I hadn’t heard of The Secret Hen House Theatre until I attended the recent Nosy Crow Masterclass on how to write children’s fiction. The author, Helen Peters, was one of the speakers and gave a fascinating insight into the evolution of her debut novel. She described how it was sparked by childhood memories and became a draft manuscript, handwritten in notebooks and left under the bed for a few years, before being rescued, redrafted and submitted to Nosy Crow.
It tells the story of Hannah, the eldest of four children, who nurtures a secret ambition to be an actress. It’s a world far removed from her life on a rundown farm, where her father struggles to make a living while also looking after his children, after the recent death of their mother. When the farm is threatened with demolition, Hannah hatches a plan to save it, hoping to win a cash prize by writing and acting in her own play. With the help of her best friend, Lottie, she secretly creates a theatre on the farm, out of an old hen house. But, the play alone can’t save them…
I was captivated by the first line: ‘BANG! BANG! BANG!’ It set the scene, not only for the story to come, but for the wonderful writing style. Helen Peters writes succinctly, with pace and with character and setting details which appear to be dropped effortlessly into the action. The first chapter was a lesson in how to frame the rest of the book. We meet the family, the best friend, the villain, and the farm and we feel that we know them from the very beginning. It’s all achieved through action, dialogue and minimal description.
I read the book in one (guilty) sitting, willing Hannah to succeed, and totally immersed in the plot and the characters. I read a lot of children’s books, for my own benefit as a new author, and with my two daughters. I passed this one on to my 10-year-old daughter, Millie, a voracious reader, whose tastes range from Lauren St. John to The Hunger Games. This is what she says:
I really liked it because the characteristics of Hannah were believable and realistic. She was mischievous and not perfect, but you stayed with her to the end. It had a great plot and I’ve always loved action, drama and detective books. I got really into it and took it to school with me every day, but I finished it on the school bus so I had to find another book to read when I got there. It wasn’t nearly as good. I love this book, and its sequel, and think it would be great for anyone who likes the same stuff as I do. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read – I would give it 11 out of 10!
Thank you so much, Natalie and Millie! If you’ve not yet discovered The Secret Hen House Theatre, you can take a look inside the book below, and order it online here. Helen’s second novel, The Farm Beneath the Water, is out now – you can read more here and order it online here.