there. And I knew immediately what I was going to write about. So I invented a character, a little boy who is made out of the blue of a glacier’s heart, and the gold of the sun, and who lives in darkness. And I called him Blue John.

Peter Cheeseman (then artistic director of The New Vic Theatre) directed it as a piece of spoken theatre. The first performance was at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, on 12th December 1999. The players were the Lindsays and the readers were Romy Saunders and David Kendal.

Later, ‘Blue John’ became a book

I sent the story to one of my publishers, Puffin, and they commissioned the Cornish artist Tim Clarey to illustrate it. It became a very beautiful picture book, and was widely read and loved. It was also widely used in schools throughout the world both as a story and to help with projects involving rocks and minerals, and the study of myths and legends.

After a time it was no longer available, and I received many letters from parents, teachers and children asking whether it would ever be available again.

It is now recreated as a very attractive story book, richly illustrated by the Canadian artist Alexandria Neonakis. The publishers are award-winning Barrington Stoke, who are renowned for producing high quality books that are also dyslexia-friendly. This means that they use cream paper rather than glaring white, and that the illustrations don’t obscure the print. They have devised a special font to make the physical mechanics of reading easier and pleasurable.

Illustration of child miners, by Alexandria Neonakis, from my book Blue John
One of Alexandria Neonakis’ illustrations from ‘Blue John’

Other books of mine published by Barrington Stoke

Barrington Stoke also publish my books Joe and the Dragonosaurus and Bella’s Den.

Inspired by the Blue John stone found in the hills around her Derbyshire home, Berlie Doherty has created a myth that already feels as if it has always been in our memories… Berlie Doherty takes care over each sentence and this short story, beautifully and simply told, will intrigue and move young readers.

Andrea Reece, lovereading4kids

What actually is Blue John in Castleton?

Earrings with Blue John stones
Earrings made from Blue John

Blue John is a semi-precious mineral that was found by lead miners in the Blue John and Treak Cliff Castleton caverns. The Castleton caverns are famous for being the only place in Europe, some say in the world, where this fluorite crystal is found. It was originally discovered by French miners extracting lead from the caverns, and they called it bleu-jaune because of its colour. Now it’s known everywhere as Blue John. It is a beautiful semi-precious mineral, and for many years the gemstone has been fashioned into wine goblets, jewellery and other ornaments, and is highly valued around the world. Now visitors flock to the caverns hoping to see it there, and to buy pieces from local shops.

I’m very proud to tell you about a lovely set of felt hangings depicting the story, and inspired by Tim’s illustrations in the picture book edition. They have been made by members of High Peak Community Arts, and they are a feast of jewel-like colours now gracing the walls of Buxton Library, which will be their home.

Did you know?

What’s the difference between a cave and a cavern? Well, there is a difference. See if you can find out!

Why not visit the Castleton caverns?

How about visiting the famous caverns in Castleton? They’re called Peak Cavern, Treak Cliff, Blue John, Speedwell, and there’s one in Buxton called Poole’s Cavern.

They’re in a part of Derbyshire that is known as the White Peak, because it is formed of limestone. Limestone is porous, so rivers channel their way underground, and that’s how the caves and caverns are formed. And as water drips through the limestone, it forms stalactites. And as they drip down, to the cave floor, they from stalagmites.

An enchanted tale of love, loyalty and longing, sparkling with diamond-cut language and framed with atmospheric illustrations.

Goodreads

Stalactites and stalagmites

What’s the difference between a cave and a cavern? Well, there is a difference. See if you can find out!

Enjoy the dripping water, the echoes, the darkness, just as the children do in my Blue John story. Close your eyes, and listen.

Enjoy the stalactites and stalagmites – which is which?

A stalactite holds tight to the roof of the cave. A stalagmite might reach the roof if it grows very tall. But how does it grow? Is it alive? How are they formed? How old are they? See what you can find out.

Make a cave in your classroom.

Stalactites at Blue John Cavern. Photo by Wikipedia user Arbey
Stalactites at Blue John Cavern. Photo: Wikipedia user Arbey.

Peak District Lead Mining Museum

Many years ago, lead was mined in the caverns. In my story, while Blue John is sleeping, children are working there in his cave, carrying candles in their mouths so they could see where they were going as they crawl into the darkness. This was terribly dangerous. Visit the Lead Mining Museum in Matlock and find out about the working conditions, and see the collections of beautiful stones.

Collect your own gemstones and fossils

Start by collecting pebbles, from your garden , parks, woods, seaside. Put them in water to make them shine.

You can buy starter sets of gemstones online and in museuems.

See this page on geology.com for some lovely illustrations of gemstones.

Beautiful illustrations and a mythical feel to this fable-like story will appeal to children who enjoy myths and legends, while the true inspiration for this story – a blue and yellow mineral rock found in Derbyshire, near the author’s home – is an interesting writing prompt for young creative writers.

BookTrust

If you enjoy stories of magic and fantasy, folk tales and fairy tales…

You may also enjoy some of my other books:

Resources

The publishers of Blue John, Barrington Stoke, have created this beautiful blog, containing an interview with me, illustrations from the book, an extract from the music that inspired it, creative writing ideas and links to other resources.

Writing tip

When I wrote my Blue John story I was inspired by listening to a piece of music. Listen to a piece of instrumental music (it mustn’t be a song, because the words will distract you) and while you are listening, draw pictures or write word pictures of what the music puts into your mind. Listen again, and let a story develop from the pictures. Try different kinds of music and see what different kinds of pictures they put into your mind. As you are listening, try thinking of a place – a quiet place, perhaps, a woodland, a beach, a garden. Imagine a creature living there, and only you can see it.

Write a story about that place, and that creature.

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