For a few weeks, I couldn’t really get into anything that I was reading. October was an immensely stressful month for me (new job, bought a flat, unsuccessful attempt at a driving test, enjoyable but busy minibreak to Amsterdam), and I just couldn’t focus on anything. In the end, I turned to Ballet Twins* by Jean Estoril. First published in 1967, this children’s book tells the story of twin sisters Deborah and Doria Darke (Debbie and Dorrie). They come from a modest background in Birkenhead, but love to dance and dream of becoming professional ballerinas. Aged 13, their ballet teacher suggests that they audition for a prestigious ballet school in London, the Lingeraux Academy. There’s just one problem – the scholarship places are very limited. In fact, there’s only one left…

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This is one of the books that I remember most vividly from my childhood. I must have read it aged around seven or eight (I think that’s when I went through the ballet books phase – it was just after boarding school stories and right before the pony club stage), and almost everything else I loved from then has faded from my mind. Ballet Twins, though, I remembered well enough that I listed it in both my 2017 and 2019 lists of my favourite books ever). I have probably thought about this book a few times every year since I read it, even though it’s not one that I ever revisited. In the end, I tracked down a copy online, and I decided it was high time to see if it lived up to my memories.

The story is told from Dorrie’s perspective, and it is genuinely one of the best accounts I’ve ever read of a complicated sibling relationship. Not just one of the best children’s accounts, but one of the best overall. From Dorrie’s point of view, she is a good dancer; Debbie is exceptional. She does well in school; Debbie is top of the class. She is quiet and introverted with a couple of close friends; Debbie is loud and outgoing and beloved. Dorrie never much minds this – she and her sister aren’t especially close, but they get on well enough, and why should she mind being in her sister’s shadow? All of a sudden, though, when they find they are competing for a single audition space, the underlying tensions between them burst into flame. The fractures in their relationship heavily influence the rest of the story.

Even though this is aimed at younger children, I think that it perfectly captures the feeling of being 13. Dorrie is sometimes miserable but can’t articulate why; she dreads being looked at, and hates feeling overlooked; she can’t bear her sister, whose friendship she misses terribly. There is no awkward crush on someone deeply unsuitable, but otherwise it couldn’t be a more accurate depiction. Sometimes reading a book from this kind of perspective is infuriating. After all, I was already 13 once, and frankly I do not want to do it again. This book avoids that problem, because despite her flaws, Dorrie is an absolutely lovely point-of-view character. She sees incredibly beauty in the world around her, even when she’s miserable. She’s kind and considerate. Dorrie is trying to be both a better dancer and a better person – just in a believably limited, adolescent way.

It’s also a really thoughtful book. One of Dorrie’s friends, Peter, is a working class lad from Manchester who wants to be a ballet dancer. The book doesn’t suggest that there’s anything wrong with that at all, but it does hint in a few places that his family think it’s weird. In a few words, Estoril paints a picture of parents who are supportive but confused, without them even appearing on the page. Similarly, she explores the effect of class/money on Debbie and Dorrie as they try to break into an elitist and privileged profession. Right from the start of the story, that forms part of the fabric of their world – they take it in turns to use the towel rail in the bathroom as a barre for practice, but there isn’t a big mirror or very much room for exercises. The two girls deal with the class issue very differently, and I found that fascinating.

Lastly, there are a lot of vividly painted settings in the novel. I think that’s what stayed with me over all these years. The way Dorrie experiences and describes London when she and Debbie visit for their audition has informed the way I imagine it ever since I picked up the book, despite the fact that I am pretty familiar with the city and pass through it several times a year. While they are in London, the girls stay with their Aunt Eileen, who runs an old, rickety boarding house for students. This is delightful, as it gives them an opportunity to interact with a range of students from different backgrounds and countries. For two girls who have grown up in a fairly homogeneous community, meeting people from places ranging from the US to Jamaica to the Hebrides is extremely exciting. I really enjoyed reading Dorrie’s interactions with the students. These days, I don’t imagine a book narrated by a 13-year-old girl would involve quite so much friendship with adult men, but it really is innocent in the context of the story. They treat her like a little sister, trying to help her overcome her nerves and her insecurities about her twin.

I am so glad I reread this. It more than met my expectations. This isn’t a good book for children – it’s a good book, no caveats, just as in any other genre. The ending is a bit rushed, but otherwise I have nothing bad to say about it. And now I’m curious – which of your childhood favourites do you continue to reread? Are there any obscure titles tucked away on your shelves that you loved when you were eight, and can’t believe no-one else has ever heard of?

*Also published under the much better title We Danced in Bloomsbury Square.