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Noel Streatfeild covers revisited

Updated: Apr 11, 2021

I came back to these Noel Streatfeild covers I was playing around with a couple of years ago, where I used found imagery as illustration. My idea is that Streatfeild could probably do with a set of covers out there that have a touch of esteem and sophistication about them, while also making sure that any moves in that direction don't leave the books looking embarrassed of themselves.

Ballet Shoes, the most famous of Streatfeild's novels, has had almost nothing but covers depicting little ballerinas. That's both redundant and not very reflective of the book. I thought this old children's-clothing catalogue page neatly reflected some wider themes and the tone of the book.

The Circus is Coming meanwhile isn't one of Streatfeild's best-remembered. It's currently in-print but only under the title Circus Shoes, more on which nonsense in a moment. But actually, The Circus is Coming won the Carnegie and for my money really holds up. Stretfeild is capable of phoning it in and writing stock performing-arts-fairy-tales but at her best she's thoughtful and even deconstructive. Ballet Shoes has at its heart the sister who daydreams not of chassés but chassis and it focuses on the endless exhausting practicalities that go into feminised pursuits like stage school. The Circus is Coming has its young, sheltered protagonists discover that real life fails to treat them like storybook heroines. No one is charmed or impressed by them. They are not granted inherent strength of character by dint of good class backgrounds. It's a terrific book.

And then White Boots.

The image is of Irene Dare, a child skating star/actor from the 30s/40s (which was a thing that you could be in the 30s/40s because skating was huge at that time. I guess it was young stars like this who inspired Lalla Moore as a figure in the novel). I came across it here.

Coming back to titles, the most popular parts of Streatfeild's backlist started being reissued under new 'shoes' titles from the 80s, starting in the US I believe, seeking to signal their association with the popular Ballet Shoes. You'd think the decision would also have something to do with Streatfeild's second-most-well-known outing also being named after footwear: "Aha," thinks the canny marketing director, "I can make this two-book pattern A Thing". But maddeningly White Boots gets the rebrand too. Skating Shoes. I mean.

I hate this. Partly because it makes nonsense titles for most of them (Movie Shoes! Theatre Shoes! Travelling Shoes! These aren't things!) and also because it throws out some lovely original titles; the original titles of the above listed are The Painted Garden, Curtain Up and Apple Bough.

So implicit in this little design project is the idea of reclaiming Streatfeild as a notable, sophisticated children's author with several books worthy of 'classics'-type branding, and that involves reclaiming the original titles as well as looking at imagery.

It's a bit of a feminist challenge for me: getting the balance right between removing Streatfeild from the vacuous look of so many Ballet Shoes covers without trying to self-consciously distance her work from the pink/frilly/ringletted aesthetic which is certainly part of the world of books like Ballet Shoes and White Boots.

I like the found imagery for that. The vintage origins help impart greater weight upon simple imagery. I've noted before that children's books covers have only a very slight tolerance for irony (a tool which is so often used to impart classiness upon adult literature). But there is a little tolerance. I think for instance the imagery I've got for White Boots has a nice tension between the genuine fun and glamour of the image and having just enough strain in the smile and silliness to the pose to give the image a slight thoughtful depth. In the Circus cover I like the contrast between the bright smile of the performer and the moodiness of the horse.


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