Noel Streatfeild
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Children's Fiction

This page presents a critical overview of Noel Streatfeild's fiction for children. For detailed information on individual books, short stories and plays, and on the anthologies she edited, click the items on the right hand side of the screen. There is also a section showing the interconnections between her various works.

Background | Careers and Families | People | Innovation | Personal Reflections


Noel Streatfeild had not intended to become a children's writer. Even though her first published work - a short story about a magician - was in a children's magazine, and she had written plays for children, she saw herself primarily as a novelist for adults. However, in 1936, when she had published five novels for adults with Heinemann publishers, a representative of J. M. Dent & Sons approached her about writing a children's book. Although not particularly interested, Noel agreed ... and the resulting work, Ballet Shoes, was to become her most enduringly popular book. For the next twenty-five years, Noel was to divide her time between adults and children's writing, and eventually she abandoned the world of adults' fiction to write exclusively for children.

Careers and Families

Two main interests form the content of Noel Streatfeild’s stories for children: family life, and the professional training of children for careers. (Wilson, 1961:40)


Many of Noel's books deal with children in training for - or actually working in - an area of the performing arts: ballet, theatre, music, cinema, television or the circus. She also wrote two books about competitive sport (tennis and ice skating). For a few of these, she was able to draw on her own experience as an actress; for the remainder she conducted extensive research before beginning to write. This means that all of her books are grounded in a very realistic setting, giving them a strong sense of authenticity.

Perhaps the most important aspect of professional training that comes through Noel's books is the need for hard work, dedication and willingness to learn. Talent is important, and recognised as such, but not so important that it overrides the need to work hard and behave. Many of Noel’s books contain an episode in which the talented child begins to behave like a prima donna, and is suddenly brought up against the unpleasant reality that they are not irreplaceable.

Noel is often credited as being one of the pioneers of the "career novel" genre. However, her biographer, Angela Bull, suggests that "the career books which proliferated particularly in the 1950s, with their emphasis on information - case histories, rather than stories, of young vets or social workers or hairdressers - bear little resemblance to anything Noel wrote" (1984:141). Although the reader of Noel's books will learn a great deal about ballet, or the theatre, or ice skating, this information is always secondary to the story - and it is the plot, and especially the characters, of Noel's work that capture and hold the reader's imagination.

As Bull says, the difference between Noel's work and the typical career story is the difference "between careers and vocations. Noel's books were not meant, as most career novels were, to help readers make a rational decision about their future. They were stories of children discovering in themselves some strong vocation, and working with disciplined enthusiasm to achieve it" (1984:141).


Noel once told a fellow writer, Rumer Godden, "What I always want in a book is a family" (quoted in Bull, 1984:202). A number of her later books are purely family stories, and even in those that are “about” professional training, family life is still an important aspect.

In fact, a key aspect of Noel's work is the detail she provides about the about everyday life of the characters. We are not only shown their professional training, but also their domestic life - clothes, meals, pocket money, holidays, and so on. The fact that daily life could be just as interesting as professional training was proven by The Bell Family. Although one thread of this story deals with Jane's desire for proper ballet training, the main focus is on the small, everyday events that happen to the family. First as a radio serial, then as a book, The Bell Family was enormously popular, showing that exciting and unusual settings are not required in order for a story to be absorbing.

One constant that runs through all of Noel's work is the importance of family loyalty. She believed strongly that “children’s stories should be built on secure foundations so far as family relationships between parents, parents and children, and brothers and sisters are concerned" (Wilson, 1961:54). This is not something that is presented as a "theme" or a "concern" of her children's writing. There are no stories in which a solid family unit splinters (although this does occur in her adults' fiction), and the closest she comes to presenting a dysfunctional family reconnecting is in Caldicott Place (where the lowest point merely involves Bill shouting "Shut up, all of you! Shut up!"). Rather, family love and solidarity are taken for granted, and form a stable foundation, without which the stories would not exist. Of course, the families are not perfect - there are sqabbles, disobedience, the occasional "difficult child", and some father figures who are absent or unwell. However, all of her characters know that, deep down where it matters, they have the unconditional love and loyalty of their families.


It takes me nearly a year of thinking about my people before I know them well enough to write about them. (Streatfeild, quoted in Bull, 1984:201)

Another cricial factor behind the success of Noel's books is her presentation of character. Each of her main characters has a unique personality, with individual interests and aspirations, and often their own mannerisms and conversational styles. Indeed, one of the distinguishing features between her most successful books, and those that are less so, is the degree to which the characters "come alive".

Noel creates a fresh set of major characters for each book. Although there may be similarities, there is very little in the way of straight repetition between books. For example, Nicky Heath (Tennis Shoes), Jane Winter (The Painted Garden) and Ginnie Bell (The Bell Family) are all variations on the theme of "difficult middle child", but each one is distinctly different. Similarly, although many of Noel's talented dancers share a number of traits, it is virtually impossible to confuse Posy Fossil (Ballet Shoes) with Ettie Forum (Apple Bough), Lydie Robinson (Gemma and its sequels) or Anna Docksay (Ballet Shoes for Anna).

