Critical Evaluative Essay

Ballet Shoes was popular from the time it was published in 1936.  It was an immediate hit in England, and in less than a year it crossed the Atlantic to the United States, where it was also very well-received (as noted in the reviews). Streatfeild, already a published author of books for adults, was surprised at the enthusiastic response to Ballet Shoes.  She describes it in one of her autobiographical works, Beyond the Vicarage: [Note: Streatfeild wrote three autobiographical works about her family, A Vicarage Family, On Tour, and Beyond the Vicarage. For privacy reasons, she changed the names of her family. The Streatfeilds become the Strangeway family, with Noel as Victoria.]

a couple of days after its publication Victoria went to Selfridges to do some Christmas shopping. Coming out of Selfridges she crossed the street planning to have a look at Bumpus, which was then in Oxford Street and probably London’s most famous bookshop. Then Victoria had a surprise which left her rooted to the spot. The whole of the window was full of nothing but her book Ballet Shoes, which looked very pretty bound in silver and green. Round the window, hung by their ribbons, were ballet shoes with at the top shoes belonging to Karsavina.

Then came the Press cuttings – not just the few to which Victoria was accustomed but in huge packets. Everybody seemed to be writing about the book and with so much praise Victoria said: “You’d think I had written the Bible.”

Friends had been asking Streatfeild for copies, but her publisher was out, so she went out shopping for some to give as Christmas presents. So she
 went to Hatchard’s in Piccadilly. Books for children were on the top floor . . . However, in the children’s department she learnt some surprising news. “Oh no,” said the saleswoman, “We don’t keep Ballet Shoes up here. It has its own department downstairs.”

It proved quite true. At the far end of the shop there was a trestle table on which were piled copies of Ballet Shoes. Two girls were in charge.
                “Twelve copies please,” said Victoria.
                The girls looked shocked.
                “Oh no, madam. Every customer is restricted to one copy.”
                There were people around so Victoria whispered.
                “But I wrote it.”
                The girl looked at Victoria as if she was some weird monster. Then she went into a huddle with the other girl.
                “Under these circumstances,” they said, “you can have two copies.” (91-92)
Children’s Literature Review describes Streatfeild as having “secured an enduring place among writers for children by creating warm family stories for middle graders which feature child professionals in the performing arts and sports fields.” (CLR, 169) Ballet Shoes was the first and probably the best of her works in this vein; indeed, this same source describes it as a “landmark.” In Written for Children, John Rowe Townsend hails Ballet Shoes as “virtually the beginning of a new genre, the ‘career novel.’ (Townsend, 165.)

I think there is something very basic in the appeal in the theme of Ballet Shoes. We all have a talent, though very often those around us don’t realize it  — and oh, wouldn’t we like them to be able to see it? to be appreciated? These girls get the chance to follow their dreams –— even Petrova does in the end --— and this speaks to young readers. The girls are far from perfect, they have to work hard, they make mistakes, they are real people. They need to earn money to survive, so you root for them. They have fun together, stick by one another as a family, and appreciate each other. Streatfeild says that while writing Ballet Shoes she “pictured, while I wrote it, myself and hundreds like me, leading rather circumscribed lives.” This ability to recall what it felt like to be a child and to understand what a child’s interests are, to keep those in mind while writing, I think are crucial factors in the long lasting appeal of Ballet Shoes.

Ballet Shoes is full of details: descriptions of the Fossil girls’ daily routines, how those routines change when attending the Academy, details of clothing, from audition dresses to stage costumes, what they have for tea and what they eat for supper. Details that E. Nesbit's Oswald Bastable would have probably despised, but are a key part of the appeal of this book for its’ devotees. Most of the fans are female, as one would expect from such a title and featuring three girls. In many ways, the roles of the women in Ballet Shoes are quite progressive. The three Fossil girls are training for a career, focusing on earning a living – in 1936. Sylvia, the children’s guardian, is single; Nana is a more traditional mother figure. Theo Dane is a teacher at the Academy and other two female boarders are retired professors. Only Mrs. Simpson is a traditional married woman . . . and she has traveled with her husband to exotic places like Malay. McDonnell comments on this somewhat extraordinary feature in her 1978 Horn Book article:

It is interesting to note that a book written forty years ago . . . seems so contemporary in the roles it depicts and encourages for women. Not only are the three girls all active and spunky, but with the exception of Mr. Simpson and the missing Gum, all the important adults in the story are women who work, who have responsibilities and skills, who make decisions, solve problems, and live independent lives. “ (McDonnell, 193)

The Fossil sisters extraordinary sense of purpose is expressed best in the vow they take on important occasions, like birthdays, “We three Fossils vow to try and put our name in history books because it’s our very own and nobody can say it’s because of our grandfathers.” (Streatfeild, Ballet Shoes, 40)

Though Ballet Shoes has had a few detractors over the years, almost all the reviews I found were positive. It has that timeless quality that allows it to appeal to one generation after another. And it has that rare ability to really touch readers, to make them recall its influence on their lives years later. Earlier this year children’s librarian Betsy Bird of "A Fuse #8 Production," a blog on the School Library Journal website conducted a survey to discover people’s favorite children’s novels and Ballet Shoes came in at number 65. You can check out some of the comments, which are often funny and almost all adoring, here: Bird herself points out that everyone who voted for Ballet Shoes spelled Streatfeild's name right, which she pronounces "no mean feat." Indeed, I think that's why it was chosen for that specific scene in You've Got Mail. (see Publication History). 

Other bloggers reflect on the importance of Ballet Shoes when they were young.

