It’s time for March’s Desert Island Children’s Book and I can see a theme forming in my last three choices. I was obviously obsessed with reading about the lives of other young girls living in other times during my own formative years. This time we have come forward in time and closer to home to read about the three Fossil sisters living in London in the first half of the twentieth century. I am talking about Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild.
Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil are sisters – with a difference. All three were adopted as babies by Great Uncle Matthew, an eccentric and rich explorer who then disappeared, leaving them in the care of his niece Sylvia.
The girls grow up in comfort until their money begins to run out and nobody can find Great Uncle Matthew. Things look bleak until they hit on an inspired idea: Pauline, Petrova and Posy will take to the stage.
But it’s not long before the Fossils learn that being a star isn’t as easy as they first thought…
I was never a particularly girly girl growing up. I did have ballet lessons for a while, but it was never a passion for me, so a book about three girls who attend a stage school wouldn’t be the first book you would have picked out for me to fall in love with. I was much more of a tomboy like Jo March or Kate Carr, so I could relate to them much better. But Ballet Shoes is no ordinary book about girls who love to dance, and the Fossils are no ordinary sisters and I absolutely adored this story.
The three Fossil sisters, Pauline, Petrova and Posy are not really sisters at all, they were all rescued by an eccentric explorer on his travels, brought home to London at different times and put in the care of his great-niece in a rambling house on the Cromwell Road (at the very furthest end from the museums of South Ken!) to form their own little, ragtag family. Great Uncle Matthew (or GUM as they refer to him) then disappears for a decade, leaving the family is worsening financial straits, until they are forced to take in lodgers to help make ends meet, and the girls are taken in as charity cases at the local stage school until they are old enough to start making money on the stage (which can happen from the age of 12!), whether they like it (Pauline) or not (Petrova, my personal heroine).
This is what makes this book so marvellous. The eclectic group of people who come to live in their home and help them out (the retired teachers who help educate them, the dance teacher who gets them into the school, Mr Simpson who takes tomboy Petrova under his wing, Nana who is always there with words of wisdom or scoldings to keep their feet on the ground.) It is such an interesting sounding life, full of fun and challenge, that I defy any child not to wish they could be one of the sisters, even for a short while.
Every single aspect of the book charmed me. The descriptions of the plays they auditioned for, their simple holidays, the ‘beavers’ prepared by the two teachers (you’ll have to read it to find out what these are), Pauline’s diva-like behaviour when playing Alice, Posy’s impressions, the vows, the costumes, the descriptions of auditions for the movies, applying for licenses to work. It was all exotic and fascinating and such a world away from what being a child was like for me – it has the truly transportive qualities of all appealing literature, as well as being relatable enough for a child. The fact that this book has remained so popular throughout the years means I was not alone in feeling this way about it.
Having just re-read my extremely battered copy of Ballet Shoes for the purposes of writing this post, I can say that I enjoyed it now as much as I did back then. It has lost none of its appeal for me over the years, and I am still as much in love with the Fossils as I love back then. At the very end of the book, the author wonders which of the girls the reader wishes they could be. My answer remains the same now as it was back then. Petrova every day of the week, but especially on Sunday.
Ballet Shoes is available now and you can buy a copy here.
About the Author
Noel Streatfeild was born in Sussex in 1895. Her father, a clergyman, was vicar of St Leonard’s-on-Sea and then of Eastbourne during her childhood. She was one of five children and found vicarage life very restricting. At a young age she began to show a talent for acting and was sent to the Academy of Dramatic Art in London, after which she acted professionally for a number of years before turning to writing. The author of over 80 books, she won the Carnegie Medal for her book Ballet Shoes and was awarded an OBE in 1983. Noel Streatfeild died in 1986.