Her minor characters are more likely to be drawn from a standard pool - although it is a pool of Noel's own creation, rather than the mass of generic Mother, Father, Uncle, Aunt characters that appear so often in children's fiction. As with the main characters, there are some variations between the books: for example, Pinny in Tennis Shoes fills the same role as Peaseblossom in The Painted Garden, but the two charaters are quite dissimilar. However, this is not always the case. Aside from their different professions, Uncle Tom from Wintle's Wonders and Uncle David of White Boots are virtually indistinguishable. Nana from Ballet Shoes not only reappears in White Boots, The Grey Family, Wintle's Wonders and The Children on the Top Floor - sometimes she even has the same name (Nana, Nannie and Pursey). However, although these characters may recur between books, within each book they are just as clearly distinguished as any of the major characters, and come alive in just the same way.

When writing about E. Nesbit, Noel invented the "bus test" - "One way of gauging the aliveness of a family in a children's book is to ask yourself 'Would I know them if they sat opposite me in a bus?'" (Magic and the Magician, 1958:71). Like E. Nesbit, Noel created families who would pass this test with flying colours.


Angela Bull points out that Ballet Shoes was highly original when it first came out - to a degree that we perhaps do not realise when reading it today. Amidst a mass of school and adventure books (some of excellent quality, others less so), Ballet Shoes was the first children's book to feature a stage school, and its central London setting was also highly unusual. Furthermore, the professionalism of the Fossil sisters was unprecedented. Where other fictional children are engaged in amateur activities (ranging from sailing boats and performing in school plays through to solving crimes and catching criminals), the Fossils actively seek paid employment to keep the household going.

For two decades, Noel continued to shine against the children's fiction that was being written in the middle of the twentieth century. Her popularity reached its peak in the 1950s, when she had a readership that ranged from seven to fifteen-year-olds, and was consistently listed among the top children's authors. She had her imitators, but because these writers lacked her "tough reality of characterization and genuine understanding of what working out a vocation meant, their actresses and ballerinas are merely pretty paper dolls, who demonstrate their genius by pirouetting compulsively in moonlit glades" (Bull, 1984:202).

By the 1970s, children's literature had changed - partly due to Noel's own work - and her writing came to be viewed as mainstream rather than cutting-edge. However, her popularity with readers continued, although the age group had contracted slightly to the seven-to-twelve market. As Noel pointed out in 1976, "The letters I received when Ballet Shoes was first published in the 1930s are almost replicas of the letters I am getting today" (on Desert Island Discs, quoted in Bull, 1984:238). This is a remarkable achievement, since as time passed the concept of "three-servant poverty" had become increasingly alien to child readers. However, as Christine McDonnell points out, Noel's "clean concise style is lively, and her characters are still believable. Individuality and independence are not out of fashion; indeed, in female characters they are much in demand" (1978:193).

As time passed, Noel's works moved from mainstream to unfashionable ... at least with adults. Increasingly, children's books needed to deal with "issues" - working-class families, broken homes, emotional turmoil - in order to be valued by adult critics. Although Noel had addressed all of these issues in her work for adults, it was something she had avoided when writing for children. Noel's middle-class world, with its strong work ethic and emphasis on family stability, was increasingly condemned, and felt to be irrelevant for the modern child.

In the early part of the 21st century, many of Noel's titles are now out of print. However, Ballet Shoes continues in a number of different editions, while several of her other works are available, through a variety of publishers. Furthermore, the immensely popular modern children's author, J K Rowling, lists Noel Streatfeild as one of her childhood favourites; and she received a positive mention in the 1998 film You've Got Mail. Although she is no longer as well known as she once was, many children still find that Noel Streatfeild has a place in their lives.

Personal Reflections

As a child of the 1970s, I gained an enormous amount of pleasure from Noel Streatfeild's fiction, reading and re-reading them until my copy of Ballet Shoes literally fell apart. In addition, her writing had two long-lasting effects on my life.

The first of these is probably not uncommon for readers of her work: I grew up with an unshakeable conviction that Shakespeare is the greatest English-language playwright ever. When studying his works at school, I was predisposed to enjoy them (unlike most of my contemporaries), and I also made an effort to watch televised versions even when we were not studying them. (This was before Kenneth Branagh re-popularised him in the cinema.) In fact, most of the plays featured prominently in Noel's works are not among my favourites, but she nevertheless constituted my first introduction to a playwright whose works have enriched my life.

The other effect Noel's work had on me is probably considerably less usual. Readers of White Boots will recall that Lalla and Harriet attend fencing lessons, and this is also mentioned in passing in both Ballet Shoes and Gemma. As a result, when I started university, and saw that the Sports Union offered Fencing for Beginners, I was inspired by these books to enrol in the classes. Since then, competitive fencing has become one of my major leisuretime activities, and I have had the privilege to represent both my State and my Country in major competitions. Thank you, Noel!

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