"So in terms of the importance of this book, Ballet Shoes (which is a wonderfully written story, by the way) – it said a couple of different things to me. It said: You are not alone. Other little girls out there have the same burning desire. It also said: There is a way to take this craft seriously. You can actually WORK at it until you can do it as a JOB . . . Ballet Shoes, which I read when I was 9 or 10, was a hugely formative book for me – for all of these reasons . . . I LIVED with those girls. I went to the Academy of Dancing with them. I angsted over their auditions. I marveled at Posy’s gift for ballet. I wanted to BE in those classes. I wanted to have my chance too – to “put my name in the history books” (this is a vow the 3 sisters make to one another). I read it over and over and over … and I still have my copy of it – and funnily enough, I picked it up this morning, and I knew the first paragraph by heart . . ."
        -Sheila O'Malley, The Sheila Variations

"Streatfeild shows a lot more respect and understanding towards a children’s mind than most of the contemporary authors that I read when I was younger."
    -Iris, Iris on Books

"I was surprised to find that the audio version that I'd loved was slightly abridged. It was a real treat, because it meant now I was able to read even more Ballet Shoes! The best comfort books, I think, are favourites from your childhood."
    -Rhiannon Hart, "Reading for Comfort: Ballet Shoes"

All of these admirers are female, which isn't surprising. Ballet Shoes is a girl's book, a book about family and following your dreams. It has followers in much the same way as Anne of Green Gables and the Betsy-Tacy books. Huse notes that "Ballet Shoes has a status it shares with few book one might think of as "girls' books." In fact, only Little Women, among English-language children's literature, is both a recognizable "classic" . . . and a "girls' book." (Huse, 50). She goes on to state that "Ballet Shoes is not particularly well known in the United States." (Huse, 50.) I admit that I am biased, but I think this book is more well known that Huse acknowledges.

To gauge more general audience opinion, I surveyed the reviews on Amazon and Ballet Shoes received 52 five-star reviews and 13 four-star reviews, out of 70. The one star review looks unreliable and one of the two-star reviews is based on format (they wanted a hardback.) So 65 of 68 rate it four star or above -- pretty high praise.  I also checked Goodreads, a social networking site for booklovers. Ballet Shoes has a rating of 4.03 (out of 5), with 2,207 ratings and 310 reviews. Admittedly Goodreads is a site for bibliophiles and I do think that Ballet Shoes is a book for book lovers. All the same, combined rankings of above 4 out of 5 stars indicate a certain degree of popularity and fondness. Noel Streatfeild even has a discussion board called "The Fossil Cupboard."  You do have to register, but once there you can read postings from a variety of fans. Best of all, in "Doctor Jakes Library" you can find rare short stories, including "What Happened to Pauline, Petrova and Posy."

Regardless of how popular Ballet Shoes is in the United States, it is much more so in England.  A New York Times writer, Roslyn Sulcas, in reviewing the 2008 BBC film version, noted that, “In Britain it has remained a standard of children’s literature in the same way that “Charlotte’s Web” is in the United States.” Sulcas goes on to say that Ballet Shoes remains astonishingly fresh more than 70 years after its publication.” (Sulcas, 9/1/08) Reviewing the film at the time of its release in England, children's author Jacqueline Wilson recalls "I had a little green Puffin paperback edition of Ballet Shoes when I was a child. I read it until it fell apart. I still know whole passages by heart. I felt as close to the three Fossil girls as if they were my own sisters." (Wilson, 12/7/07).

Ballet Shoes is a book that resonates with readers. Something about this book which paved the way for a new type of novel also set a standard which has seldom been equalled. For some it is the details, the setting, the family, the glamour of the stage, the dreams . . . but it is a combination of all these elements interwoven quite skillfully that makes up the total package that is Ballet Shoes. Perhaps it is the question the author poses for the reader at the end when Petrova wonders, "if other girls had to be one of us, which of us they'd choose to be?" (294) This invitation to reflect, to dwell, to put oneself in one of their places is a delightful way to end.


"Ballet Shoes." 2010. Web. 1 Dec. 2010. <>.

"Ballet Shoes." Goodreads. 2010. Web. 20 Nov. 2010. <>

"Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild." Iris on Books. 21 July 2010. Web. 25 Sept. 2010. <>

Bird, Elizabeth. "Top 100 Children's Novels (# 65-61)." A Fuse #8 Production. School LIbrary Journal. 16 Feb. 2010. Web. 24 Sept. 2010.

The Fossil Cupboard (Internet Bulletin Board) 2010. Web. 27 Sept. 2010.

Hart, Rhiannon. "Reading for Comfort: Ballet Shoes." Rhiannon Hart blog.5 Feb 2010. Web. 27 Sept. 2010.

Huse, Nancy. Noel Streatfeild. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994. Print.

McDonnell, Christine. “A Second Look: Ballet Shoes.” The Horn Book Magazine. April 1978: 191-3. Print.

"Noel Streatfeild (1895-1986)." Children’s Literature Review. Ed. Gerard J. Senick. Vol. 17. Detroit: Gale Research, 1989:169-200. Literature Criticism Online. Web. 5 Nov. 2010.

 “Noel Streatfeild.” Major Authors and Illustrators  for Children  and Young Adults, Second Edition. Vol. 7. Detroit: Thomson/Gale, 2002. 4473-4479. Print.

O'Malley, Shelia. "The Books: Ballet Shoes (Noel Streatfeild)." The Sheila Variations. 10 July 2006. Web. 24 Oct. 2010. <>

Streatfeild, Noel. Beyond the Vicarage. New York: Franklin Watts, 1972. Print.

Sulcas, Roslyn. “Lessons in Dance and Life, On Paper and Screen.” The New York Times. 1 Sept. 2008. <>

Wilson, Jacqueline. "Christmas TV: Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes." The Telegraph.  7 Dec. 2007. Web. 27 Sept. 2010.<>