Top 100 Children’s Novels #78: Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
This is another book that is practically perfect in every way. I love the detailed back story, the changes in the characters’ abilities and personalities as they come in and out of the spotlight, the sisters’ devotion to one another, and their yearly vows, and the mostly realistic portrayal of poverty, and what a family must do to overcome the odds and achieve a happy ending. I also think the many literary references to Shakespearean monologues and other plays are a wonderful addition that keep kids aware of all the great literature out there for them to discover. – Katie Ahearn
From #65 on the last poll to #78 on this one, I don’t think a 13 point different is all that bad. Certainly this book isn’t a household name and yet it appears on my Top Chapter Novels lists with systematic regularity. Folks clearly love it and, when you get right down to it, they have every reason to.
The description of the book according to the Noel Streatfeild website reads: “Ballet Shoes tells the story of Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil, who were adopted as babies by Great Uncle Matthew (or “Gum”). Pauline was the only survivor from a shipwrecked boat, Petrova the orphaned child of a Russian couple, and Posy the daughter of a widowed ballet dancer. They are looked after by Gum’s great-niece, Sylvia, and her old nurse, Nana. When Gum goes away on an extended journey, money becomes tight, and Syliva decides to take in boarders. Two of the boarders, Doctor Smith and Doctor Jakes, take over the education of the children (much to the relief of Sylvia, who had been teaching them herself when she could no longer afford to send them to school.) Doctor Jakes tells Pauline that ‘the three of you might make the name of Fossil really important, really worth while, and if you do, it’s all your own.’ As a result of this, the three sisters make a vow: ‘We three Fossils vow to try and put our names in history books because it’s our very own and nobody can say it’s because of our grandfathers.’ Another boarder, Theo Dane, is a ballet teacher at The Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training. After seeing Posy dance, she arranges for the head of the school, Madame Fidolia, to train them free of charge. This means that as each child reaches the age of twelve, she will be able to work professionally on the stage. Pauline soon shows talent as an actress, while Posy is clearly a gifted ballerina. Petrova, however, would rather spend time working with Mr. Simpson (another of the boarders) in his garage. As the story progresses, first Pauline and then Petrova reach the age of twelve and get parts in various plays, while Posy becomes more and more focused on her dancing.”
How did it come about? Well we learn in Noel Streatfeild: A Biography (by Angela Bull), that Ballet Shoes was the result of a kind of fad in England. “The early 1930s were a crucial time for ballet. Diaghileff’s death in 1929, followed by Pavlova’s in January 1931, seemed to leave the world of dancing without leaders or direction; but a number of great Russian teachers, exiled by the Communist revolution, had settled in London, and through their instruction kept the ballet alive in England.” This, in turn, made ballet the hot dance of the moment. Ballet schools for girls sprang up left and right. Then, “In 1933 another ballet company, the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, took London by storm. Founded by Colonel de Basil in an attempt to revive the Diaghileff ballet, it included among its stars Irina Baronova, Tamara Toumanova and Tatiana Riabouchinska, a trio of enchanting dancers, still in their early teens, and known as ‘de Basil’s Babes’.” Their biggest fan? You got it. Noel Streatfeild.
Apparently it was easy to write. In the article “My Moment of Success”, from the December 1958 Books and Bookmen, Streatfeild says, “The story poured off my pen, more or less telling itself . . . I distrusted what came easily, and so despised the book.” You don’t often run across similar quotes from children’s authors these days. Noel’s sister Ruth Gervis (a name I consistently misread as “Ricky Gervais”) did the illustrations and when the book came out folks went crazy. “In another London bookshop, Hatchard’s, the children’s department could not cope with the demand, and a special downstairs counter was allocated to Ballet Shoes. Copies were rationed, and even Noel was only allowed to buy two. The first edition sold out; new editions followed as fast as Dents could manage.” Even the author was limited to buying only two for her friends. The book would go on to become the runner up for the inaugural Carnegie Medal (won by Arthur Ransome for Pigeon Post.)
Now I had no idea about the budding mechanic and aviatrix aspect of this book until Brooke informed me of the fact. Indeed, Susan Dickinson praises Streatfeild for this decision in the November 1986 edition of Books for Keeps. “Ballet Shoes is based largely on Noel’s own experiences in the theatre, and she was to draw on those experiences again and again. But one of the most interesting characters in the book is Petrova. Petrova can neither dance nor act. In that household her lack of performing ability presented something of a problem–for how else could the girls earn money? But by the end of the book Petrova has her career planned: she will be an aviation expert. Who but Noel would have thought of setting a girl along that road in 1936?”
Written in 1936 it has aged uncommonly well, though Benny Green in the December 1977 issue of Spectator did have some issues on that front. “Naturally its age shows; there is talk of the London County Council, and at one point the death of George V impinges on the action. But Ballet Shoes proclaims its period in a subtler way; it assumes that everyone speaks or wants to speak standard English.”
Folks who wish to know more about the characters can read about them in other Streatfeild tales. According to the Noel Streatfeild website one amongst many, ” ‘What Happened to Pauline, Petrova and Posy’ is a short story in which we are told ‘a little about the way things turned out for the three girls’.”
In America, Ms. Streatfeild is also known as the author of the “shoe” books. Ballet Shoes. Tennis Shoes. Theater Shoes. Party Shoes. Skating Shoes. Dancing Shoes. Family Shoes. Traveling Shoes. They’re not the original British titles but that’s how we think of them here. Heck, there’s even a moment in the movie You’ve Got Mail where Meg Ryan weepily recites the names of these books in the gigantic box superstore that has replaced her little independent one.
Fun Fact: When it first came out the book sported the subtitle A Children’s Novel of the Theatre. This was eventually changed to the subtitle A Story of Three Children on the Stage. These days, most folks forget it ever had a subtitle at all.
- Any and all additional information should be consulted at the Noel Streatfeild website. There are more facts about the book there than I could ever fit into a mere post.
- You can read some of the book here.
- A September 2008 New York Times article about the book and new movie said, “In Britain it has remained a standard of children’s literature in the same way that ‘Charlotte’s Web’ is in the United States.”
The Nottingham Guardian said it was, “a sparkling story.”
The Guider called it, “fascinating and accurate.”
Said the Manchester Guardian, it was “delightful and very original.”
Theatre Arts Monthly gave the book a relatively snide, “Let us hope that she turn her talents to a serious study of the adult life on the stage, for, unless Ballet Shoes is just a happy accident, such a book would be certain of an enthusiastic welcome.”
And Horn Book Magazine said of it, “As you read this book you may quite likely think of half a dozen little girls (at least, I did!) to whom you would like to give it.”
There was a filmed version of this movie in the mid-70s, but finding any scenes from it online proves difficult. Far easier is the recent version starring Emma Watson (who plays Hermione Granger, under normal circumstances).
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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