Tennis Shoes (by Noel Streatfeild)

I have, slowly, been re-reading my Noel Streatfeild books over the past few years. She was quite a prolific author of children’s character-based novels, and I first discovered her as a child. Many of her books have been re-printed over the years, and I’ve acquired a fairly extensive collection.

One of the books which I only discovered in the past twenty years or so is ‘Tennis Shoes’. It was originally published in 1937, and is set in that era; my edition was reprinted in 1970 with a photograph on the front cover of someone playing tennis. I read it in 2006, I think for the first time, and had entirely forgotten what happened in the book when I picked it up to re-read a few days ago.

The Heath family are one of those oddities of the 1930s: an impoverished upper middle class family where they struggle to make ends meet - yet employ both a cook and a housekeeper/governess, and send their older children to private schools. Susan and Jim are twins, the oldest children in the family, aged nine when the story begins. Nicky is nearly seven, and David is four. They’re all red-headed, in different shades - which makes it mildly irritating that the photo on the front of this edition of the book shows a girl with mousy blonde hair.

Noel Streatfeild’s families often have supremely gifted children, usually dancers. In this story, however, the only person with a hint of a special talent is David, who has an extremely nice singing voice. However that’s not the subject of the book. Instead, as the title makes clear, it’s about tennis. The children’s grandfather used to be an excellent player, and decides that they should learn. He teaches them a little, and then their father organises a large board in the back garden for practising.

Grandfather buys them a money-box in which he makes generous donations, and the children do what they can to save odd pennies out of their pocket money… and gradually start taking tennis more seriously. Susan is quite shy and doesn’t like playing before an audience, although she gradually learns to deal with it. Jim is quite good, but prefers swimming. Nicky could be good, but doesn’t like to work hard at anything… and David is more interested in his toy farm, and his singing.

It’s primarily a character-based book, as with everything I’ve read by Noel Streatfeild, and that’s where the charm and lasting value of her stories lies. Her children are perhaps a tad caricatured - I could see Anne of the ‘Gemma’ stories in Susan, and Lydia, of the same books, in Nicky. But it doesn’t matter; the storyline and interactions are different.

The importance of good manners and kindness is shown, as well as the necessity of hard work. The parents, mostly relaxed and willing to discuss everything with their children, are keen to exert discipline in a way that ‘fits the crime’ when necessary.

Inevitably the settings feel dated, with a pleasant sense of safety as children make their own way to places, and mostly entertain themselves. The family read books, and play lots of board games together as well as focusing on tennis, but they’re far from perfect: Susan and Nicky, in particular, seem to rub each other up the wrong way.

I would recommend this to adults who like a bit of nostalgia, or children over the age of about seven or eight who are interested in tennis. Well worth acquiring by anyone who enjoys Noel Streatfeild’s books.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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