The first book I ever bought for myself was Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild. I’ve bought thousands more books since, but Ballet Shoes is still a very special favourite. It hasn’t been out of print since it was published in 1936. I recently treated myself to a first edition with its rare silver cover (so fragile it generally disintegrated within weeks) but my first copy was a Puffin paperback.
Three girls in white ballet dresses danced across the cover, two on the front and one on the back. They were the three Fossil sisters, Pauline, Petrova and Posy. I didn’t yet know anything about them but I knew I wanted to be them. I longed to go to ballet lessons and take part in dancing displays wearing a white tutu. Oh, the glamour! But my mother said we couldn’t afford it, so I had to make do with dancing at home, pretending my pink bedroom slippers were ballet shoes.
We might not have had money to spare for ballet lessons, but my parents still gave me one shilling pocket money every Saturday. Maths isn’t my strong point, but I think that’s five modern pence. It seems a pathetically small sum now, but when I was a child it seemed an agreeably large amount. If I’d been helpful doing the Saturday morning big shop my mother would then let me spend my weekly windfall.
Woolworths was always tempting, with its sweets and its shiny notebooks and its little penny dolls the colour of bubblegum, but I was a passionate reader so I asked Mum if we could go to W. H. Smith. As soon as I spotted Ballet Shoes on the Puffin shelf I knew I had to have it. It cost two shillings, so I had to save for another week, which was torture. There was only one copy and I was terrified another child would come along and snaffle it. But there it was, waiting for me the following Saturday, and I took it home ecstatically.
I’d finished it by Sunday teatime. It’s a simple enough story: three baby girls are adopted by an eccentric old fossil collector (hence the surname) and left in the care of his great-niece Sylvia. The girls are sent to a stage school run by a formidable Russian called Madame Fidolia. The idea is that they can go on the stage at soon as they are 12 and start earning much-needed money. All three have great performing potential. Pauline is the prettiest, with pink and white skin and long fair hair. She’s a very promising actress. Dark Petrova is the most interesting. Her Russian heritage excites Madame Fidolia, but Petrova isn’t at all the sort of girl who likes being on the stage. She wants to be a car mechanic or fly planes. The youngest sister, Posy, is a mischievous little redhead with a gift for dancing, and it soon becomes clear that she’s destined to be a ballerina.
Ballet Shoes is in many respects a fairy story with a happily-ever-after ending. Pauline is a great success as an actress and leaves England to become a Hollywood movie star. Petrova is given the chance to fly a
The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.Subscribe now or Sign in