Girls’ books: ballet and horses and boarding schools, oh my!


A good friend of mine here in the

U.K. has taken on an insanely demanding job working as a manager for

the National Health Service. She isn’t the type to complain — and

I think she does actually enjoy the work — but the stress and long hours

have had a notable effect on her leisure habits. When she watches TV,

she wants short, upbeat programs like Scrubs. When it comes to

online videos, she wants to watch hilariously cranky turtles

chasing cats
. And when

it comes to reading, she wants to slip back into the literary equivalent

of comfort food: girls’ books, and most particularly the girls’

books she read when she was growing up.

All this Anne-of-Green-Gablesing

has got me thinking about the girls’ books I used to read as a kid. Here are some of my favorite examples of the most popular genres.

1. The Ballet and Stage School


At the risk of having my queer card

taken away, I have to admit that I loved these books. I went on dreaming

that I was going to be a ballerina long after I’d given up actual

ballet lessons. And I still love watching ballet, musicals and

contemporary dance, even if I’ve reluctantly come to realize that,

truthfully, I find standing by the barre for hours and doing exercises

a little boring.

The British writer Noel Streatfeild,

author of Ballet Shoes, is, obviously, one of the queens of this

genre. As an early teen, though, the ballet books that I loved (and

that my father relentlessly teased me for loving) were Jean Estoril’s


If you’ve read this series — which

is eleven books long, and follows Drina Adams from her first ballet

lessons at age nine, to her triumphant debut as lead ballerina with a major

company, plus wedding at age 18 (which seems awfully young, in

retrospect, for such a major commitment) — you’ll know that she dances

everywhere: in Exile, in Paris, in Italy, in Madeira, in New York, in

Switzerland. Yes, these books are schlocky. But in their defense, the

author was obviously a well-traveled woman who loved the places she

was writing about — and she did give me a long-standing taste for

travel, even if not for ballet classes.

If all this talk of ballet gives you a rash, though, there are always what might be called the

anti-ballet-book ballet books: Jahnna N. Malcolm’s Bad News

series, about five girls who loathe the ballet classes they

are forced into, and who refer to their snobby, skinny, ballet-mad classmates

as “the Bunheads.”

2. The Horse Books

No doubt Freud would have something

to say about the popularity of “pony books” for girls, but whatever

he had to say, I doubt it would apply to me. I was never actually that

interested in horses in and of themselves — which is just as well, since

my parents couldn’t have afforded a pony if I’d wanted one. But

there were a few horse-themed books that I enjoyed. One was National

, which — besides being made into a film starring Elizabeth

— is actually a really good, genuinely literary novel, about

a strange, spacey girl called Velvet and her strong, silent mother

who once swam the English Channel.

The others were a series of nine

“Jill” books by Ruby Ferguson, about a girl called Jill and

her two ponies. I don’t know if these books have ever been published

in America, but if they have, they probably seem hilariously bizarre

to American readers. Mostly written in the 1950s, they are very old-fashioned

and English: full of vicars, village fetes, horsey upper class people,

and “oh, I say, Mildred” heartiness and emotional repression. But

they are intentionally funny as well as unintentionally so, and I loved


3. The Boarding School Books

If you want really old-fashioned

English emotional repression, look no further than Enid Blyton’s

Malory Towers
and St. Clare’s

books, all about the frightfully decent, sports-mad, strangely sexless

girls at a couple of English boarding schools in the 1940s.

According to Wikipedia, these books

have never really caught on in America — and I can’t honestly say

I’m surprised — but they are hugely famous in England. Since Wikipedia

also informs me that Malory Towers has become notorious for its

lesbian subtext — to the point of earning a mention on Sugar Rush

— it’s possible that I should go back and read them again.

Personally, though, I preferred the

endless number of Chalet School books by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer,

about the endless number of pupils at an international boarding school

in Austria in the first half of the 20th century. My memory of

these books has grown hazy with time, but I still remember something

about the pupils having to speak English on Monday, French on Tuesday,

and German on Wednesday. I also remember them doing lots of skiing,

and having a regularly scheduled break for for coffee and cakes, which

they Germanically referred to as “Kaffee und Kuchen.” All of which

still seems to me indescribably awesome.

The girls’ boarding school story

seems to be more of an English than an American genre. But there is

one American book I love: Susan Coolidge’s ridiculously

brilliant What Katy Did at School, first published in 1873 and

in print ever since. Besides the fact that I am still in love with Rose

Red, there are all the chapters on secret societies, not to mention

the one where Katy and Clover receive a Christmas box from home filled

with parcels of lovingly described food: jumbles and ginger snaps and

crullers and frosted plum cake. Speaking of which, I am now hungry.

4. The Orphan/Family Books

By “orphan/family,” I mean either books about

(often large) families that are already established, or books about

an orphan girl finding a family. Canada’s L. M. Montgomery

is, of course, pretty much queen of the latter category, with her

Anne of Green Gables
and Emily of New Moon books, all of

which I read avidly.

A good modern example about a girl

searching for a home is Cynthia Voigt’s 1981 story Homecoming,

which kicked off her Tillerman cycle, about tomboy Dicey trying to find

a place for her and her younger siblings to stay after their mother

abandons them.

In terms of books about established

families, I liked Sydney Taylor’s All of a Kind Family

series, about five sisters growing up in a Lower East Side tenement

in New York at the beginning of the 20th century.

Once again, food seems to play a

disproportionately large part in my recollection of these books. Isn’t

there a chapter in the first one full of smoked fish and frankfurters

and pickles and chickpeas, as the five girls accompany their mother

to market? Speaking of which, I am now hungrier.

Finally, of course, there was

Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby — whom Radar magazine

recently “outed”

as a childhood icon they were sure grew up into a lesbian — although

I have to say, young as I was, I don’t remember getting that from

the books. Note to Radar magazine: Sometimes a bowl cut is just

a bowl cut. My best female friend in school had a bowl cut, and she

grew up to be a raving heterosexual. I had (and still have) long hair,

and … well … look at me.

5. The Adventure/Pioneer Girl


Americans rule this category. In

England, we have the omnipresent Enid Blyton’s stories about the Famous

Five — one of whose members is the proto-transgender George — but their

adventures mostly consisted of highly improbable things like discovering

smuggled treasure. When it comes to pioneering in the U.K., well, you

can “pioneer” your way from one leafy village to another, I suppose,

but it’s not exactly going to be highly exciting. Americans, on the other hand,

have Laura Ingalls Wilder — whose youthful adventures, as I recollect

them, involve cyclone cellars, wheels of fire, plagues of locusts, malaria

and running with some wild ponies. Bring it on, Laura.

Are there genres or favorite books

of yours that I’ve left out? Let me know in the comments.

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