Saturday, 29 June 2013

The Secret Hen House Theatre - Author Interview - Helen Peters

We at Space on the Bookshelf celebrate all folks who celebrate children's literature and so as part of Independent Booksellers Week, we are reporting on the weeks events at Indy Bookshop Mostly Books.  Next Saturday The 6th July Mostly Books are being Taken Over by Nosy Crow Author; Paula Harrison, Fleur Hitchcock and Helen Peters. By way of build up to the event we present you with not one but two 3D Reviews, first up is Helen followed by Fleur Next week.

Helen Peters is the author of The Secret Hen House Theatre. She grew up on an old-fashioned farm in Sussex, surrounded by family, animals and mud. She spent most of her childhood reading stories and putting on plays in a tumbledown shed that she and her friends turned into a theatre. After university, she realised that she needed to find a job where someone would pay her to read stories and put on plays (though maybe not in a tumbledown shed) and so she became an English and Drama teacher. Several years later, finding herself as a stay-at-home mother of two, she decided to have a go at writing the sort of book she’d so enjoyed as a child. Helen lives with her husband and children in London, and she can still hardly believe that she now gets to call herself a writer.

What was your favourite children’s book as a child?

If I had to choose only one (and that is so hard!) I would go for Curtain Up by Noel Streatfeild. It’s a sort-of sequel to Ballet Shoes, where three motherless children are sent to live with their eccentric and flamboyant London grandmother when their father goes missing in action during World War 2. They are horrified when their grandmother, a retired actress, sends them to the Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training, which she believes provides the only education worth having. I loved it because the children are very real and there’s a wonderful cast of supporting characters who leap off the page. And I loved the setting of the bombed-out London square where the grandmother’s house is the only one left standing. Any book set in London, even a bombed-out London, seemed impossibly glamorous to me as a country child.

What is your favourite children’s book as an adult?

Again, it’s so hard to choose, but maybe The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson. I love her writing, I love the adventure story and I love the generosity of spirit which permeates the book.

What do you think makes children’s books so inspirational?

I think it’s partly that they always offer hope. Children are rarely cynical or jaded – at least, not for long – and the world is still fresh to them, so children’s books can have an optimism and energy that books with adult protagonists sometimes lack. Also, children’s books can’t be self-indulgent or pretentious. And they usually have better stories than adult books!

Why did you start writing for children?

My husband suggested that I write a children’s book based on the farm where I grew up and the theatre my friends and I created on the farm. I had never tried writing for children before – or so I thought until I went through a filing box recently and came across an old cheque book from about twenty years ago with some notes for a children’s story scribbled on the back. So I must have thought about writing for children before, but I never got any further than notes until this idea came along.

What made you want to write this book?

When my husband made that suggestion, I knew immediately that it was something I really wanted to do. I knew that I wanted to write an adventure story, but I also wanted to give non-farming readers some idea of the pleasures and pressures of farm life today. It ended up being part theatre story, part school story, part adventure story, part family story, part farm story, and it took a long time to combine the different elements to my satisfaction.

What is your favourite aspect of writing for children?

I enjoy everything about it and I now find it incredible and a bit frightening that had it not been for that casual suggestion, I might never have even started to write a children’s book. It makes me wonder how many people go through their whole lives without ever discovering the thing they really love to do.

To answer your question a bit more specifically, I love the later stages of editing, when the book has gone through several redrafts and the story is more or less there. All the hard work has been done and now it’s just polishing. I love polishing sentences!

I also love the post-publication things, like visiting schools and getting letters from children who’ve read the book. All of that is so much fun and makes me feel incredibly lucky.

How autobiographical is the book?

The short answer is that I stole a lot of settings, characters and events from real life and then wove them together into a (hopefully) coherent story with other settings, characters and events that I invented.

The first draft was very autobiographical, because I wasn’t confident enough to make things up! I worried that my imagination wasn’t good enough to invent things that would feel true to life. That hampered me a lot because my story was limited to things that had happened to me. When I joined SCBWI and met my critique group, I gradually gained the confidence to invent things, and also to make Hannah less like me (not very interesting) and more of a heroine. The decision to make her motherless helped hugely there, because instantly Hannah’s life was very different from mine as a child.

What does it feel like to have made the short-listed for the Waterstones Children’s book prize?


It was actually very hard to take in at first, because I heard nothing directly from Waterstones and it felt quite unreal. It became fabulously real when Dom Kingston, my wonderful publicist, suggested that I go into some London branches to introduce myself and sign stock. I was a bit nervous about this, but the booksellers were all lovely. And in each of the ten branches I visited, there was a beautiful display of all the shortlisted books, which I hadn’t expected at all. My final stop was Waterstones Piccadilly, and as I walked along the pavement towards the entrance, I actually squealed in the street, because there was my book, displayed in the window of Europe’s biggest bookshop! That was a fantastic moment.

Questions for Helen from Rebecca our child reviewer . . .

No, I made that part up. I got the idea from the Brighton Festival, because I grew up near Brighton and a girl from my school won a singing prize at the Brighton Festival, which I was very impressed with. But I don’t know if youth theatre is part of the Brighton Festival. I did look up some youth theatre festivals online, but I made up the Linford Arts Festival to fit my story.

Yes! My publishers asked me to write a sequel and it’s been great to go back to those characters. I’m in the middle of writing it at the moment. I’d better not say too much about it, but I think it’s safe to say that Hannah is facing plenty of challenges and Martha isn’t making life any easier for her…

We've got a copy of The Secret Hen House Theatre  to give away.  To be in with a chance of winning it, e-mail us at with your name and address and 'Hen House' in the header.
Good Luck

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