Ballet Shoes

Not a Carnegie winner, but certainly an enduring presence in the world of children’s literature: Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes.

Advertisements

The third book to be highly commended for the inaugural Carnegie Medal was Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes. Obviously, unlike Sampson’s Circus, this book is very much still in circulation today. In fact, in terms of an actual child readership I’m fairly sure it’s stood the test of time rather better than Pigeon Post: the fact that the latter is now being published with its original jacket design suggests that it’s really targeting the adult nostalgia / scholarly market, whereas the edition of Ballet Shoes  currently available on Amazon  sports a lurid pink cover with a photo of ballet shoes which is clearly intended to appeal to a certain type of contemporary child reader. (I like to think that the charming Ruth Gervis illustrations from the first edition would still appeal to children, but hey ho.) It undoubtedly holds a more prominent place in popular culture than Pigeon Post (and maybe even than Swallows and Amazons), with its latest TV adaptation in 2007. Possibly this proves that the Carnegie Committee did have some instinct for popularity as well as prestige (or it may have just been luck).

I didn’t read this book as a child (otherwise I might have been more receptive to the ballet lessons my mother insisted I take) but I can’t claim to be coming to this book without any preconceptions. Coming to Streatfeild’s books at some point in adulthood, I gobbled them up as if they had been childhood favourites, and I can still reread any of her books with blithe disregard for the weaker bits. She does tend to recycle quite a lot, hitting the same narrative beats and sometimes even repeating dialogue, but this doesn’t diminish my enjoyment in the slightest. So, fair warning that I don’t necessarily have a lot of critical distance from this book.

For those of you who have inexplicably missed out on Ballet Shoes, it’s the story of three orphans – Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil – who are ‘collected’ like Fossils by an eccentric elderly gentleman (Great Uncle Matthew – or Gum for short) who finds them during his travels around the world and essentially dumps them on his niece, Sylvia. They aren’t blood sisters and all have quite different backgrounds: Pauline is the survivor of a shipwreck, Petrova the daughter of a Russian soldier who Gum meets in hospital, and Posy the child of a ballerina who doesn’t really care for children. Being eccentric, the same day he acquires Posy, Gum disappears on a 5-year journey which turns out to last more like 10. As a consequence of Sylvia’s money running out due to his extended absence, the three Fossil girls end up training at a ballet school in order to ensure they have some prospect of earning money. The majority of the plot concerns their training and careers. There’s a degree of wish fulfilment in this, particularly in the case of Posy, who turns out to have a natural gift for dancing and becomes the protégé of the owner of the school. Really, though, this is a career novel, and Streatfeild is a lot more interested in the hard work involved in the performing arts than in the fantasy of the novice who turns out to be magically better than everyone else. This is probably partly a reflection of Streatfeild’s own background in the performing arts – she trained at RADA and worked as a professional actress for over 10 years – but I think that it also reflects a wider cultural preoccupation with the value of work. Pigeon Post is also very much a book about hard work (the earlier Ransome books are interested in play; the events of PP are explicitly contrasted with these when Nancy comments that the prospecting is ‘serious business, with no pretence about it’), and this is a theme we’ll come back to in some of the books to come.

Although Ballet Shoes shares this theme with Pigeon Post, in every other respect it’s very difference. Where Ransome’s book is about preserving heritage, Streatfeild’s is about radical change. At the start of the book, we’re introduced to Great Uncle Matthew, his habit of collecting fossils, and his house:

Collecting fossils, he naturally needed somewhere to put them, and that is how he came to buy the house in the Cromwell Road. It had large rooms, and about six floors, including the basement, and on every floor, and in almost every room, he kept fossils. Naturally a house like that needed somebody to look after it […]

