It's children's books day today with the Somervillain ... another one I've been thinking about recently is "Ballet Shoes," by Noel Streatfeild. This one is set in 1930s London and follows the fortunes of three foundling girls, the Fossil sisters, as they make their way in the world.
As with Betsy, Tacy, and Tib, all three major hair colors are represented. Pauline, the eldest, is platinum tressed, a gifted young actress, and was rescued as an infant from a shipwreck that sounds suspiciously like that of the Titanic (icebergs were involved). Brunette Petrova likes cars and airplanes, and only puts up with the family stage-training scheme to help out with household expenses. Littlest Posy, a ballet prodigy, has red curls and is, frankly, a bit of a brat, no matter how much the authorial voice tries to tell us we can't really hold it against her because that's just Posy. Sorry, Posy, hold it against you I do.
It's a strange story, with endless descriptions of the clothing the girls wear for dancing (lots of velvet and muslin, satin rompers, and something called tarlatan), along with highly detailed agendas of their daily activities -- in addition to dance lessons, there are morning lessons in the nursery, a brisk walk to the Victoria & Albert and back (all nicely brought-up children must have a daily walk, Nana says), and, of course, tea.
Finding the money to pay for things is a major theme, and all expenses are parsed in terms of complex combinations of shillings and pence, quite baffling to the non-British, contemporary mind.
None of this sounds particularly compelling, and yet when I recently reread the book, I found I couldn't put the darn thing down.
Part of its appeal has to do with its honesty about the heartless competition in the show business world, and the importance it puts on appearance. Petrova frets she won't get a part because of an unfortunate sty that's appeared on her eye ("Don't look at her sty more than you can help," Pauline urges the director), and at one point the sisters come to the aid of the hapless Winifred, the best student at their school, but so poor and overburdened at home that she keeps showing up late to auditions in a rumpled mess. Unlike the Fossils, Winifred doesn't have magic-seamstress Nana, who just happens to know where to buy good material for cheap, and manages to whip up new outfits for her girls in a single evening.
The story doesn't shy away from taking its protagonists down a peg, either. Pauline gets a big head when she stars as Alice in Wonderland in a professional theater production ("Pauline Learns a Lesson"), with consequences humbling enough to make a reader cringe. Lucky for her, Nana is there with solace ... in the form of a big bowl of bread and milk. Apparently, this is a great treat.
Next week -- on Boxing Day -- lucky Britain gets to enjoy a new television adaptation of the story, featuring Emma Watson as Pauline, in her first role since that of Hermione Granger. (Some devotees of the book are annoyed by the less-than-platinum tone of Watson's hair, as though that were the most important thing about the portrayal of the character. As I've said, hair color is very important in stories for girls.)
Watch the trailer and it becomes clear the production is basically a costume drama gateway drug for young girls. They'll never be able to just say no to "Pride and Prejudice" now. As for me, it's already far too late -- all I can do is hope I don't have to wait too long for "Ballet Shoes: The Miniseries" to make it stateside.