Sunday, March 1, 2009

I think it's only fair to mention first that I love Noel Streatfeild's books. Their heroines combine the tough-as-nails mental attitude of boarding school inmates with the hard-working ethic of dancers, and each one was filled with that mesmerizing and uniquely British talent for making horrific food and brutal living conditions sound utterly desirable. For the ultimate in this, see The Little Princess.

Dancing Shoes (originally published as Wintle's Wonders)
Noel Streatfeild, il. Richard Floethe
1957, Collins (U.K.) - 1958, Random House (U.S.)
Edition shown - Dell Yearling, 1981

When Rachel and Hilary Lennox's mother dies, they are taken in by their uncle Tom and his wife, Cora, who runs a London stage school for children. The talented little ballerina Hilary instantly hits it off with Cora, but quiet Rachel seems to rub her aunt the wrong way from the very beginning. The struggle to fit in and adapt to their new circumstances is complicated by their tempermental and spoiled cousin Dulcie, who is the uncontested star of the school.

One of the 'shoe' books from Streatfeild and one of several books she wrote about children studying the performing arts in professional schools in London, Dancing Shoes stands out by virtue of its look at the low end of the scale. The School of Dancing and Mrs. Wintle's Little Wonders are not aiming at the prestigious theatre and ballet - they're strictly chorus lines, troupes of cute kids with talent. Early on, it's mentioned that the Wonders have appeared on TV and in film - two art forms Streatfeild clearly considers second-class in her other books. Rachel, feeling that her mother wanted Hilary to be a 'real' dancer, ie, a ballerina, is frustrated by this divide - she wants Hilary to become a student at The Royal Ballet School, not learn to do high kicks in a chorus line. Hilary, on the other hand, adores the Wonders' costumes and lifestyle and longs to be old enough to get a license to work.

"But suppose I don't want to be made something of?"

Rachel's unhappy question is an attack on her aunt's incessant attempt to make her over into an attractive Wonder, and even the sympathetic Pursey - co-owner of the school and cozy housemother to the entire place - scolds her for her resistance. It is a standard Streafeild answer to make her misfit child a star at some other art; you get the sense that if they hadn't discovered their niche so speedily, they'd have been obligated to force themselves awkwardly into the spot chosen by their guardian.

One oddity, placing the book in an earlier era and different place, is the recurring mention of Hilary's being adopted. Initially, she's not included in Tom and Cora's offer to take in Rachel, and it's mentioned several times that she's not a 'real' sister. The children are adamant that they are sisters, but the adults seem a bit hung up on the adoption thing.

About the Author
The White Gaunlet - website about Noel Streatfeild

About the illustrator
Born in Germany, came to the U.S. in 1928. His wife Louise Lee Floethe was a writer. He also illustrated Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes, Circus Shoes, Theatre Shoes, Family Shoes, Tennis Shoes, and The Stranger In Primrose Lane.

In Print?
Available at Random House

Other books (shoe books)
Ballet Shoes
Tennis Shoes
Circus Shoes
Party Shoes
Movie Shoes
Skating Shoes
Dancing Shoes
New Shoes
Traveling Shoes

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