Sylvia, his niece, is the person who ends up looking after the house, and she seems to be largely responsible for keeping it as Gum likes it, bar the occasional tussle over disposing of a few fossils when he collects too many. This is backstory, though, and by the time of the novel Gum has collected a different sort of ‘Fossil’: the three girls, who adopt this as their shared surname because they have been collected just like the fossils. Of course children are not fossils, though, and so both they and the rest of the household grow and change. When money starts to run out, Sylvia starts to take borders in order to earn money, despite her conviction that Gum wouldn’t like them. She ceases ‘keeping’ the house and starts making ‘a lot of alterations’. Her boarders also bring a lot of alterations: they include a dancer (who suggests the ballet school option for the girls), two female literature professors (who are surely gay, and gloriously self-fulfilled with their joy in Shakespeare and their delicious hot drinks which are heavily implied to be laced with spirits), and a couple who arrive with a motor car (of which more anon). The message runing throughout the book is that it’s not possible or even desirable to try to keep life just as it’s always been: when faced with change it’s better to roll with the punches and work hard to make something good out of your new circumstances. The book pushes back against the idea that the performing arts are not ‘respectable’ (much is made of how carefully regulated child performers are), and we’re given a beautiful alternative family made up of all these unrelated women (the three Fossil sisters, Sylvia,  and their nurse Nana) with the boarders as a kind of extended family.

The idea of change is most important to Petrova. Notwithstanding the great significance of the performing arts to this book, it’s really Petrova’s book. She’s the only one of the three sisters who doesn’t take to performing: she’s competent, but she finds it all a bore, and is really interested in mechanics. Streatfeild doesn’t typically linger on characters’ internal lives, but when she does delve into feelings it’s usually Petrova who she’s focusing on.  Petrova struggles the whole way through with her conviction that her desire to work with machines is unattainable, both because she’s a girl and because the family can’t afford for her not to make money on the stage. By the end, though, she’s able to pursue this dream (Gum returns and is very pleased with the idea of Petrova training as a pilot) and it’s vindicated as a really important thing for a girl to do. The Fossils have instituted a vow that they’ll put their name in the history books, but Pauline and Posy see their success in the performing arts as closing off this possibility (though I think the novel sets us up to feel that they’re wrong). The responsibility therefore devolves onto Petrova:

‘You’ll go into history books. That’ll put Fossil there all right; it doesn’t matter about Pauline and me.’

Petrova looked puzzled. ‘How will I?’

‘Flying, of course.’ […]

‘Would that?’ said Petrova.

‘Of course.’ Pauline spoke eagerly. ‘Don’t you see? It’s sort of exploring, like Frobisher, or Drake. Amy Mollison and Jean Batten will be there, but not as important as you. The books will say: “The greatest explorer in the middle of the twentieth century was Petrova Fossil, who found routes by which goods could be carried at greater speed and less cost, and so she revolutionized trade.”

The mention of Amy Mollison and Jean Batten works to emphasise that this is an achievable feat (both were notable aviators). The reference to exploring also fascinates me: I’ve suggested that Pigeon Post is all about valuing the British landscape, something which seems to me to be part of the response to the unravelling of Empire. Here Petrova’s future is framed specifically in terms of exploration: something which fits her into the imperial narrative. In one sense I suppose this is regressive, but it’s also incredibly radical: Petrova, who is both female and foreign-born, is presented as someone who can potentially step into the shoes of Drake. There’s a notion here, I think, of reinventing Britain’s identity through radical innovation.

Petrova’s character also provides the one thing Streatfeild’s book has in common with Sampson’s Circus: both books present British identity as something which can be completely and successfully assimilated. Like Jack in Sampson’s Circus, Petrova has been born as a foreign national but brought up in Britain from early childhood. When the ballet school put on a performance to raise money for a Russian hospital, it is seen as especially fitting that Petrova should have a role, but ‘Petrova thought to herself, that though of course she was very glad to help the hospital, it was not because she was Russian; for she was British by adoption, and had taken a British name, and felt very British inside.’ A topical and rather cheering statement in 1936.

