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Children of Winter

Children of Winter

Children of Winter is a historical time-slip novel set in the Derbyshire village of Eyam. Three siblings have to survive alone in a barn during the Great Plague of 1666. They long to know what is happening down in their village. Must they stay away?

PAPERBACK

Available from Amazon.

Illustrated by Ian Newsham. Published by Catnip, November 2019. ISBN 978-1-84647-026-4. Originally published by Methuen, 1985 (HarperCollins paperback).

It was also available as a BBC Jackanory cassette, read by Sylvestra le Touzel, a video: Channel 4 schools Bookbox dramatisation and a BBC4 schools abridged reading.

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She seemed to know, and yet not to know. She seemed to picture that walk as if in her memory, struggling against the wind with bundles of clothing and sacks of food. Over three hundred years ago.

Excerpt from ‘Children of Winter’, read by the author


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Foreign editions

Children of Winter was also published in Denmark and the Netherlands.

Vividly and sensitively realised.

The Guardian

Children of Winter is an historical novel set at the time of the Great Plague in 1666. It is loosely based on the true story of the village of Eyam, not far from where I live, which lost half of its population to that plague. In real life, the villagers of Eyam were persuaded by their vicar, Mompesson, to cut their village off from the rest of Derbyshire. They went into lockdown, as we call it now, so no-one could leave, no one could enter the village. In that way they stopped the plague from spreading to anywhere else in Derbyshire. It was an amazingly brave decision.

What happens in ‘Children of Winter’?

In my story, three children are taken by their mother up to a barn, away from the village, away from anywhere close to other people. She wants them to stay there on their own in order to survive. I tried to imagine what it would be like for them to have been so near home and yet not to be able to go there, and not to know what was happening to their family and friends in the village. It is about the Plague, but it could be about refugees from a war or from any kind of disaster. It’s about survival.

My inspiration for ‘Children of Winter’

I got the idea for writing this story when I was working with a group of children from a Sheffield school, writing stories with them. We spent the day in a very old barn, Bowsen Barn, near High Bradfield. There are many barns just like it all over Yorkshire and Derbyshire. This barn had a very strong atmosphere of the past, and the children used it as the setting for some wonderful ghost stories. At the end of the day, when we were reading our stories to each other round the flickering light of a gas lamp, I said, “I’ve got a feeling that somebody used to live here, a long time ago. Who do you think it could have been?” One of the children said, “It could have been somebody sheltering from the Great Plague”.

I knew, straight away, that I was going to write a story about it, and that I would set it in that very barn. There were actually clues in the barn that I used in the book; bins for food, a scrap of straw that could once have been a mound for sleeping on. Round the back of the barn was a little stream, which became the trickle stream of my novel, and in front was a log – my thinking-log! Also, at the threshold, was a stone with numbers carved on it. That gave me the idea for the drawing Dan does on the slate.

Eyam, the historic plague village

If you ever visit Eyam you will see the names of some of the people who died there during the time of the Great Plague, recorded over their cottage doors. One of the plaques mentions somebody who hid in a hut on the hills above Eyam, just like the children in my story. Just outside Eyam there is an enclosure marking the place where a woman buried her entire family – her six children and her husband. Can you imagine how unbearable that must have been for her? They are known as the Riley graves, as they are buried in Riley’s field, but the family was called Hancock. I sometimes visit the Riley Graves and think what a terrible time it must have been to live through.

This is what inspired me to introduce the character called Maggie Hoggs, who loses all her children too. She is full of grief and anger, and when she sees the Tebbutt children she wants to harm them because they ‘escaped’, and all her children died.

Children of Winter is a made-up story, but, like Street Child, it is rooted in the real past, in real lives, and hopefully it helps us to remember them.

Berlie pitches it just right. She has a fantastic prose style, plus a great feel for characters and situation. This is my favourite of all her books.

Ian McMillan, Daily Telegraph Family Book of the Month, June 2007

‘Children of Winter’ on BBC Jackanory

This painting by Sue Broadley is from a BBC television programme called Jackanory. It was a long-running series, and very popular with children and adults. Every week it featured a new book, which was serialised in five 15 minute episodes and read by a well-known actor. The readings were accompanied by illustrations, which they called ‘captions’, and this one of the children in the barn is from Sylvestra Le Touzel’s reading of Children of Winter.

Children of Winter painting by Sue Broadley
One of Sue Broadley’s paintings for ‘Children of Winter’ on BBC Jackanory

‘Children of Winter’ as part of ‘A Parcel of Patterns’ event

In March 2022, Eyam Museum organised a talk looking at how the story of the plague in Eyam has influenced children’s authors. I joined three other authors to discuss our own Eyam-based books and to celebrate the re-publication of Gill Paton Walsh’s classic novel A Parcel of Patterns.

The event was recorded, and you can now watch it on YouTube.

