Tennis Shoes (by Noel Streatfeild)

I don't think I had read 'Tennis Shoes' previously; I'm not even sure where we got it. But Noel Streatfeild is always good for a light read. Her books are intended for children, mainly girls, of around 8 and older but are well enough written that they can be enjoyed by people of any age, and I re-read most of my copies frequently.

This particular story focuses on the Heath family of four children. They learn to play tennis, since their father used to be rather good before having a leg injury, and their grandfather helps to pay for tennis racquets, and eventually coaching. One of them turns out to be particularly good, but they all learn and enjoy the game in different ways.

What makes this book particularly enjoyable is the characterisation. The twins, Jim and Susan, are the oldest (nine when the book starts) and generally responsible and generous. Jim is very boyish, keen on swimming and cricket, and Susan is rather nervous, determined to do well for her school 'house'. She's good at arithmetic, too. Then comes Nicky, who's outgoing and a little arrogant, determined to make an impact on the world but hoping to do so without any hard work. The youngest is David, a delightful chap who is four when the story opens, and likes using long words. He too is confident, and has a surprisingly good voice for singing, but somehow he is nowhere near as obnoxious as Nicky.

It's written in the era before World War II, when middle class boys in the UK were sent to boarding school, and girls either had a governess or went to a private day school. The family are not rich - they struggle, at times, to find the funds for playing tennis and entering tournaments - but there's no mention of state schooling. Moreover, it's taken for granted that even a fairly impoverished family would have a cook-housekeeper and general companion helper who were part of the family. Annie, the cook, provides a delightful extra character since she was originally a trapeze artiste with a circus.

So it's a nice piece of social history in a low-key way, which somehow doesn't seem seriously dated, since the children are so real - if a little caricatured. The parents are pleasant, if a little strict at times, and the country is a safe place for children to walk by themselves at quite young ages.

All in all, an enjoyable book for a quiet evening. Still in print in the UK; available second-hand in both UK and USA.

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