WHEN Ballet Shoes was published in 1936, 50 years ago this year, its popularity was such that Hatchards of Piccadilly rationed their queueing customers to one copy each, Bumpus bookstore filled its windows with pairs of ballet shoes belonging to famous dancers, and another store set up a special department just to handle that one title. The story of three adopted sisters, Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil, who worked their way through ballet school to success on the stage, became an instant classic, read by thousands of children and heard by thousands more as a serial on the BBC Children's Hour.
Always better known in England than in the United States, Noel Streatfeild died this September at the age of 91, leaving behind her 34 novels, 16 books of nonfiction and a wide variety of radio scripts. Although she wrote fiction for adults and many other books for children, her fame rests primarily on Ballet Shoes and the ten subsequent novels of the "Shoes" sequence. Streatfeild was a formula writer of the very best kind: her books feel comfortingly familiar without being repetitive.
Despite their very British settings and what may now seem quaint ways, these books have not ceased to delight young readers and over the last few years have been reissued -- as Dell paperbacks -- in the United States for a whole new generation of readers. As a child, the Fossil girls were my friends, comforting evidence that nothing was impossible, even for kids. My daughter, veteran of today's lurid teen romances, discovered the primmer world of Streatfeild with equal enthusiasm.
Born on Christmas Eve 1895, Noel Streatfeild was the middle daughter of an Episcopal clergyman, who eventually became a bishop. Rebellious from the beginning, she insisted on going to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art to study acting and intended to make her career in the theater. She had minimal success as an actress, but she used her first-hand knowledge of the theater and of stage school in many of her books.
After several adult novels, Ballet Shoes, her first book for children (written at the age of 42), was an instant success, swiftly followed the next year by the popular Tennis Shoes. She went on to write a total of 11 books in the series known as "Shoes" (see box), although, in fact, the matching titles were a marketing gimmick of her American publishers, which she disliked intensely. Movie Shoes for instance was originally published in England as The Painted Garden and Dancing Shoes as Wintle's Wonders.
Despite Streatfeild's annoyance at such crass brand-name marketing, these books do have a distinct identity, not exactly like a series, but as a familiar world with certain pieces firmly in place and characters that surface from time to time. (The grown-up Fossils have a habit of intervening as fairy godmothers in times of need.) Each one features a family of children triumphing over adversity with luck and the help of a few sympathetic adults.
Money is almost always in short supply. Love, loyalty and family solidarity are not. But parents are by no means the central adult figures in Streatfeild's families. Mothers are often talented, artistic but vague; fathers kind but shadowy. Polly Forum, mother of the child violinist Sebastian in Traveling Shoes is a typical example: "At first she meant to paint only for fun, but soon painting had such a hold on her that she was an artist first and a housewife second. If artists as a class could get awards for vagueness, Polly would have won first prize." Often, there just aren't any parents. The children in Circus Shoes, Theater Shoes and Dancing Shoes are conveniently and fairly painlessly orphaned to give space for their ingenuity and to plunge them into new lives.
Whether the children are alone or have parents too busy to worry about clean underwear, there is always a guardian angel. Generations of American children, who have envied the Brady Bunch's ubiquitous, patient, loyal Alice, will be delighted to find that almost every Shoes book has its Alice too. These loyal retainers in their sensible shoes are a magnificent bunch of doughty ladies. Nana, the anchor of the old house in the Cromwell Road that housed the Fossils never stood for any nonsense even from the fearsome Great Uncle Matthew. "Babies in my nurseries, sir," she said firmly, "never have had outlandish names, and they're not starting now," and that, of course, was that. Pauline, the first baby was called after Saint Paul, and not after a piece of rock. And there is Miss Purser, "Pursey," the retired nanny in Dancing Shoes. Without her, the orphaned Hilary and Rachel would have had a rough time indeed living with their Aunt Cora and enduring her vain and precocious daughter Dulcie. In Movie Shoes, it is the old family friend Miss Bean, "Peaseblossom,"( "who had come to the house to give a hand when Rachel was born and had stayed on doing everything that nobody else wanted to do ever since") whose unexpected legacy pays for the Winters' trip to California.
Despite the lack of money, the patching and scrimping that routinely goes on in Streatfeild houses, there is always, fortunately, talent. Even the plainest and most uninspiring child has a gift. Petrova Fossil, the plain member of the family, who struggled with acting and dancing, is a whiz with engines and airplanes (quite revolutionary for 1936). Jane Winter can't really act despite her film success, but any wild animal trusts her. Motherly, overburdened and ignored Myra of the traveling Forum family turns out to have the best talent of all -- making everyone happy.
There are simple messages spelled out in each of these 11 novels: money doesn't mean happiness; everyone has his own gifts and his own special place; pride goes before a fall; happiness comes in its own time and in its own way. Stated baldly, they sound priggish and old-fashioned, but Streatfeild's children are far from perfect, and their stories bring reassurance and support to their readers. Theirs is a world where the center holds.
ANOTHER INGREDIENT essential to the charm of these books is the different background chosen for each family. From the circus, to movie studios, the theatre, the tennis court, the concert hall and the vicarage, each environment is created in minute, fascinating detail. Streatfeild knew that children, just like the readers of People magazine, want the inside dope. She once tried to pin down what it was in her books that appealed to so many children: "I'll tell you what children really like to know," she observed. "Not about themselves. They really like the inside story of Buckingham Palace nurseries, something like that." They want to know about stand-ins and warm-ups, how schoolwork is done between rehearsals, and whether Princess Di ever smacks Prince William's royal bottom. Streatfeild makes her readers feel they know the answers.
To compare Streatfeild to Judy Blume may seem incongruous, but Blume's popularity is based not just on her frankness about forbidden subjects, but on the fact that her readers know she is on their side, sympathetic to the problems of being at the bottom of society's power structure. Kids may be in trouble with the adult world but Blume -- and Streatfeild -- give them a fair hearing. Children from Los Angeles to London know when they are respected. And they like it.
Brigitte Weeks is the editor of Book World. She is currently on leave for a year