Noel Streatfeild
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Adults' Fiction

First Children's Books

Ballet Shoes

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 Whicharts, to get started on Ballet Shoes. In fact, the openings of Ballet Shoes and The Whicharts are virtually identical, although the plots and characters do diverge quite significantly, as The Whicharts moves into areas unsuitable for a younger readership.

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.

Ballet Shoes 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.

Tennis Shoes

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, but Tennis 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 enthusiasm" (Bull, 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, 1984:155).


Noel Streatfeild's Life


World War One


First Novels

First Children's Books

World War Two

After the War

A National Monument

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