There are to be dancing classes held on the Isle of Struay. The girls choose ballet, and the big boy cousins tap, but Katie Morag isn’t really convinced by either. She finds all manner of reasons to be late to ballet, until one day she misses the class completely and unexpectedly discovers that dancing is not all bad after all.
I confess that I hadn’t read any of these stories until seeing the (excellent) BBC adaptation. Mairi Hedderwick is a long-established writer of both adults’ and children’s books, and Katie Morag, whose fictional home of Struay is based on the real island of Coll in the Scottish Hebrides, was first created in 1984, yet it wasn’t until watching the programme with the girls that we looked into the books. They are delightful stories, beautifully illustrated, and very popular with the children who listen to them. Of particular significance to me is their old-fashioned, gender-neutral, play-based vision of childhood.
In the Dancing Class, Katie Morag is extremely reluctant to go. Her ever-practical maternal grandmother, Grannie Island, is certain it will be good for her co-ordination. Her other grandmother, Grandma Mainland, is just excited at the prospect of Katie Morag in a frilly skirt. Katie Morag is not excited about the frilly skirt. Nor about ballet. She goes, but goes later and later every day until one day she misses it, and ends up in her cousins’ tap class. After dancing in her wellies she gets a taste for it, and ends up performing in the tap routine in the show, completely with tapping welly boots cobbled together by Grannie Island.
The writing is excellent; fluent, detailed and readable. But more than that the characters are well-drawn, and well-rounded. The contrasting approaches of the two grandmothers, one of whom knows Katie Morag better than the other; Katie Morag’s dislike of ballet and dance in general which softens during the story, and her loitering with intent on the beach in the morning are all very well-observed. Significantly too this is a book about a girl whose gender is not her defining characteristic. Katie Morag wears a skirt, but always the same neutral jumper and the same black wellies. She rejects both the frilly skirt and the gender stereotype, avoiding the girls’ class and joining her male cousins. When she does so, however, she continues to wear her own wellies,made into tap boots by a resourceful Grannie Island. Throughout the stories Katie Morag’s attachment to her wellies is a source of tension between her and other characters, but she always sticks with them; here, their use as tap shoes shows her self-determining nature and the way she bends the class to her will rather than compromising herself for dancing.
“What are you like, Katie Morag?” said Hector.
“She’s like she is, she’s Katie Morag,” said Jamie.
However, this is no straightforward tomboy rejection of girly ballet. Watching Agnes, Fay and Sasha perform their ballet dance, Katie Morag gains a new respect for that too. That message, about giving things a chance rather than rejecting them outright, is a nice lesson to take from this book.
These are wonderful stories and this is a good example; the story is neither girly nor a rejection of all things girly, despite the female protagonist. It’s well-written, beautifully drawn and part of am impressive and worthy collection that will keep your little bookworm interested for many years.
A solid-gold classic.