Why didn’t this win in 1936 instead of Pigeon Post? The Carnegie committee stated at the time that one reason was that PP would appeal to both boys and girls, whereas Ballet Shoes and Sampson’s Circus were more likely to appeal to just one gender. I think there’s plenty here that a boy might enjoy, though to some extent it is a story about girlhood (especially when you come to Petrova’s narrative). I think Streatfeild’s characterisation isn’t quite so nuanced and fine-grained as Ransome’s, although in part this is a function of this being a stand-alone book rather than part of a series. Compared to Swallows and Amazons, there is considerably more character detail. As we’ve established, I love Pigeon Post, so while I think Ballet Shoes would have been an equally worthy winner, this isn’t a case where looking at it with the benefit of hindsight makes me think the Medal went to the ‘wrong’ book.  Ballet Shoes would have set a very different tone as the first Medal winner, though: less nostalgic, more radical; much more urban in its concerns; and much more concerned with change. You get the sense, in Streatfeild’s book, of shaking off the Victorian age briskly and cheerfully, with none of the urge to look back and reclaim British heritage which is such a central feature of Ransome’s. This says something about the Carnegie as part of that heritage-building project, a theme to which I suspect I shall return in future posts.

 

Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 10/10

Plot: 10/10

Characterisation: 9/10

Themes: Ballet, performing arts, modernity, family, change

Publisher: Dent

Illustrator: Ruth Gervis (Streatfeild’s sister, though the publisher didn’t realise this when she commissioned the illustrations. You can see Gervis’ original illustrations at Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books).

 

Sampson’s Circus

One of the first books highly commended for the Carnegie Medal proves to be justly consigned to the dustbin of history.

In the running for the 1936 Carnegie Medal was Howard Spring’s Sampson’s Circus. Unlike the other highly commended book of that year, Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes, Sampson’s Circus hasn’t stood the test of time: it’s out of print, and few people now remember Howard Spring as a writer for children. As a result he isn’t among the writers that I encountered as a child, and I was curious to see how Sampson’s Circus would compare to the two more famous books in the running that year. The answer is… not well.

In terms of genre, Sampson’s Circus is a kind of hybrid of the other two books. It features two adoptive brothers: Jo, and his Belgian foster brother Jack, the orphaned son of a Belgian refugee. At the start of the book, they set off on a caravanning holiday, a device which sets the book  in the ‘camping and tramping’ genre alongside Ransome’s and lots of others of that period, and wind up travelling with a circus, which provides some of the artistic flavour for which Streatfeild was known (indeed, she was to win two years later with a circus novel). This plot is spiced up by the addition of a mysterious stranger bound on kidnapping Jack, who turns out to be the heir to a fortune in Belgium. It also shares some of the same concerns as Pigeon Post: there’s a real affection for the rural landscape (descriptions of the countryside are the best writing in the book) and the theme of belonging is even more explicit here. When Jack discovers the existence of his inheritance, he rejects it and insists on his British identity, something which the reader is clearly supposed to accept and approve of.

From the vantage point of 2016, it’s hard to believe that this book was ever considered a serious contender: it lacks the nuance and characterisation of Pigeon Post, and is far less realistic or ground-breaking than Ballet Shoes. It feels much more dated than either book, more similar in tone to nineteenth century boys’ adventure stories. (Having said that, it’s also not unlike Enid Blyton, who was just getting started at this point, so it wasn’t that out of step.) The plot itself is muddled: living with the circus could have been a story in itself, and the kidnapping theme adds a lot of complication without ever really paying off in terms of creating tension or threat. There’s a fairly sympathetic portrayal of a working-class character, although the fact that he’s named ‘Charlie Chaffinch’ and Spring’s phonetic transcription of his Cockney accent are quite painful. Much worse than this is the racism: I wasn’t thrilled by the first mention of ‘n- minstrels’ among the circus characters, but wrote it off as an unfortunate period detail which you might easily edit out of a modern edition. When we actually meet a black character, though, it’s not possible to shrug off the problems with his portrayal: unlike Charlie Chaffinch, Buzack never really comes across as a real person.  Spring has him speak in pidgin English which resembles faux ‘Red Indian’, and describes him as constantly grinning, then ramps things up to eleven by having Jo and Jack disguise themselves by blacking up and wearing the same costume because it will be ‘impossible’ for anyone to tell the difference between the three. Oh, and they cheerfully refer to themselves throughout a large portion of the rest of the book as ‘Three Little N- Boys’. The book is deservedly out of print, and I like to think that even in 1936 some of these factors weighed against it with the Carnegie Committee.

