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Title: Ballet Shoes (originally with the subtitle ‘A Children’s Novel of the Theatre’)

Author: Noel Streatfield, my version (not pictured above) has illustrations by Ruth Gervis (older sister to the author)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Favorite Quote: It was all very well to be ambitious, but ambition should not kill the nice qualities in you.

Genre: theatre, dance, coming of age, classic children’s literature

Plot:  I think the title and new girly pink edition are *extremely* misleading about the actual contents of book.  I own a different (better!) edition, but more on that later.  For starters, only one of the principle characters is actually even a ballet dancer.  Furthermore, I would argue that this is a strong example of proto-feminist literature, but more on that later as well!

The story here is that three orphaned girls – Pauline, Petrova, and Posy – are being raised as sisters by their guardian Sylvia and nurse Nana in 1930s London.  Money is tight because their benefactor hasn’t returned as expected from his latest adventure and the money he provided is running out fast.  The girls can’t even afford to go to school anymore.  Sylvia has to take in boarders and this changes everything.  It introduces a colorful cast of characters into the house – Theo Dane, a dance instructor; Mr. and Mrs. Simpson, a couple just returned from working in Kuala Lumpur; and two female academics, Dr. Jakes and Dr. Smith.  A plan is concocted in which the girls will attend The Children’s Academy of Dancing for free in exchange for a portion of their earnings once they begin work on the stage.  The girls will do their academic lessons with Dr. Jakes and Dr. Smith.  (Yay, homeschooling!)

Reading about the girls’ different experiences at the academy and on the stage is delightful.  Pauline discovers she has a true affinity for acting and Posy turns out to be a ballet prodigy. Petrova, on the other hand, wants nothing to do with any of it.  Her passion is automobiles and airplanes and feels out of place and unhappy at the academy.

What I adore about this book:

I love the old-fashioned, but slightly bohemian feel of the book. Izzy and I love reading books about children and families from the past and we relish reading about the little details that make up their lives.  It was great fun reading about the frantic sewing sessions to make sure the girls have all the clothing they need for the academy and auditions.  Sylvia and Nana do their best to raise the girls in the proper way, but their circumstances make them a pretty unconventional family for the times.

I love the totally unconscious little feminist touches thoughout the novel.  For example, it’s not presented as odd or unreasonable that Petrova loves engines and aviation.  The only reason it’s out of reach for her is because there aren’t paying gigs in that field for a girl her age.  And the lady Drs – be still my beating heart!  The first time I read this book, I just assumed they were a couple, and the recent film version plays this angle up a bit.  In reality it will likely remain a mystery as to what Streatfield really intended; it wasn’t uncommon for single women of this era to pool financial resources and live together as platonic companions.  Still, I don’t think it’s entirely unreasonable that Streatfield might have been subtly implying a lesbian relationship.  All that aside, this book is all about a group of women and girls coming together to solve a problem and be financially independent.  I LOVE IT!

I also love the realistic representation of children. I’ve talked about this before, but I think it’s so important that children’s literature reflect the reality of childhood and adolescence – the challenging, exhilarating, complicated time that it is. Pauline, Petrova, and Posy are vividly and distinctly drawn, and they each have their little flaws.  Pauline is a bit vain about her looks and lets her initial success go to her head a bit.  Her little diva moment  during the Alice in Wonderland production and subsequent comeuppance is one of my favorite moments of the book.  Petrova is probably the most sensible and endearing of the girls, but she struggles mightly with feelings of insecurity and longing.  Posy is the most challenging of the girls.  She is so single-minded, to the point of rudeness and extreme self absorption, in her pursuit of  a ballet career that it’s a bit hard for most of us to relate.  She’s an absolute monster in the film version!  I believe we’re meant to see Posy as a true genius who quite literally can’t comprehend a life without ballet.

