Made famous through its mention in the film You’ve Got Mail, Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes (1937) is a delightful, albeit somewhat dated, children’s story about three orphans discovering their separate talents. Unlike many examples of childrens lit in which parents and family are secondary to the story, the girls of Ballet Shoes take on great responsibility in providing for their unconventional family financially. Though I found many aspects unbelievable, and it doesn’t make my list of best childrens books, I really enjoyed reading this book. It is apparently a tradition in my husband’s family to watch the film adaptation of Ballet Shoes every year around Christmas. Ironically, they didn’t watch it over the one Christmas I spent visiting for Christmas! So I still haven’t seen the movie, nor have I read any of the sequels, which apparently feature new groups of children and are titled after different types of shoes (Skating Shoes, Dancing Shoes, etc.)
The formation of this unconventional family is a bit bizarre and, I’m sure, impossible today. Professor Matthew Brown is a fossil collector, traveling across the world for long periods of time to search out new specimens. His house is kept by his great-niece, Sylvia, and her nurse, Nana. When an accident leaves the Professor unable to continue hunting for fossils, he instead collects three orphan children, adopting them and leaving them in Sylvia’s care so he can continue his exotic travels. The three girls are named, from eldest to youngest, Pauline, Petrova, and Posy, and they take for themselves the surname “Fossil,” after their Great-Uncle Matthew’s playful designation. Their unusual family is thus made up of Sylvia, who functions as a mother-figure, Nana, more a grandmother than a servant, and the five boarders who also inhabit the house. When money gets tight, the three begin study at the Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training, so that when the girls turn twelve, they can begin working professionally in stage productions to earn money the family desperately needs. Pauline thrives in this environment, discovering a superb talent for acting, and Posy is a born dancer, the daughter of a professional ballerina. But Petrova, the middle child, harbors a secret desire for a different occupation, despite long years of intense training in acting and dance. Will the three achieve their dreams? And can they fulfill their vow “to try and put our name in history books because it’s our very own and nobody can say it’s because of our grandfathers”?
Strangely, the brief preface, titled “About the Three in This Book” gives away the entire plot, not only explaining the activity in which each girl chooses to specialize but also announcing audition results and performances essential to the story. I suppose it may help children frame their reading, but to an adult reader, this preface takes away all suspense and leaves the book feeling a little unexciting. My recommendation would be to skip this preface entirely!
Ballet Shoes is not the best-written book. Much of it is told, rather than shown through conversation, and many chapters are unimaginatively comprised of a repetitive cycle of paragraphs explaining the activities of one girl after another. There is also an inordinate amount of discussion about how the money each girl owns should be split between various needs. (This financial talk is more tedious for an American reader than it would be for someone who knows the rate of exchange between pounds, shillings, and pence.) A few loose ends leave the book feeling strangely unfinished – for example, whatever happened to Winifred, a girl in an equally desperate financial situation who consistently loses acting parts to the Fossil girls? For all these faults, though, Ballet Shoes is a charming tale that is equal parts aspiration and responsibility, a moral story about family, sisterhood, and the rewards of routine and hard work.