Ballet Shoes (1936)

The title of this book can mislead, making one think of sweet old-fashioned books about ordinary girls enjoying ordinary girl activities. But Ballet Shoes is cut from an altogether different cloth.

It concerns three very different orphan girls in London, adopted by an absent-minded paleontologist who disappears and leaves the family in poverty. First their adoptive aunt takes in boarders, and then the girls begin training in dance and theater so that they can bring in money as performers.

Noel Streatfeild knew her stuff, having been a performer herself in childhood and young adulthood, and she sandpapers off any soft, unrealistic glow. What we get is the nuts and bolts of children’s dance and theater training of the time, a tough-minded business that is anything but romantic. We also get striking, sharp-focused portraits of the personalities of the three girls, with all their ambitions and flaws.

The boarders broaden the girls’ world considerably. Among them are two retired spinster university professors, who appear to be, as the euphemism goes, “longtime companions,” and who take the girls’ education upon themselves; and an entrepreneur-turned-car-mechanic who is the saving of the middle girl, Petrova, who has no interest in the stage but has a passion for engines.

This book might not belong on a “best” list for everyone. There is much detail about things like the amount of pay a girl will earn for performing in a particular show, and whether this will be enough to cover the number of yards of material neccessary to make a new dress suitable for auditions. For the right reader, though, these realistic details are part of the draw.

(I spent way too much time dithering about which cover picture to use. I chose this modern one because it’s one of the few that gets the girls’ hair colors right.)

One thought on “Ballet Shoes (1936)

  1. Susie

    I have not read this book ( yet), but I feel like it has stretched it’s influence into the modern film industry. Was it mentioned in the Tom Hanks romantic comedy You’ve got mail? And the three ballet dancing orphans of very different appearance brings to mind Dispicible Me!


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