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Ballet Shoes

Ballet Shoes was first published in 1936 and is still in print. According to Katharine Gunn (1985:23), it was originally subtitled A Children's Novel of the Theatre. However, by 1946 (perhaps earlier) the subtitle had been changed to A Story of Three Children on the Stage. In many editions, this subtitle appears on the title page, but not on the cover; and in some cases it is omitted altogether.

EXCITING NEWS!! On 20 July 2007, the BBC announced a major new dramatisation of Ballet Shoes.

Story | Connections to Other Books | Photographs | Background | Awards | Thoughts | Editions and Availability | Other Media


Ballet Shoes tells the story of Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil, who were adopted as babies by Great Uncle Matthew (or "Gum"). Pauline was the only survivor from a shipwrecked boat, Petrova the orphaned child of a Russian couple, and Posy the daughter of a widowed ballet dancer. They are looked after by Gum's great-niece, Sylvia, and her old nurse, Nana.

When Gum goes away on an extended journey, money becomes tight, and Syliva decides to take in boarders. Two of the boarders, Doctor Smith and Doctor Jakes, take over the education of the children (much to the relief of Sylvia, who had been teaching them herself when she could no longer afford to send them to school.)

Doctor Jakes tells Pauline that "the three of you might make the name of Fossil really important, really worth while, and if you do, it's all your own." As a result of this, the three sisters make a vow: "We three Fossils vow to try and put our names in history books because it's our very own and nobody can say it's because of our grandfathers."

Another boarder, Theo Dane, is a ballet teacher at The Children's Academy of Dancing and Stage Training. After seeing Posy dance, she arranges for the head of the school, Madame Fidolia, to train them free of charge. This means that as each child reaches the age of twelve, she will be able to work professionally on the stage.

Pauline soon shows talent as an actress, while Posy is clearly a gifted ballerina. Petrova, however, would rather spend time working with Mr Simpson (another of the boarders) in his garage. As the story progresses, first Pauline and then Petrova reach the age of twelve and get parts in various plays, while Posy becomes more and more focussed on her dancing.

(The M'audition Pieces article gives details of the speeches Pauline and Petrova recite at their auditions.)

Connections to Other Books

Ballet Shoes has a number of connections to other Noel Streatfeild books and short stories.

"What Happened to Pauline, Petrova and Posy" is a short story in which we are told "a little about the way things turned out for the three girls".

Another short story, "Coralie", features Doctor Smith and Doctor Jakes, and has Pauline in a peripheral role.

In Curtain Up, Pauline, Petrova and Posy arrange for three children to have scholarships to The Children's Academy of Dancing and Stage Training. Although the three Fossils do not appear in person, they do write letters to the scholarship holders. Madame Fidolia and Miss Jay appear at the school, as does Pauline's friend Winifred, who is now a teacher.

In The Painted Garden, one of the characters has been a student at the Children's Academy, and meets Pauline and Posy in America.

One of the characters in Apple Bough trains under Madame Fidolia at the Children's Academy.

Aside from this, Ballet Shoes has no connections to the other "shoes" books.


Ballet Shoes is very firmly located in London. Below are some photographs of what the locations look like today.

Thumbnail photograph of Cromwell Road - click to enlarge
Cromwell Rd

Thumbnail photograph of Gloucester Road Station - click to enlarge
Gloucester Rd Station
Thumbnail photograph of Russell Square Station - click to enlarge
Russell Square Station
Thumbnail photograph of Bloomsbury - click to enlarge

Click on images to enlarge.


By the end of 1935, Noel Streatfeild had published four adult novels, all of which featured children, as well as a set of short plays for children. Then, in early 1936, Mabel Carey, the children's editor for J. M. Dent & Sons publishing, proposed that she write a children's novel about the theatre.

Although she agreed to this, it does not seem that Noel was particularly interested in this new line of work: she saw herself as an adult novelist, not a writer for children. When writing the book, she actually used her first adult novel - The Whicharts - as a starting point. She adapted the setting and basic character types, but focussed exclusively on the characters' childhood, and developed the story in a far more positive, and less cynical, manner.

As with some of her adult works, Noel's extensive knowledge of the theatre world grounds Ballet Shoes very thoroughly in reality. However, she also managed to "recapture ... something of the thrill with which [as a child] she had watched Lila Field's Little Wonders" (Bull: 1984, p. 135).

