Forgotten Gems: The Bell Family Series
This is the second post in my new blog series about largely forgotten (often out-of-print) children’s novels that definitely deserve to be rediscovered!
Today’s series is the Bell Family series by Noel Streatfeild, which I have read and loved since childhood. The name Noel Streatfeild might be familiar to fellow children’s book aficionados, but it seems that a lot of Streatfeild fans tend to stick with her most popular novels (Ballet Shoes or Skating Shoes) without venturing into some of her less-familiar works. Don’t get me wrong—I love all of those too, but I’m glad I found her other books, as they’re some of my favorite novels ever.
My introduction to the Bell Family series came via a 1980s U.S. paperback—titled Family Shoes—which I purchased as a nine-year-old and subsequently read and reread until it fell to tatters. Same goes for its sequel, New Shoes, which I discovered a few years later. Already an ardent fan of Ballet Shoes and the Gemma series, I was enchanted by Streatfeild’s story of the everyday delights and dilemmas of a British family living in a vicarage in the rationed post-WWII days. Failed moneymaking schemes, wealthy (and snobbish) relations, and holidays-by-the-sea abound in these books, which are a far cry from the author’s more “stage-centric” books (such as Theater Shoes), while remaining quintessentially Streatfeild. Still, while these characters aren’t auditioning for the BBC and reciting Shakespeare left and right, eldest daughter Jane is a talented dancer and eventually auditions at Sadler’s Wells (or the Royal Ballet School, depending on which copy you’re reading).
I was thrilled to discover that Family Shoes was reprinted in 2014 by Random House Vintage Books in Great Britain under the title of The Bell Family. Could this possibly be the original British text, I wondered, as opposed to the U.S. edition I had devoured all my life? It was! No, there were no missing scenes—it hadn’t been abridged—but there were many amusing differences that only a longtime fan could spot. I had reread Family Shoes so often that I could even detect where a comma had been omitted, and it was lovely to see the story restored to its full British glory. Most of the deletions in the U.S. version occurred when exact amounts of money were mentioned.
Consider these paragraphs:
The Bell Family, original 1954 British edition:
“As the family finished counting they pushed the money across to Alex, who jotted down the figures and announced the grand total.
‘Four pounds, thirteen shillings, and tuppence three farthings. How much would you need, Cathy?’
Compared to Family Shoes, revised in the U.S. in 1982:
“As the children finished counting, they pushed the money over to Alex, who added it up and gave about a third of it to Cathy.”
You see why I prefer the British edition! All the flavor and seasoning is lost in the United States!
Unfortunately, I have never read the original edition of New Shoes (titled New Town in the UK), although I would love to. In my opinion, the second book is not as good as the first, but it’s still a sweet story—and in fact, it includes a more powerful climax and message than its predecessor. Originally written as a radio play, the books are essentially one long story divided into two volumes.
I highly recommend both novels to…
Fans of Little Women and The Railway Children (these are suggested at the end of my 2014 UK copy)
Anyone who loves the Mitchells, the Moffats, or the Melendys
Those who have enjoyed The Penderwicks, The Family from One End Street, Family Grandstand, etc…
Readers who long to live in London