Noel Streatfeild1 was the author of fiction and non-fiction, for children and adults. Some of her most famous books, however, were the 11 juvenile novels that are now known as the 'Shoes' books, as they all have the word 'Shoes' in the title. Incidentally, only the first two 'Shoes' books began their publishing existence with the word 'Shoes' in the title - for the other books, the titles were changed in later editions to make the books appear as a series2. Those who grew up reading the books with the original titles may never have thought of them as a series - however, there are recurring themes and 'crossover' characters that make the books worth examining as a set. The first of these books was originally published in 1936, and the last in 1962.
Although the books were originally published in Britain, they quickly became popular around the world. For many American children, the 'Shoes' books were a first introduction to how life (and vocabulary) in Britain was different than life in the United States. The books were written for 8-12 year-old girls, but are often enjoyed by older children and adults, as well.
There are several recurrent themes in the 'Shoes' books. Four of the books deal with children who have been recently orphaned (or apparently orphaned). Eight of the stories focus on children who excel in the performing arts, while two additional books feature child sports prodigies. The one book that deals with more 'ordinary' children (Party Shoes) is incidentally one of the least popular of the 'Shoes' series. As many of the books were written during or shortly after World War II, it is not surprising that the war is a central feature in three of them.
Ballet Shoes, published in 1936, was the first 'Shoes' book and has generally been the most popular of the series. It's the only one of the books to have been made into both a ballet and a movie3, although the movie is not considered to be a faithful adaptation of the book. Streatfeild apparently received so many requests for a sequel that she eventually wrote a further short story detailing the ongoing lives of the girls (the story appears in several anthologies of ballet-related stories for girls).
The main characters are three girls (Pauline, Petrova, and Posy Fossil), who were adopted as orphaned infants by an eccentric archaeologist. The man disappeared on a sea voyage when the girls were quite young, leaving them in the care of the man's niece and a nanny. The household ends up in an awkward financial situation, takes in some interesting boarders, and the girls end up training for the stage in the hopes to make some extra money. Pauline turns out to be a natural actress, and Posy a brilliant dancer. Petrova, however, detests it all, and focuses her energies on dreaming of becoming a pilot or a professional driver. The girls go through many endearing trials, learn some lessons, and make their way to an ending that pleases the whole family.
Not surprisingly, Tennis Shoes, which was published in 1937, focuses on children who play tennis. The book features four siblings who have a father and paternal grandfather who are set on turning at least one of the bunch into a tennis champ.
Circus Shoes was originally titled The Circus is Coming when it was published in 1938. This book focusses on two orphaned siblings who run away and join their uncle in the circus. The children initially feel like awkward misfits among the other circus children, who have already spent years training for circus careers as acrobats, trick riders, and animal trainers. Many trials and tribulations later, the siblings (and their uncle) realise that they do belong in the circus after all.
Theatre Shoes was originally published as Curtain Up in 1944. The three motherless children (Sorrel, Mark, and Holly) in this book had been living with their paternal grandfather while their father was in officer in the war. After their grandfather dies, they are sent to live with their maternal grandmother, whom they had never met. The children are surprised to learn that virtually everyone on their mother's side of the family was a famous stage star of one sort or another. Against the children's wishes, the grandmother arranges for the children to attend a performing arts school4; Sorrel is found to be a budding actress, Mark is discovered to have a promising singing voice, and Holly has some amusing talents of her own. Again, trials and tribulations ensue, and the children eventually prevail, learning to become a part of this new family without losing who they are.
Party Shoes, originally published as Party Frock in 1946, is possibly one of the more disappointing books in the 'Shoes' series. A young girl (Selina) is sent to live with cousins in the country during World War II, and has a difficult time adapting to the family and war-time life. An American relative sends Selina a fancy party dress, and the remainder of the book features the children in the family banding together to orchestrate an occasion where Selina can wear her dress.
