When asked if he would ever write a children’s book, says Nikhil Krishan in UnHerd, the late Martin Amis replied: “If I had a serious brain injury.” It’s part of the crusty idea that reading kids’ books is somehow lazy, because they lack the complex characters of Hamlet or Anna Karenina. It’s a snobbish misapprehension. I recently picked up I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, who’s best known for The Hundred and One Dalmatians. It’s about a 17-year-old aspiring novelist, Cassandra Mortmain, and re-reading it with my adult sensibilities revealed just as much important social commentary as any supposedly sophisticated adult novel.
There’s a sense of class consciousness baked into the book: young Stephen, the maid’s son and “general dogsbody”, is more economically productive than any of the central characters. When he’s told not to “presume” he can play with “Miss” Cassandra, any “adequately empathetic” child will feel sorry for him – but it takes a grown-up to be “indignant on his behalf”. Then there’s Cassandra’s “moral seriousness”, which alerts us to the “paralysing self-consciousness” of being a teenager, and how society “demands more maturity of girls than of boys”. The novel is full of “clever, self-conscious whimsy”, and acknowledges that feelings of fear, love and failure are shared by young and old alike. In a world of adult responsibilities, it’s refreshing to be reminded “just how much grown-ups have in common with the child they once were”.