03/08/2015

Gemma Alone (Gemma the Star) by Noel Streatfeild

Sometimes, after reading lengthy or draining fiction, I want to curl up for a couple of hours with one of my childhood favourites. High on the list of authors for such indulgence is Noel Streatfeild. She is best known for her much-loved classic ‘Ballet Shoes’, but my favourite Streatfeild books have always been the ‘Gemma’ series, revolving around the Robinson family and their cousin, the child film star, Gemma.

At the end of 2013 I re-read ‘Gemma’, first in the series; more recently I re-read ‘Gemma and Sisters’, which charts the rise of their family singing/dancing group. Unfortunately my books had been read so often that they were falling apart, but they seem to be re-published regularly, and it was easy to order replacements from a second-hand online bookshop. Alas, my replacement for the third book, ‘Gemma Alone’, was the garish 1999 edition (shown to the right) which doesn’t only have an ugly cover, but has changed the name to ‘Gemma the Star’.

The text seems to be unchanged, as far as I can remember, although the line drawings, which I remember with some fondness, have gone. This story involves Gemma starting to train at a local drama school, only to be offered a film role as ‘Rebecca of Sunnybrook farm’. Lydia, meanwhile, disobeys her ballet teacher and has to suffer the consequences in the name of learning some self-discipline, and Ann, the wonderful singer, has to let her parents know that she doesn’t want to go to music college, but to study at university.

There are pleasant interludes - the holiday where they stay in Devon with another family and make new friends; the descriptions of Gemma on the film set; another holiday, a year later, in a different location. The plot, such as it is, is minimal, but it doesn’t matter. Streatfeild shone in her characterisation, even when - as so often - her children are all remarkably talented in different ways.

Ann is not just a hard-working person who sings, she’s sensitive and self-conscious, and starts to be aware of growing up in this book. Gemma is no longer as selfish as she used to be, and learns a little more about feeling her way into other people’s shoes. Lydia, who is highly assured and rather arrogant, learns a hard lesson; Robin and his friend Nigs have the opportunity to enter a talent contest, although we don’t find out, in this book, how well they do.

I don’t really know why these books appealed to me so much as a child, but they still have a nostalgic, relaxing feel to them. The Robinson family are very close, with parents who work hard, yet take time to be with the children and listen to them. They take their concerns seriously, and want them to have opportunities without coercing them, and without pouring cold water on their ideas.

This book was originally published in 1969, so it feels dated in some ways; cars and televisions were still considered luxuries, computers non-existent. But family values don’t change, and it’s an enjoyable, relaxing read that harks back to simpler times.

I doubt if many of today’s teens would be interested in such a ‘tame’ family-orientated book, but it still appeals to children (primarily girls) of about eight or nine and older who read fluently, and of course their parents who grew up with these books.

'Gemma Alone' (or 'Gemma the Star') isn't currently in print, but is fairly widely available, inexpensively, at charity shops and second-hand bookshops online.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

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