Noel was not particularly enthusiastic about Mabel Carey's idea
that she write a children's book about the theatre. However, her
disillusionment with the theatrical life had started to fade,
and she had also become very excited by the recent developments
in ballet. In 1931, Ninette de Valois, the child Noel had seen
performing the Dying Swan, had joined with Lilian Baylis to found
the Sadler's Wells Ballet School and the Vic-Wells Ballet Company,
the first British ballet company. Then in 1933 the Ballets Russes
de Monte Carlo arrived in London, and Noel was entranced by fourteen
year old Irina Baronova dancing Présages to the
music of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. Noel suddenly realised
that she could write the book Mabel wanted, and, in addition to
making one child an actress, she could have "a child dancer.
A child of startling talent, such as I had seen in Ninette de
Valois and Baronova" ("Two Child Dancers", 1970:25).
Not particularly interested in writing a children's book, Noel
cribbed from her first adult novel, The Wicharts, to
get started on Ballet
Shoes. In fact, the openings of Ballet
Shoes and The Wicharts are virtually identical,
although the plots and characters do diverge quite significantly,
as The Whicharts moves into areas unsuitable for a younger
Noel completed Ballet
Shoes in three months. Mabel suggested that Ruth Gervis
might be a suitable illustrator for the book ... not realising
that this was Noel's older sister, Ruth, now making a name for
herself as an illustrator of children's books. Ruth and Noel were
delighted to be able to collaborate on the book.
was published on 28 September 1936, and received universal praise.
The first edition sold out, and Dents rushed new editions as soon
as possible. Noel was quite taken aback at the success of the
book, which she herself did not think much of. She felt the story
had "poured off my pen, more or less telling itself",
and she "distrusted what came so easily, and so despised
the book" (quoted in Bull,
1984:136). Because of this, she was not entirely happy with its
extraordinary success. "She was a writer for adults, and
she half resented the lavishing of so much attention on a children's
book" (Bull, 1984:144).
The success of Ballet Shoes led to invitations for Noel
to give lectures on children's books - something which had never
happened in connection with her adult novels - even though her
knowledge of this subject was actually quite limited.
Meanwhile, Mabel wanted Noel to follow up the success of Ballet
Shoes with another book. She asked Noel whether there
were any other children, besides Lila Field's Little Wonders,
that she had envied as a child. Noel mentioned that she had envied
those who were good at tennis, and Mabel responded enthusiastically.
In this case, Noel needed more time to actively research her subject,
Shoes was published in 1937.
The Circus is Coming
After handing the manuscript of Tennis
Shoes to Dent's, Noel visited America in the hope of
getting work writing film scripts. She was unsuccessful in this,
but when she returned to England, Mabel was waiting with a new
project. She wanted Noel to write a book about a circus, and had
arranged for her to travel with Bertram Mills circus to gather
material. Noel "plunged into circus life with typically whole-hearted
1984:150). When she had gathered her material, she went back to
America, this time travelling in a cargo boat to California. She
started writing The
Circus is Coming on the boat, and continued working on
it throughout the seven months she was in America.
After returning to England, Noel moved into a new flat at 11
Bolton Street, near Piccadilly. She could now employ a live-in
maid, and a secretary. She completed a short Civil Defence course
to train as an Air Raid Warden, and then she and her secretary
went to St Juan-les-Pins to work on Luke, her next adult
novel. She was still there in February 1939 when she received
a cable telling her that The
Circus is Coming had won the Carnegie Gold Medal.
In March, an article about the award in The Library Association
Record concluded by saying "It is impossible to predict
where Miss Streatfeild's talent will lead her next" (quoted
in Bull, 1984:154). In
the past eight years, Noel had produced "six novels, three
children's books, a full-length play, a set of children's plays,
and a number of short stories ... [but] within six months of her
receiving the Carnegie gold medal, war had broken out, and disrupted
her writing career" (Bull,