Mabel Carey suggested that a suitable illustrator for the book might be Ruth Gervis - not realising that Ruth was Noel Streatfeild's elder sister. Angela Bull (1984: 136) feels that the sisters' "collaboration on Ballet Shoes was perfect, Ruth's drawings imprinting for ever on the readers' minds the definitive versions of pretty, blonde Pauline, dark-haired Petrova with her shy half-smiles, and lively little Posy" (Bull,1984: 136). Ruth's original drawings for Ballet Shoes are now held by The Centre for the Children's Book.

On its publication, Ballet Shoes received universal praise from the critics, and the first edition sold out quickly. In Beyond the Vicarage (1971: 92), Noel tells of trying to buy copies for friends who were demanding them. (Dent had been unable to supply her with extra copies.)

Deciding everybody who wanted one should have a copy for Christmas, Victoria [Noel's name for herself in Beyond the Vicarage] went to Hatchard's in Piccadilly. ... However in the children's department she learnt some surprising news. "Oh, no," said the saleswoman, "we don't keep Ballet Shoes up here. It has its own department downstairs."

It proved to be quite true. At the far end of the shop there was a trestle table on which were piled copies of Ballet Shoes. Two girls were in charge.

"Twelve copies please," said Victoria.

The girls looked shocked.

"Oh no, madam. Every customer is restricted to one copy."

There were people around, so Victoria whispered.

"But I wrote it."

The girl looked at Victoria as if she was some weird monster. Then she went into a huddle with the other girl.

"Under these circumstances," they said, "you can have two copies."


1936 - Runner up for the inaugural Carnegie Medal (won by Arthur Ransome for Pigeon Post.)

1948 - Listed by the Library Association as one of a number of "books which should always be in print".

1991 - Library of Congress Children's Books of the Year


(This section contains "spoilers" for those who have not read the book.)

In spite of its title, Ballet Shoes is not really a "ballet story" - not when it is compared to the "Wells" and "Drina" books of Lorna Hill and Jean Estoril (Mabel Esther Allen). There is only one occasion where we see an actual ballet class (and the main focus of that is Posy's mischief), only a few mentions of ballet movements and other technicalities, and there is only one passing reference to an actual ballet production. Furthermore, Posy is the only one of the girls whose thoughts we are never shown. Pauline and Petrova are the two major perspective characters, and we are occasionally given insights into Sylvia and Nana, but we never know what Posy is thinking unless she tells someone.

In fact, the subtitle - A Story of Three Children on the Stage - gives us a better idea of what the book is "about". Not the art of ballet, nor even really the art of acting - though in fact it contains more about acting than about ballet - but rather about "children on the stage". We may not learn much about ballet, but we learn a great deal about auditions, about the law surrounding child performers and about life backstage.

It is also, like all of Noel's children's fiction, a family story. Cadogan and Craig view this as its most important aspect, describing the work as a "family story story with a theatrical bias" (1976:286). Despite their different talents, the Fossil sisters have an intense loyalty to each other, and to Sylvia and Nana, and much of the driving force of the novel is the need to earn enough money to keep the family going. Pauline and Petrova are both willing to make sacrifices for the family (Petrova by not telling Sylvia how much she hates acting; Pauline by taking up a film contract, rather than the stage career she desires). Posy has the extreme self-centredness of most of Noel's dancers, and it would never even occur to her to compromise her own career, but we nevertheless feel that the family unit is very important to her.

Noel Streatfeild and her sisters are not the only children who have been fascinated by the lives of "child stars", and by taking the knowledge she gained from her years as an actress, and wrapping it up in an engaging tale of three children who "come alive" to readers, Noel has created a story that appears to have timeless appeal.

Ballet Shoes and The Whicharts

Ballet Shoes begins very much as a rehash of Noel's first adult novel, The Whicharts - indeed, the opening of the two books is almost identical:

The Whicharts

The Whichart children lived in the Cromwell Road. At that end of it which is furthest from the Brompton Road, and yet sufficiently near it to be taken to look at the dolls' houses in the Victoria and Albert every wet day, and if not too wet expected to "save the penny and walk".

Saving the penny and walking was a great feature of their childhood.

"Our Father," Maimie the eldest would say, "must have been a definitely taxi person; he couldn't have known about walking, or he'd never have bought a house at the far end of the longest road in London."

Ballet Shoes

The Fossil sisters lived in the Cromwell Road. At that end of it which is furthest away from the Brompton Road, and yet sufficiently near it to be taken to look at the dolls' houses in the Victoria and Albert every wet day, and if not too wet expected to "save the penny and walk".