Movie Shoes was originally published as The Painted Garden in 1949, and was inspired by Streatfeild's visit to the set of The Secret Garden, a film in which actress Margaret O'Brien was starring. The book follows a British family who goes to stay with relatives in California so that the father can recuperate. The oldest daughter is a dancer5, and is upset that the trip will mean missing an upcoming show in which she had been chosen to perform. She becomes ecstatic, however, when she learns that she will get to meet the famous Pauline and Posy Fossil while in California. The youngest child is a boy, and a gifted piano player. He quickly makes friends in California, and ends up with his own radio show.
The bulk of the book, however, focuses on the somewhat sulky middle child, Jane. She had been heartbroken about leaving her dog behind in Britain, and was not excited at all about staying in California. In a chance meeting in a park, her sullen and outspoken manner convinces a desperate director that she might be the child to play Mary in his current film of The Secret Garden. Jane ends up getting the part, has some trials and tribulations that mirror many of those in Ballet Shoes and Dancing Shoes, and finishes the film a somewhat changed little girl. Throughout the book, Streatfeild draws parallels with The Secret Garden; not only does the character of Jane change in some of the same ways as Mary, but similar changes in setting also occur.
Skating Shoes, originally published as White Boots in 1951, focuses on two young girls from dramatically different backgrounds, who meet at an ice skating rink. Lalla is an orphan being raised by a wealthy aunt who has dedicated her life (and niece's) to turning Lalla into a star figure skater in her deceased parents' honour. Harriet is using skating as physical therapy after recuperating from a long illness, and comes from a warm but poor family. The girls become fast friends, and Lalla teaches Harriet to skate. After some episodes of bitterness when Lalla realises that Harriet is becoming as good a skater as she is, the girls grow closer, each reaping the benefits of the other's family.
Family Shoes and New Shoes
Family Shoes was originally published as The Bell Family in 1954; its sequel New Shoes was originally published as New Town in 1960. While these books are somewhat more depressing than the others in the series, they are still enjoyable to read. Family Shoes and New Shoes focus on the four children of a poor pastor who had been cut off from his wealthy family when he chose religion over the family business. The oldest son is striving in school towards his goal of becoming a doctor, but struggles with whether he should 'give in' to the financial lure of joining the family business. The oldest daughter longs for the proper ballet training which the family cannot afford, and eventually wins a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School. The two younger children get into scrapes that are often too pathetic to provide much comic relief. Luckily for readers, the sequel ends on a more optimistic note than might be expected from the rest of the story.
Dancing Shoes was originally published as Wintle's Wonders in 1957, and is one of the many 'Shoes' books to draw on Streatfeild's experiences as a stage performer. The book focuses on two orphaned girls who are sent to live with an aunt who runs a dancing school. The younger girl (Hilary) had been previously training for the Royal Ballet School auditions, but found the liveliness of musical theatre dancing much more her style. The older girl (Rachel), has a difficult time adapting. She had spent her earlier life in the role as the 'responsible one' - she helped her mother with housework and so on. Now, living with her aunt, she's expected to spend her time in dancing classes where she's a miserable failure. Coexisting with their cousin, Dulcie, is a challenge, as their aunt has raised her daughter to always see herself as a future star and never to share her 'spotlight' with anyone else. The ending is a happy one for Rachel and Hilary, and readers are glad to see that the whiny and spoiled Dulcie gets what she deserves.
Travelling Shoes, originally published in 1962 as Apple Bough, was the last of the 'Shoes' series. The book deals with a young violin prodigy (Sebastian) and his three siblings (Myra, Wolfie, and Ettie), whose lives are all uprooted when the family sells their house and takes off for years of globe-trotting from concert to concert. Sebastian, a shy boy, suffers from his time in the spotlight; Wolfie and Ettie on the other hand, do everything they can to find their share of the attention6. Myra ends up mothering her siblings in place of her absent-minded mother, and the book ends up being her story more than anyone else's. It seems fitting that the 'Shoes' series should end with a book that emphasizes the vital role of the one child in the family who doesn't appear to have a special talent.