The black-hole of children’s literature

One of my (many) bad habits is that I’m not very good at putting myself to bed (actually, I’m excellent at getting into bed, I’m just very bad at turning the laptop/tv off, putting the phone away and letting myself fall asleep). I get easily caught up in things – writing blog posts, chatting or following gripping sporting events on the other side of the world. The last two nights have found me online past midnight and placing book orders after 1am – this, particularly on Thursday night, was not especially conducive to a good night’s sleep.

Why was I placing book orders at such a late hour? Well, after nearly eight years lurking in the shadows of my life, the black hole of children’s literature reappeared with a vengeance and sucked me into its vortex…

It began innocently, late on Thursday afternoon when a tweet popped up mentioning an article about Noel Streatfeild [yes, the i and the e are that way round] and Ballet Shoes. This prompted a quick trip to Amazon to hunt out the only adult work of hers that’s in print (and by adult, I obviously do not mean pornographic) as well as a few other juvenile titles we’d missed out on in childhood. As I added Saplings (the grown up book) to my basket, Amazon helpfully informed me of what people who bought that title also bought – and I let out a squeal that had to be quickly muted.

There, right in front of me, was a book whose title I knew well, but which had acquired mythical status when I was young. Maddy Alone is a sequel to one of our favourite theatrical themed books – The Swish of the Curtain (Pamela Brown). Our mother had been a fan when she was young and even owned the rest of the series, but, by the time we were reading it, only the original was in print. Amazon was helpfully informing me that not only had Maddy Alone been republished, but so had the next in the series and that the final instalments were imminent. In order to make it clear that I am not alone in my excitement, both my mum and sister have responded joyously to this news and there is now a waiting list to read them.

Thursday night’s Amazon binge was a combination of these books and a mission to complete my Streatfeild set. Of course, it couldn’t be as simple as just looking up titles and clicking ‘add to basket’. Oh no. What the black-hole also does to you (ok, me) is make certain things incredibly important – namely, edition styles and titles. I won’t go into the tediousness of my Chalet School rules, but it bothers me that half our Drina books are lovely colourful editions and the other half boring red spined ones – I’d love them to match and all be the former. [Writing that sentence has just revealed to me just how OCD I am about this, oh dear.]

In the case of Streatfeild, this complicates matters. The newer editions are nicer than many of the hideous 1970s/80s covers, but they bear the wrong titles – yes, the wrong titles. [Warning: rant approaching.]

When published in America, a terrible thing happened – the publishers decided that a significant group of her books were a series (they’re not, there are only vague connections, like the Fossils of Ballet Shoes appearing briefly in certain books) and that the only way in which Americans would realise they were a series was if their names were similar. Thus, every book Streatfeild wrote (with a few exceptions, like the ‘Gemma’ series and Thursday’s Child) has to have ‘shoes’ in the title.

The only ones to actually contain that word are Ballet ShoesBallet Shoes for Anna and Tennis Shoes (the latter being only her second children’s book, so it can be forgiven as a title). My favourite books – Apple Bough  (in which a family tour the world with their talented pianist son) and The Painted Garden (where a family move to California for 6 months) – became Travelling Shoes and Movie Shoes respectively, hugely unoriginal. Even shorter titles, like Party Frock and White Boots have the second word swapped for ‘shoes’, despite the fact that the frock of the former is the central element of the plot! How are you meant to distinguish Dancing Shoes (originally Wintle’s Wonders) from the other ballet books?

Thank goodness they left The Vicarage Family (another favourite, being semi-autobiographical and telling the tale of Noel’s childhood as the plain daughter of an impoverished Vicar) alone, because the concept of ‘Vicarage Shoes’ is quite honestly a ridiculous one. (Though I suspect such shoes would be very sensible house slippers, what with such places being known as fridges.)

So basically, I was on the hunt for the originally titled books, but with nice covers – harder than you’d think. Into the Amazon order went a new copy of Dancing Shoes, because you cannot find it under the original title (easily), but the others were potentially doable. Night two of late night book buying therefore consisted of the conclusion of some time spent trawling second hand children’s book dealers to find them. I’ve had to accept a naff cover on Curtain Up rather than owning a new (nice) copy of Theatre Shoes (and it was only 50p – bargain), but in total, acquired five more Streatfeilds for my collection as well as duplicates of a couple of favourites that are in danger of falling apart. (And yes, at this moment the thought in my head was “when I read this with my daughters…”)

Can you see what I mean about the covers? 

It was this trawling that led me deeper into the vortex. Back in the early years of this millennia, I haunted these websites semi-obsessively in order to complete my Chalet School collection (I was finishing a degree or working in a bookshop – what else did I have to do with my time?) and returning to them could have opened a Pandora’s Box. Hurriedly, I scrolled past lists of hardback Chalet Schools (although I have all 62 paperbacks, I long for all 58 hardbacks – yes, I’m special). On one site, a title stood out – Fifth Form Friendships at Trebizon – and for a second I thought I might be about to complete my Trebizon collection. My heart beat faster and then I looked it up and realised I already owned it and that my missing book was in fact Fifth Year Triumphs, a subtlety different title as I’m sure you’ll agree. [You may not have realised, but a significant element of my OCD is a need to complete collections.] But in the case of Trebizon, completion will have to wait just a while longer.

I’m happy to report that I’m now holding my own in the vortex. No time has been spent hunting for books today (good job too, having spent over £30 in the last two days) and I resisted any new purchases while staying warm in Foyles this afternoon – though I should share that I spotted a gorgeous new hardback edition of Ballet Shoes (with a red ribbon round its centre, how cute!) that even contains the original illustrations, beautiful. There are a couple more Streatfeilds I’m on the look out for, but I may contain myself at least until I’ve read some of what is currently en route. In the mean time, if anyone hears of a support group for people who suffer from such a condition, do let me know.

Comments

  1. I love Noel Streatfeild too! The last year or so my sister has been on a hunt to complete our collection and was successful in acquiring some new titles, including some by Susan Scarlett (Streatfeild’s pen name). I can’t remember if I’ve read The Swish of the Curtain but now I think I better look it up.

  2. ‘White Boots’ to ’White Shoes’ doesn’t make sense. I’m old now and forgetful but isn’t White Boots the skating story? Who skates in shoes?

    It intrigues me how many covers are designed by people who have quite obviously never read the books. When I was about ten or 12 I bought myself a secondhand copy of Jane Eyre with a cover depicting a very glamorous young woman with a chic 60s streaked, half-bouffant, half-down hairstyle and far too much eyeliner. My poor mother grabbed it shrieking incomprehensibly thinking I had bought a trashy romance and even after she realised it was Jane Eyre I still wasn’t allowed to read it until she had made a paper cover from gift-wrap to conceal the offending illustration!

  3. Yes – White Boots is the skating one & White Shoes makes no sense at all! Love the idea of enforced, home made dust jackets too.

    Laura – I’ve found a company in Edinburgh that’s republishing the Scarlett books, called Greyladies (I think – will check!) but they post internationally too.

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