Despite all this, there are some good elements of the book. The opening description of the Belgian refugees fleeing their home country is genuinely powerful. I enjoyed the competence of Charlie Chaffinch: there’s a running subplot about his desire to have an act in the circus and the ring master’s resistance to this based on the fact that Charlie is so good at runnnig the circus (it’s Charlie himself who explicitly makes this claim, but nothing in the text actually contradicts him).   I also very much enjoyed the curate who shows up towards the end of the book, beats Charlie in a boxing match, and proves to know how to pick locks. He achieves all these feats while maintaining a very mild-manned demeanour and constantly muttering about how staid the vicar is. Spring went on to write novels for adults, and I’d be interested to read them: he has the feel of an author for whom the genre of children’s fiction proved a constraint rather than an inspiration. However, I’m definitely glad that the inaugural Carnegie Medal went to Pigeon Post and not to Sampson’s Circus.

 

My overall rating: 4/10

Plot: 3/10

Characterisation: 4/10

Themes: Adventure, circus, home, camping and tramping

Publisher: Faber & Faber

Illustrator: Steven Spurrier

Pigeon Post

Pigeon Post gets the Carnegie Medal off to a good start with a realistically plotted story which celebrates the rural landscapes of Britain.

The Carnegie Medal kicked off in 1936 with Arthur Ransome’s Pigeon Post, the sixth book in the Swallows and Amazons series. Whenever I see this mentioned, the general consensus always seems to be that it was a ‘safe’ award which was really recognising Arthur Ransome’s body of work as a whole. Keith Barker, in his history of the Carnegie, says that Arthur Ransome himself said it wasn’t his best work. Well, I’m here to say that all these commentators are wrong, wrong, wrong. This far exceeded my expectations.

This is one of the Lake District books, and brings together all the main characters from the previous five books: John, Susan, Titty and Roger Walker (the Swallows); Nancy and Peggy Blackett (the Amazons) and Dick and Dorothea (the D’s). There’s very little sailing in this book: instead, the plot centres around their efforts prospecting for gold up on the fells. There’s an enemy – the mysterious Squashy Hatted man who seems also to be  seeking gold – and a more realistic external threat in the form of a severe drought which has everyone in the area worried about fell fires.

I love the opening of the book, which gives a great ‘Previously, in the Swallows and Amazons series…’ via a dialogue between Titty and Roger and a farmer’s wife on the train, who knows Mrs Blackett:

“Aye, and her daughters too, and her brother Mr Turner that’s for ever gallivanting off to foreign parts …”

“We know him too,” said Roger. “We call him …” And he stopped short. There was no point in giving away Captain Flint’s name to natives.

“You’ve been here before, likely,” said the farmer’s wife. “Oh yes,” said Titty. “We always stay at Holly Howe … at least mother does … but Mrs Jackson’s got visitors for the next two weeks … Mrs Blackett’s having us till then because mother didn’t want Bridget to give us all whooping-cough.”

“We’ve come straight from school,” said Roger. “Eh,” said the farmer’s wife. “I know all about you. You’ll be the young folk that were camping on the island down the lake two years since when Mr Turner had his houseboat broke into. And you were here again last winter when the lake was froze over. But I thought there was four of you …”

“Five, with Bridget,” said Titty. “John and Susan must be here already. It isn’t so far from their schools.”

“And weren’t you friends with the two at Mrs Dixon’s?”

“Dick and Dorothea Callum,” said Titty.

We get a quick primer on all our characters, and set up a few things which are instrumental to the plot: the absence of Mrs Walker, (which results in a recurring anxiety on the part of Mrs Blackett about what the children are getting up to), the fact that the Swallows aren’t at the Jacksons (and thus won’t have access to their sailing boat), and Captain Flint’s penchant for foreign travel. It also subtly works to establish the Walkers as belonging in this community, which is a recurrent theme in this book.

