I should begin with a disclosure. I know the author of this brand spanking new book:
'The Secret Hen House Theatre' is written by Helen Peters, who happens to be a fellow mum at the boys' school. Having said that it's her daughter who's in Bill's class so OBVIOUSLY (sigh) we're allowed very little to do with each other such are the tribal affiliations of 7 year olds.
Playground Chinese whispers of Helen's book deal had been circulating for months and I had regularly sighted her in local coffee shops closeted with her laptop and a mug J.K. Rowling-style. It was exciting to find publication day had finally arrived and stumble upon The Book Itself under 'new and bestselling' in WH Smith. But when somebody you know has actually written a book it's always vaguely nerve wracking. What (mumble it into your collar) if it's no good? What will you say? Will they see the the glaze in your eyes as you apply carefully chosen words like 'interesting', 'unusual' and 'powerful'? (all words I had to apply judiciously on occasion when presented with baby names in my previous life as a midwife).
Well Phew. 'The Secret Hen House Theatre' turns out to not need any such dissembling because it IS good. Really, very good. A joyful, involving page turner which I gobbled greedily whole, wandering around the kitchen, ignoring my children, making supper with one hand because I didn't want to put it down.
The story has obvious echoes of Pamela Brown's classic 'The Swish of the Curtain' in that it concerns the re-appropriation of a neglected building by stage-crazy girls to put on their own show for a drama competition. But in fact the theatre is really only one element of a plot which encompasses the viability of a traditional farm, the advisability of trusting smart talking good looking boys and the responsibilities that mount when a family is motherless. Hannah the 11 year old heroine and her siblings are both protective of and excluded by their grieving and financially burdened father. The theatre becomes a talisman for drawing the fractured family back together.The fact that it doesn't happen in quite the way the reader might first predict is testament to some nicely skillful plotting.
'Jasper took his hoof off the man's boot and sat down, unblinking, as the man clutched his foot and hopped up and down. "Your blasted kids! Bunch of hooligans!"
Sam ran to his father. "Daddy, we saved your Marshall!"
Dad looked blankly at him.
"Look!" said Hannah, pointing to the tractor. "They were stealing it. We've stopped them."
Dad shifted his gaze so that they seemed to be looking far away across the fields. When he spoke, his words sounded flat and final.
"Nobody's stealing it."
"Yes, they are. Look!"
"They're not stealing it. I've sold it."'
Despite the darkness of some themes the book is warm and funny. Jasper the fat pet sheep who takes his duck friend for rides on his back is part of the evocation of a dilapidated farm that is very recognisable. There's a satisfyingly large amount of mud, recalcitrant pigs and rusty machinery about.
It's fair to say Bill is neither quite the right age nor quite the right gender for this book but I am halfway though reading it to him and he's engrossed. He was positively outraged when I had to go out yesterday without giving him the next installment. It was great to see Helen signing at her first school event this week. She was mobbed by a protective posse of fan girls one of whom asked her 'So. Are you an author now? Is that your job?'
And congratulations to her. We look forward to 'Evie's Ghost'
'The Secret Hen House Theatre' by Helen Peters, pub. Nosy Crow isbn 978-0-85763-065-0