Ringmer author Helen Peters in line for Waterstones Children’s Book Prize

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A local author has been shortlisted for this year’s Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, one of the most valuable and prestigious such awards in the country.

Helen Peters was inspired to write her widely acclaimed debut book The Secret Hen House Theatre by her own childhood growing up on a farm near Ringmer.

And there are parallels between fact and fiction. Her charming story is set on a tumbledown farm threatened with demolition – and the place where she grew up was also facing destruction.

Happily, in 2011 South East Water shelved £90m plans to develop a reservoir at Plashett Park Farm, Clay Hill – much to the delight of local people who had campaigned vociferously against the proposal.

Helen’s book, aimed at eight to 12-year-olds, tells the story of Hannah, whose family life has become chaotic following the death of her mother.

Ignored by their dad, who’s absorbed as much by his grief as by the challenges of running their hopelessly dilapidated farm, Hannah and her brothers and sisters are left to fend for themselves.

While the younger kids run riot round the farm, Hannah decides she wants to do something special, something that connects her to her theatre-loving mum. She’s going to write and put on a play in the overgrown hen house she’s found in a remote corner of the farm. Then the farm is threatened with demolition, and Hannah – with her best friend – has to find a way to save it. Perhaps one of the props they’re using in the play is valuable after all ...

Mother of two Helen, 44, was educated in Ringmer and after Cambridge University embarked on a career as a teacher at schools in London, her subjects being English and Drama.

As a child she wrote and performed plays in an old shed at Plashett Park Farm, together with her three siblings and friends. Her family continues to farm there after more than 70 years.

Waterstones bookseller Nicky Gale said: “The Secret Hen House Theatre is a little gem. If Noel Streatfield were alive today, this could have been written by her. A jolly good read!”

Final judging for the prize is currently under way, and the winners in the various classes will be announced at an evening reception at Waterstones Piccadilly (London), Europe’s largest bookstore, on March 20.

The Secret Hen House Theatre is published by Nosy Crow and priced at £6.99.