Noel Streatfeild was a writer of popular children’s books in the 1930’s. Her first novel, Ballet Shoes, was so popular that the U.S. publishers renamed several of her subsequent books to include the word “shoes,” even though they were not series books.
Ballet Shoes is about three girls, all adopted by Great Uncle Matthew, called Gum. Gum is a fossil hunter, but when his house becomes too full of fossils, his great-niece Sylvia’s nanny makes him give them away to a museum. Gum goes off on another fossil-hunting trip but brings back a baby instead, the unidentified survivor of a shipwreck. Over the course of five years, he brings back two more. These are Pauline, Petrova, and Posy, and he gives them the last name of Fossil.
Gum goes off on another trip, leaving Sylvia and the cook and nanny in charge. Sylvia does her best to bring up the girls, although she is only ten years older than Pauline. But Gum doesn’t return, and the money begins to run out. Sylvia is forced to remove the girls from school and try to teach them herself. Finally, she must take in boarders.
Sylvia is lucky in her boarders, because soon they are all involved in the girls’ education. Two retired university professors undertake to teach the girls at no cost, and Theo, who teaches ballet, gets them enrollment in the Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training, which prepares children for a career in the arts.
At 11, Pauline shows promise as an actress, and none of them have any doubt that Posy will be a famous ballerina. Only Petrova does not feel any particular aptitude, except for her interests in motors and flying, and she is most happy on Sundays, when boarder Mr. Simpson lets her work in his garage.
The rest of the novel follows the girls’ careers as they struggle to make enough money to support themselves and study dancing and theatre.
Ballet Shoes is not a classic because of its writing style or literary attainment, at least in my opinion. The writing is workmanlike, and the narrative arc lacks the highs and lows of other classics. Instead, it is a classic because of Streatfeild’s knowledge of the arts and the details about classes and stage productions. I think this novel would be fascinating for any child interested in the arts, especially ballet. And the plot about the four orphans trying to make it in a difficult world should appeal to most other imaginative children.