While I admittedly know very little about the London theatre of the 1930s, I absolutely adored reading all the little details – auditions, backstage life, costuming, etc. – and it all seemed pretty realistic to me.  And in fact, that’s why I decided to read this with Izzy even though I’d read it on my own fairly recently.  Izzy has developed a mania for all things theatre-related lately and declares that she’d like to be on Broadway one day.  I have no idea if this is a passing fancy or something that will stick, but in the end it doesn’t matter.  I try to respect and make space to explore all her interests.  I think it was good for her to hear about the dull moments in between scenes, the odds of actually landing a part, the low wages, etc.

The final thing I love about this book are the illustrations contained with my edition of the book.  Ballet Shoes had been on my radar for a while as I’m deeply interested in classic children’s literature,  and who doesn’t remember that scene with Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail?!? But I hadn’t gone out of my way to procure a copy as I’m rather picky about the editions I purchase, and I think I made it clear that I’m not a big fan of the current paperback editions.  Fortunately, on a recent trip to London, I stumbled upon the most adorable edition in a little bookshop.

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The ribbon is real! And notice that each girls’ interests are represented in the wreath – acting, aviation and ballet.

This edition has the charming pen and ink illustrations by Ruth Gervis who was the elder sister of the author.

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Pauline as the Fairy Godmother in a stage production of Cinderella.

A few more stray observations:

Izzy and I disliked the constant niggling about Petrova’s appearance.  She was declared plain by Nana from infancy.  It’s implied that her cleverness is a blessing since her looks aren’t taking her anywhere.  Sadly, I think this is representative of prevailing attitudes about girls and women at that time so I can’t fault the author too much.  Still, it’s something to be aware of and ready to discuss if reading with a child.

Great Uncle Matthew (aka GUM), the girls’ benefactor, is a somewhat problematic character.  He’s a paleontologist and explorer (hence the girls’ surname of Fossil).  He finds all three girls on his various adventures, and then cavalierly drops them off with Nana and Sylvia to care for before dashing off to his next adventure. Even the loss of a leg (complete with wooden replacement) doesn’t stop his wanderlust for long and his absence is what fuels the story’s main conflict – lack of money.  In this way he’s really a rather selfish and careless character and Nana, bless her, does tend to grumble about him.  I think the reader is meant to see GUM as a goodnatured, but rather flawed individual. I also think there’s some subtle commentary here about the abundant freedom and opportunities afforded to men and the burdens and expectations placed on many women.

The movie version:

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Petrova, Posy and Pauline – again, each girl has her interest clearly represented in this cute promo photo.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the movie version is *never* as good as the book.  And yet, I have a deep appreciation for film as an art form AND a near irresistible compulsion to see almost every screen version of every book I read.  Add to that this film version looks very promising as it stars Emma Watson (as Pauline) of Hermione Granger fame.  And, really, it is a mostly delightful film.  Yes, there were changes, but that doesn’t always bother me as I don’t believe a movie is supposed to be a rote retelling of a book – that would be very dull in my opinion. Rather, a film is an interpretation that tells that particular director’s vision and what he or she sees as the essential truth of the book.  Sometimes it lands and sometimes it doesn’t!

I didn’t mind that the Mrs. Simpson character was done away with – meaning Sylvia got a love interest in Mr. Simpson.  I didn’t mind that the film played up the rather bohemian atmosphere of the house – along with the potential, but still subtle coupling of the lady Drs.  I didn’t even mind that GUM was played by a rather obese man – making it hard to see him as an intrepid explorer.  In my mind the GUM character is really so incidental that he could have not appeared on screen as far as I’m concerned.  The tone of the film is a bit darker than the novel, but I think it worked.  I did, however, mind A LOT that the girls were made to be so much less sympathetic than in the book.  Posy was downright hateful.  Pauline was pretty dreadful at times too – much more so than in the book.  Thankfully, Petrova was still the sensible, sensitive one that we’re all rooting for.

I thought the casting was pretty spot-on and the costuming and set design was super fun.  I’d definitely recommend it!