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Favourite childhood books -The Drina Seriesby Jean Estoril

Drina-Series.jpg

I thought it would be fun to start a series of posts on my favourite books as I was growing up. I’ve found that so many of the books that I read in my youth have stuck with me in some way, influencing particular aspects of the way I think and view the world. I still revisit many of these old favourites, seeking comfort in their familiarity and, I suppose, their association with a simpler era of my life.

I’m starting my trip down memory lane with the Drina series by Jean Estoril.

Did these books plant the seed of my life-long fascination with ballet? Or were they given to me because that little green plant was already growing? Probably a little of both, I guess. I think I was gifted the first two Drina books by my aunt, when I was about ten years old. They are the only ones in my set that are in hardcover. I suppose I wasn’t able to find the rest of the series in matching covers, or perhaps whatever monies my child self was able to scrape together for book purchases weren’t sufficient to splurge on hard covers. It’s a pity, not because they don’t match, but because some of the paperbacks have not held up well under the amount of re-reads they’ve had to endure over the years. 

These editions of the Drina books are a lovely pastel rainbow, with most of the covers featuring, as you’d expect, an illustration of Drina in some sort of ballet pose. There are a couple where she isn’t actually dancing, but as she’s wearing some lovely costumes, I suppose we can forgive her. I can’t remember how long it took me to gather together the entire series, but I do remember saving up birthday and Christmas money so that I could take it into the bookstore to make my special order as the bookstores didn’t seem particularly interested in stocking them.

The first book in this series establishes the protagonist, a girl named Drina, who feels a connection to ballet as she is growing up, before she even knows what ballet is. Once introduced to the art form through a school friend, she realises that this is the thing that she needs to do in her life. Inexplicably, her grandmother (who is her guardian) strongly disapproves and only begrudgingly allows her to take lessons. Without spoiling any exact revelations, I think it’s safe to say that everything turns out fine – it’s that kind of series. The rest of the books follow Drina through her years at a full-time ballet school (a fictional school and ballet company that are meant to be contemporaries of the Royal Ballet) and her hopes and struggles as she moves closer to her goal of becoming a professional dancer.

Re-reading this book as an adult is of course a very different experience to when I read them as child.  Somehow, back then, I didn’t register how privileged and spoiled Drina was – I just accepted the story as it was given. Looking at them now though, some of the struggles in Drina’s life include:

  • Moving from a small town in Warwickshire to London and being enrolled in a posh private school instead of a ballet school

  • Being placed in the residential campus of her ballet school, in the countryside, while her grandparents take a business trip (i.e. Basically it’s a posh boarding school with ballet classes)

  • Meeting her other grandmother, which involves travelling to Italy

  • Pulling a muscle and not being able to dance for a month, but using the time to act in a West End play

  • Having to cancel a holiday to Germany to go on a cruise to Madeira instead

  • Being sent to a (posh) Swiss boarding school for a few months, with weekends spent with her grandparents at their rented chalet

Now I understand that in the context of being trained as an elite athlete (being a ballet dancer is both that and being trained as an artist), having months off can be disruptive, but there is still *so much* of these types of “first world problems” in these books that it really stands out to me in a way that it didn’t when I was a child. But to be fair, the point of these books is not to be a realistic portrayal of an ordinary person’s struggle towards becoming a dancer: financial stress, self-doubt, the actual possibility of not being good enough to do the thing that you really want to do. It’s part of the escapist fantasy that these books are about an attractive, rich girl who gets to wear nice clothes and travel to far away places and stay in fancy hotels, oh and! she’s uber talented, it’s just in her blood.

This all sounds like a criticism and I suppose it is, but I can’t convey to you how much I enjoyed these books when I was growing up. The Drina books introduced me to the names and stories of ballets that I couldn’t even hope to have a chance of seeing performed. They instilled in me the desire to travel, to experience new places. They introduced me to London, Paris, Milan, Genoa, New York, Lugano, Madeira. They contributed to my notions of romance involving a good portion of chaste longing. Most of all, they introduced me to the idea of an art form as a vocation.