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