#DutchKidLit – Winter in Wartime by Jan Terlouw

Shortlisted for the 2020 Global Literature in Libraries Initiative Translated YA Book Prize

“Don’t be fooled, Michiel, by the romance of war, heroism, sacrifice, excitement, adventure. War means injuries, grief, torture, imprisonment, hunger, hardship, injustice. There’s nothing romantic about it.”

– Winter in Wartime

This award-winning Dutch children’s classic is a gripping World War II adventure story set during the Netherlands’ Hunger Winter of 1944-1945. Newly translated by Laura Watkinson, Terlouw’s fast-paced, autobiographical story of a boy approaching manhood struggling with the cruelty, horrors, and dilemmas of war under Nazi occupation is available again for an international audience.

Michiel barely remembers his life before the war, it started when he was eleven and now, at almost sixteen, there seems to be no end in sight. His rural Dutch village is under the control of Nazi soldiers, and his father, the mayor, struggles to maintain a fragile coexistence between the occupying forces and his angry Dutch townspeople. Tensions grow as visitors from cities far away show up at Michiel’s village looking for food. Many of the hungry stop at Micheil’s house, so he keeps busy finding eggs, butter, potatoes, and milk to share, running errands on his bicycle, and making the odd repair here and there for some spending money. This routine keeps him out of school, but also away from German soldiers, while managing to stay safe from Allied Forces’ bombing campaigns.

Unbeknownst to Michiel, there are desperate secrets being kept in his village involving plans that are a ticking time bomb full of catastrophic consequences should they fail or be exposed. Michiel finds out that an older boy, his friend and neighbor Dirk, is a member of the Dutch secret underground forces, and when Dirk is captured during a mission, Michiel upholds a promise to deliver an unaddressed letter. This letter sets off a chain of events that involve Michiel caring for an injured British pilot hidden in the woods and trying to uncover a traitor in their midst working as a Nazi informer. Things go from bad to worse when the body of a German soldier is found and the Nazi officers blame the townspeople for his death. Michiel’s mission, already perilous, becomes claustrophobic and life-threatening because there is no going back. He is implicated. He can trust no one. And he’s running out of time.

“Michiel got to know all kinds of human characteristics at high speed. From generosity, daring, cowardice and perseverance to total devastation,” says Terlouw. “In normal times, people need a whole life for that.”

– Jan Terlouw, “Winter in Wartime: How Jan Terlouw Wrote His Most Famous Book”

Winter in Wartime is a suspenseful adventure, with heartbreak and betrayal driving the compelling narrative. It is highly recommended for all secondary library collections and for readers aged 12 and up.

Terlouw provides a unique and complex view into the realities of war, challenging the idea that there are only good people or bad people based on which side they are on. Terlouw in an interview said that Winter in Wartime was one of the first books written about the Second World War where German soldiers were shown as complex characters, “As far as I know, at the time this was about the first time that a ‘good’ German appeared in a war story. Before that you only had the good and the bad in war books, those were the Germans. Very black and white.”

In addition, for the Dutch the Hunger Winter is another painful example of the costs of war and it is remembered for the striking image of the Dutch cooking and eating their tulip bulbs to stave off starvation. Terlouw’s book brings the Hunger Winter to life and expands what the world knows about the regular people who lived during the war that devastated a generation.

Pair this book rooted firmly in a specific historical context with the ahistorical parable about war Tortot, the Cold Fish who Lost His World and Found His Heart by Benny Lindelauf.

Winter in Wartime
Written by Jan Terlouw
Translated from the original Dutch by Laura Watkinson
Published by Pushkin Children’s Books, 2018
Originally published 1971 as Oorlogswinter by Lemniscaat
ISBN: 9781782691761

You can buy a copy of Winter in Wartime here.

Further Reading about the Hunger Winter in the Netherlands:

“When the Netherlands Was Suffering Through the Hunger Winter” via The Low Countries

“Letters from the Hunger Winter” (Dutch article, very interesting to read via Google Translate).


“Originally published in Dutch in 1973 and newly translated here, this gripping tale of conspiracy and humanity is based on the author’s childhood memories of the war. Suspenseful third-person narration provides historically and culturally specific details along with insight into Michiel’s inner thoughts. The contradictions and the horrors of war are laid out in succinct, powerful prose. Winding to a quiet yet satisfying ending, Terlouw laments the never-ending cycle of war…A nuanced perspective on World War II and a testament to the power of a young person to resist.”
Kirkus Reviews

“The pace is fast; the action is riveting; the mystery of the traitor’s identity is compelling. But this is no “adventure novel”: it’s about war and fear and deprivation, told from personal experience…” — The Horn Book Magazine


1973 Gouden Griffel 

1974 IBBY Honor List, “chosen to be representative of the best in children’s literature” from the Netherlands

Shortlisted for the 2020 Global Literature in Libraries Initiative Translated YA Book Prize

This post may contain affiliate links that earn Global Literature in Libraries Initiative a commission at no extra cost to you.

Jan Terlouw was born in the Netherlands in 1931. He worked as a nuclear physicist in countries across the world before entering politics as a representative of the Dutch D66 party in 1971. Alongside his political career he has written many successful children’s books, including Winter in Wartime which was based on his own memories of the Nazi occupation. It won the Golden Pen Prize for the best Dutch children’s book in 1973 and has since been adapted for film and stage – via Pushkin Press.
Laura Watkinson translates from Dutch, Italian and German into English. She studied medieval and modern languages at St Anne’s College, Oxford University, followed by a Master of Studies in European literature. She went on to teach in various locations, including the universities of Erlangen-Nuremberg and Milan, before returning to university to take a Masters in English and applied linguistics at RCEAL and Trinity Hall, Cambridge University. Watkinson has been a full-time literary translator since 2003. Follow Laura on Twitter @Laura_Wat.
Kim Tyo-Dickerson, seen here visiting the Kinderboekenmuseum/Children’s Book Museum in The Hague, is the Upper School Librarian and Head of Libraries at the International School of Amsterdam. She was the guest editor for Global Literature in Libraries Initiative’s #WorldKidLitMonth in September of 2020 where she celebrated #DutchKidLit, the children’s literature of ‘the happiest children in the world (as measured by UNICEF). Kim has a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York, a Master of Arts in English and a Bachelor of Philosophy in Interdisciplinary Studies from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. She is one of the founding members of the grassroots professional learning project International Teacher Librarians Lead (inTLlead) and is committed to world libraries, literatures, and literacies. Originally from United States, she has lived on three continents and worked in international school libraries for 16 years in both Europe and Africa. Kim’s languages include English, German, and Dutch. You can follow her on Twitter @kimtyodickerson.

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