For the third in my series on 'older' children's and YA books, I've chosen my all-time favourite.
Drina series by Jean Estoril (Pen name of Mabel Esther Allan)
Number of books: 11 (Starting with Ballet for Drina, 1957, finishing with Drina Ballerina, 1991)
Availability: Out of print, sadly. However the first five are easy enough to track down cheaply second-hand. Later books, which were reprinted less, can get expensive - two copies of the final volume, Drina Ballerina, went for £25 or so each on eBay recently.
The Premise: Drina desperately wants to be a ballet dancer, but her grandparents disapprove. Eventually, she persuades them to change their minds, and the series follows her and her friends through their time at the Dominick Ballet School.
Why I Really Like It: I've just reread these books - the third time, I think, that I've read them in order as a series (although I've read most of them several times more individually.) For me, they're as near to perfection as any series of books have ever been. I first read them when I was in primary school and my friend Donna was really into ballet. Her mum bought her all of these one by one - they were being reprinted at the time, by MacDonald and Co, in gorgeous editions. I think that I originally started reading them after she did, but between me being even more desperate to find out what happened next than she was and me being a quicker reader I'm fairly sure she was kind enough to let me borrow the last three or four before she'd read them.
Anyway, my reread finished in Red Lion Square - where Drina attends school for most of the series - after reading most of the last two books on the bus into London. It was a surprisingly emotional moment for me, and I have to be honest and say that I felt more of a high on reading it yet again than I've got from any of the many books I've read for the first time this year.
So what is it that make this such an incredible series? As with Jennings I'm sure nostalgia plays at least some part in it, but even trying to divorce myself from my childhood memories of them, I think they're still stunning. For a start, the portrayal of the adult characters - Drina's grandmother, who's loving but strict, her grandfather - often taking a back seat to his more forceful wife but able to fight Drina's corner when she needs it - and Mr Dominick and Marianne Volonaise, who run the Dominick Ballet Company - is far better than in most children's books, especially of this era.
Then there's the character development and long-running story arcs. Reading them all quite close together, it's fascinating to see how we get hints of upcoming storylines a few books in advance. I'm trying to be very non-specific on spoilers here, but it hopefully doesn't ruin anything to say that Queenie and Drina's rivalry, Terza Lorencz's flight from Lynzonia and career as both a dancer and an author, Drina's romance with Grant, Jenny Pilgrim's family's problems, and Drina's grandfather's health issues are all memorable plots which develop throughout most of the series. Similarly, the development of Drina's friendships, as she grows apart from people as well as making new friends, is wonderful. Drina herself is an exquisite main character, but so many others are also really well-written.
They also - along with the Sadler's Wells and Satin Slippers series - inspired the beginnings of a love for ballet in me. I've been to Sadler's Wells several times recently, seeing the Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and the wonderful charity gala headlined by the breathtaking Sergei Polunin. It's been a fabulous experience and it all started when I picked up the first of these books.
Best Books: All of them. If I was absolutely forced to choose, Drina's Dancing Year as it introduces most of the main characters, Drina Dances in New York as it introduces Grant (swoon!) and Drina Ballerina for being a wonderful ending.
Who It Will Appeal To: The obvious comparison is to another classic ballet series, Lorna Hill's Sadler's Wells books - if you liked them, you'll love these. I think fans of Lyn Gardner's really enjoyable Stage School series will like these as well.
Others By The Same Author: Nothing else as Estoril; well over 100 under her real name, and others as Priscilla Hagon and Anne Pilgrim. Wood Street and Pine Street series are perhaps the best known - I've read one of the Pine Street books and it was enjoyable enough, although I've never felt the need to track down the rest.