Questions

Q What is the difference between the Black Death, the Bubonic Plague and the Great Plague?

A There isn’t one. They are different names for the same plague, which occurred at intervals from the 1300s through to the mid 1600/ It still occurs in parts of the world. It was the second global Pandemic, and resulted in a massive death toll throughout the world.

Q What was the Bubonic Plague like?

A It had the symptoms of a very bad flu – headache, nausea, weakness, fever. It sometimes affected breathing. The main features were swellings, called buboes – some as big as an egg, Many people died of it. At that time, although many cures were tried, there was really no cure for the Plague. There were no vaccines, no NHS, no national advice through the media. The best people could do was to quarantine themselves to try to prevent the plague passing from one person to another. Nobody knew how it was spread. It wsas generally believed to be airborne.

Q How did the Bubonic plague spread?

A It was spread by fleas, which were carried by rats. The fleas jumped on to humans, bit them, and gave them the plague.

Q What caused the Eyam plague?

A A package of cloth was sent from London to a tailor in Eyam in late 1665. When the tailor, whose name was George Viccars, opened the parcel up, infected fleas carrying the London Plague jumped out and bit him. In no time at all the plague spread through the village. He was the first plague victim in Eyam.

Plaque at George Viccars’ cottage in Eyam

Q How many people died in the Eyam plague? 

A Actually, figures differ with every account, but 260 died, which was more than twice the fatalities suffered in London at the time.

Q Where can I find out more about Eyam?

A If you can visit Eyam, begin at the excellent Eyam Museum in the carpark. If you can’t, the BBC has a very good article: The Eyam Plague, the Village of the Damned.

Q What can the Eyam Plague teach us?

A The village made a huge sacrifice, and many of its inhabitants died. But by isolating themselves they prevented the Plague from spreading throughout Derbyshire, and from there to surrounding counties – Staffordshire, Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire – and so on. Tradesmen moved from village to village all the time. There would be no Great Fire of London to kill all the rats. Isolating the village in this way was the equivalent to what we have been doing during the Covid Pandemic – lockdown. It was a very important lesson for us. But more than that, perhaps, Eyam taught us all to support one another, to respect the whole of humanity, and to care.

Q So did Mrs Tebbutt do the right thing when she sent her children to live in the barn?

A Maybe you can answer that.

Children of Winter is a classic, time slip tale by Berlie Doherty, an author whose books are a firm favourite in schools. They are generally of a length to make them easy to study in a term, and usually tackle subjects which make great material for further discussion and study in class time… The story is full of tiny, every day details of what it is like for the children to look after each other and live without their parents, all the while knowing that their home and family is a short walk away. The fear the plague brings with it is beautifully drawn and enacted, and the whole book is wonderfully atmospheric.

Making Them Readers blog

Television dramatisation

The excellent television videos of Children of Winter are currently available on YouTube. It is serialised in two episodes.

Resources

The National Centre for Children’s Books has compiled an extremely comprehensive blog about Children of Winter. It contains photographs I took of Eyam, and of Bowsen Barn, my handwritten early drafts of the book, letters between myself and my editor, a letter I wrote to the Council informing them of recent vandalism to Bowsen Barn, reviews and production photographs of the short television movie of the book. The National Centre for Children’s Books is in Newcastle, and archive material of my books and those of many other authors are stored and curated there.

A guided reading pack is also available from TES. This is a free download for school use.

BBC School Radio also provides this PDF, which is very detailed study of Children of Winter, with synopsis, an interview with me, and useful classroom work material.

The Black Death has never been eerier than in this time-slip tale by the Street Child author. What fate will befall Catherine and her siblings when they are transported to a strangely familiar barn, as the Black Death rages all around?

Scholastic Bookclub

If you enjoyed reading ‘Children of Winter’…

You may also enjoy my other historical novels.

Writing ideas

Children of Winter is a time-slip story, in which three children from today enter a barn and very quickly find themselves drawn into the time of the Great Plague in 1665. The barn is a sort of portal in this story, and you’ll find many other kinds of portals in the books you read – Narnia, for example, and Northern Lights. A portal can take you to different times or different places, to the past, to the future, to outer space, to the Wilderness. Try writing a portal/time-slip story.

Here’s some help:

In Children of Winter, Patsy and Andrew actually take on new names, Tessa and Danny, but Catherine doesn’t. Why do you think that is? Is it because I couldn’t think of another name for her? Or is it because she is the link between the past and the present? She’s the one who says “Over the stile, and into the past.” She’s the one who instantly feels she recognises things about the barn they are sheltering in. What’s more – she knows the barn is there.

And when she becomes the Catherine of the past, she starts to get strange feelings about the future. She says “What has the future to do with me?”

As soon as Catherine says “Aye, t’is time”, she and her brother and sister stop pretending, stop play-acting. They are really and truly children of 1665.

See if your story can work in the same way.

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