Noel Streatfeild


Yes, the author’s last name is spelled correctly.

Streatfeild wrote a number of adult books but may be best known today for her children’s books, published originally in the U.K. under a range of titles between 1936 and 1962, then reissued in the United States (for the most part) renamed as “YXZ Shoes”: Theater Shoes, Skating Shoes, Dancing Shoes, and so on. The first was Ballet Shoes, which set the pattern for the subsequent Shoes1 books. While nominally the action begins prior to World War I, the bulk of the plot falls between ~1920 and 1935 in London: Matthew, an amateur archaeologist, collects fossils of varying sizes and sets them up in his house, necessarily a large one for London. He also collects three little girls, leaving them with his great-niece Sylvia and her Nana, before disappearing on what he intended to be only a 4-5 year trip. As his absence stretches to six years and beyond, the money G.U.M. left for the household cannot stretch to support the eight members2 and Sylvia must take in boarders to pay the servants’ wages.

These boarders prove a turning point in the children’s lives. Not only do they provide the money needed to support the household, but also emotional and educational support. Sylvia had to withdraw the children from their school when money fell short, but three of the five boarders prove to be both good teachers (mathematics, literature and art respectively) but also a gateway into a performing arts training academy, which will provide schooling and train the girls for a career on stage. Pauline and Posy prove talented in the performing arts, but poor Petrova has little talent and less interest yet feels obligated to follow through with the training and the expectations of performing onstage. Thankfully, she must only perform for a couple of years3 before G.U.M. returns, a mere matter of 8 years overdue. At this point the story ends, though it’s implied that they will go on to greater things (and indeed we see them just so in later books).

I was reminded of these by finding the first of Streatfeild’s “autobiographies” in a neighboring library, A Vicarage Family; so far as I’ve been able to tell, they are accurate in the essentials, but Streatfeild changed some of the details to protect her family and to make a better story. The biographies themselves are almost 50 years old now, and her children’s fiction (not surprisingly) older yet–Ballet Shoes came out in 1936–so I expect they’d appeal most today to kids who like realistic fiction written in the mid-twentieth century; Beverly Cleary springs to mind. The “Shoes” books follow the same basic pattern as Ballet Shoes, though the families vary as do the professions the children excel at, which range from skating to piano playing, though dance and acting usually play a part.

1my apologies to anyone in the U.K. who might be reading this; for the sake of brevity I usually assume my audience is largely in the United States based on statistics
2Sylvia, Nana, the three girls and the three servants in addition to Nana…who is, of course, a member of the family!
3I don’t know what the laws are now, but at the time, children couldn’t begin work onstage–at least not regularly– until the age of twelve

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