The Painted Garden (by Noel Streatfeild)

I do like Noel Streatfeild’s books; she wrote primarily for girls of about 10-14, and I discovered her when I was about nine or ten; but she wrote what we now call ‘cross-over’ books that appeal to adults as well as children. I’ve collected most of her books, many of them second-hand, over the years, and re-read them regularly.

It’s over twelve years years since I last read ‘The Painted Garden’, which I believe is known as ‘Movie Shoes’ in an abridged version published in the United States. The story involves a typical Streatfeild family with three children: Rachel, who is twelve, is a promising ballet dancer who’s just been offered a place in a professional show; Jane, the grumpy middle child; Tim, aged eight, and a gifted pianist.

Their mother looks after the house and family, assisted by her highly organised friend known for some reason as Peaseblossom, and their father is a writer. However he has been ill and rather depressed and the doctor recommends six months away from the UK, somewhere sunny. He happens to have a sister in California, and an unexpected gift enables the entire family to travel there…

We meet the family around the crisis time, follow them on the boat, and get to know them quickly. Streatfeild had quite a gift of characterisation, and her children in particular always seem real to me. Jane in particular is an interesting child, who feels it unfair that she’s the plainest and least talented of the children, but she adores their dog… and is very unhappy when she realises that he won’t be able to join them.

Most of the story takes place in California, with some mildly amusing scenes as they try to adjust to American culture and language, and discover that children are expected to earn pocket money rather than being given it by parents. Rachel needs money to attend ballet classes, and Tim is rather disgusted that his aunt doesn’t have a piano. Jane meets a dog-owner, and is then offered a remarkable opportunity…

One of the things I particularly like about this book is a side story about Pauline and Posy Fossil, two of the sisters from Streatfield’s classic ‘Ballet Shoes’, who are now grown up and living in California. But I also enjoyed the children’s gradual changes in outlook and motivation, and the way they come to love their new environment and the people around them. There are, of course, plenty of caricatures amongst the minor characters, but I don’t see that as a problem; it enabled me to remember easily who was whom.

I very much enjoyed re-reading this, and would recommend it to anyone who likes children’s fiction of this kind. It helps to be familiar with the classic children’s book ‘The Secret Garden’ before reading this; I imagine that anyone who has not previously read it would want to do so immediately after finishing this one.

Recommended to fluent readers over the age of about nine or ten, or as a read-aloud for children who like this kind of story. Also recommended to adults who enjoyed Streatfeild books in their childhood. This isn't very often in print, but can sometimes be found inexpensively second-hand.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

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