Saving the penny and walking was a great feature of their childhood.

"Gum," Pauline, the eldest would say, "must have been a very taxi person; he couldn't have ever thought about walking or he'd never have bought a house at the far end of the longest road in London."

However, Ballet Shoes is not simply a retelling of The Whicharts. For one thing, it covers a much shorter time span, finishing when Pauline is still only fifteen, rather than following the girls into adulthood.

The most significant difference between the two books, however, is mood. Ballet Shoes is not only "bowdlerized ... tidied, and moved a few rungs up the social ladder" (Bull, 1984: 134) - it also takes a much more optimistic and romantic view of the world. Although the two sets of sisters are superficially quite similar, their background is somewhat sanitised in the children's book: the Whicharts are all born out of wedlock, with the same father but different mothers, while the Fossils have much more romantic origins. Furthermore, Madame Fidolia's Academy is a much classier establishment than Madame Elise's, and the Fossils prove to have more genuine talent than the Whichart sisters.

Angela Bull describes the ending of The Whicharts as "bittersweet", and all of the characters suffer through the exigencies of real life, and the more sordid aspects of working in theatre. By contrast, at the end of Ballet Shoes, all of the Fossils are moving on to live their dreams. There is still a bittersweet element, as Pauline is headed for a film career, rather than the stage life she wants; but we are comforted by the fact that it is only a five-year contract, and she will probably be able to return to the stage after that. Furthermore, we know that each of the Fossils will be successful - to an extent that would simply never have been possible for The Whicharts.

Editions and Availability

UK Editions

Ballet Shoes: A Children's Novel of the Theatre was first published in 1936 by J. M. Dent & Sons. The illustrations in this edition were by Ruth Gervis (Noel Streatfeild's sister). Since its first release, there have been numerous different editions.

US Editions

It was released in the United States in 1937, by Random House. It was titled simply Ballet Shoes, and the illustrations were by Richard Floethe. It has been reissued numerous times.

As I have not read the US editions, I do not know if the text was in any way amended.

Still in print

Ballet Shoes is still in print in both the UK and the US, with a number of different editions available.

In the UK, Puffin Books has two editions. The Puffin paperback contains the original illustrations by Ruth Gervis. The Modern Classic paperback is illustrated by Piers Sanford. (NB The Puffin website spells Noel's surname incorrectly for the Modern Classic edition.)

The US Random House Books for Young Readers trade paperback is illustrated by Diane Goode.

Other Media

In 1947, a radio version of Ballet Shoes, scripted by Felicity Douglas, was broadcast on the Children's Hour, and was repeated at least three times. This production was introduced by music from Wolf-Ferrari's Jewels of the Madonna.

The Internet Movie Database lists a film version of Ballet Shoes, produced in 1975 by the BBC. It is apparently available in the US on both video and DVD.

There have also been several audiobooks of Ballet Shoes. In 1979, Argo Spoken Word released a version narrated by Moira Shearer. This ran for approximately 2 hrs 35 minutes (2 audio cassetttes), with the abridgement done by Noel Streatfeild. There has also been a version narrated by Jan Francis (EMI Records "Listen for Pleasure" series, 1987), and one by Harriet Walter (BBC Spoken Word). Unfortunately, it appears that these are no longer available.

In December 1999, BBC Radio 4 ran a 5-part dramatisation of Ballet Shoes, adapted by Ellen Dryden, directed by Don Taylor, and starring Rosemary Leach. In March 2001 this was released as a BBC Spoken Word set of audio cassettes.

The Random House Audio Publishing website lists an audiobook version in both cassette and audio download formats. However, as the publication date is shown as October 2004, they may not yet be available. The site does not list who the story is narrated by.

It appears that in 2001, the London Children's Ballet did a production of Ballet Shoes, choreographed by Cathy Marston (mentioned in the January 2001 edition of Ballet Magazine.)

2007 TV Series

On 20 July 2007, the BBC announced a major new dramatisation of Ballet Shoes. The feature-length film is a Granada production. Filming begins in August, and it is due to transmit on BBC One later this year. Hopefully it will also be shown in other countries.

The Fossils are being played by Emma Watson (Pauline), Yasmin Paige (Petrova) and Lucy Boynton (Posy). Other members of the all-star cast include:

More information may be found at:

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