Ransome is often criticised for writing essentially static characters – Geoffrey Trease was particularly vocal about this – but the care he takes to set things up here belies that. It’s important to Ransome to set up a reason why they’re not simply repeating the activities of the first book (which would be boring) – a love of sailing is really central to the Swallows’ and Amazons’ personalities, so it would be out of character if they just randomly decided to do something different. It’s also important that we know who these characters are, because they are slowly growing and changing and the adventures of the previous books actually matter. The whole book is actually full of lovely little character moments: one of the best scenes is when they are trying dowsing and it actually works for Titty, who totally freaks out. Her reaction is perfect for her character: she’s the most imaginative and sensitive of the Walkers, not used to being in the limelight (as second youngest), and  not really expecting anything to happen since the older children, whom she respects, haven’t managed to get it to work. I also love the way Susan is portrayed in this book: Susan is one of the characters who gets short shrift from a lot of critics because she’s a kind of ‘miniature adult’ who is mostly concerned with washing up and bedtimes. She’s definitely not the character who most readers identify with, and she’s partly there to fulfil a plot function by being the ‘serious’ one who grown-ups trust to make their undsupervised adventures safe. In Pigeon Post, though, we actually get a glimpse of what it’s like for Susan to be the one who plays this role: it comes across most powerfully in the moment when the older ones realise that the younger children are in the middle of a fell fire, and Susan reacts with the kind of horror that only comes with being the person who really feels responsible for everyone else’s wellbeing. I’m certain Susan’s character resonates more for me at 35 than she would have when I was 8, but I think it’s still important to the book as a whole that she’s there – and Ransome’s readers in 1936 were substantially more likely to have responsibility for the younger siblings than children of the same age are today.

I find Pigeon Post an interesting pick for the very first Carnegie Medal, because it is deeply concerned with the land, with ideas of belonging, and with heritage and history. The earlier books in the Swallows and Amazons series involve a lot of games in which the children imagine the British landscape as a foreign space, but that’s more or less absent here. The prospecting plot is motivated by their desire to prove to Captain Flint that rather than travelling overseas, he should ‘look for things here’, and the whole plot thereafter is concerned with uncovering valuable things in the landscape. Their prospecting does eventually bear fruit (although they find copper rather than gold), and Titty’s success at dowsing also allows them to find water, which in the context of the drought is even more precious. They draw on various bits of ‘traditional’ knowledge: a local story about finding gold in the fells, the water divining, making charcoal, and the use of homing pigeons for the titular pigeon post. The tension that runs through the book is also fundamentally to do with belonging: the farmer whose land they are staying on is deeply concerned about the possibility that they will accidentally set fire to the fells, and it’s clear that she sees them as lacking in a real appreciation of the importance of the land and the degree to which a fire would be devastating to local livelihoods. The climax of the book, in which the children save the farm from a fire with the aid of a well they have created and a homing pigeon who alerts the local fire volunteers, serves to resolve this conflict and confirm them as ‘belonging’ to the land. What we have here, then, is a beautifully constructed narrative about identity.

In case it is not clear, I LOVE this book and think it absolutely holds up after 80 years. I know from teaching Ransome’s books that my students, at least, tend to find him heavy going, and I think it’s probably the case that his appeal today isn’t what it was in the 1930s. This is a longer, slower novel than most children (or adults) are used to now. That said, I think that there are still children who would enjoy this book. There’s also nothing in it that would make me cringe at giving it to a child, which is nice for a book from 1936. A++ inaugural Carnegie committee.

Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 10/10 (let’s start by setting the bar high!)

Plot: 9/10

Characterisation: 10/10

Themes: Home, heritage, history, camping and tramping

Publisher: Jonathan Cape

Illustrator: Arthur Ransome

Competition

There were two highly commended books in 1936: Howard Spring’s Sampson’s Circus (Faber and Faber) and Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes (Dent). We’ll be hearing from Streatfeild again…

 

 

 

 

The great Carnegie reading project…

I’m digging into the history of the (British) Carnegie Medal, ‘awarded annually to the writer of an outstanding book for children’. I’ll be reading every winning book in order and blogging my thoughts on them. I might read a few of the commended / shortlist books as well, depending on how things go (I might not worry about doing these in order). There’s a good chance I’ll drop in some thoughts on current Carnegie shortlists as I go, too.

Let the great Carnegie reading project begin!