Children’s Books: Still capturing the castle – and teenage readers – 65 years on

Dodie Smith’s classic ‘I Capture the Castle’ never loses its appeal

At home: Dodie Smith – who also wrote The Hundred and One Dalmatians – in 1934. Photograph: Sasha/Getty Images

At home: Dodie Smith – who also wrote The Hundred and One Dalmatians – in 1934. Photograph: Sasha/Getty Images


Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, first published 65 years ago, remains one of the most acute and entertaining fictional portrayals of young adulthood. It has now been reissued in an attractive hardback edition (Bodley Head, £12.99) that will provide today’s readers with the chance to meet Cassandra Mortmain, its 17-year-old narrator, and her gloriously eccentric, if impoverished, family.

It is difficult to resist a novel that begins with the sentence, “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink,” and continues with a succession of similarly quirky observations of sibling relationships, intimacies, rivalries and the pain and pleasure of first love. “I know all about the facts of life. And I don’t think much of them,” she informs us at one point.

Smith’s decision to use a diary format as her basic narrative device creates numerous opportunities for Cassandra to exhibit her perkiness, her understanding of irony, her perceptiveness and, it must be said, her occasional naivety. The prevailing tone is light-hearted, and there are interludes of high comedy. But in capturing the day-to-day existences of the Mortmains in the disintegrating Suffolk castle that is their home, Cassanda is also capable of sensing and recording the household’s more poignant moments.

The result is a novel totally convincing in its depiction of the mood swings of adolescence, one which in spite of a few small dated details is thoroughly up to date in its transmission of the teenage voice. No one reading the book’s concluding sentences will be in any doubt about this.

The teenage voice comes across convincingly also in Natasha Farrant’s After Iris: The Diaries of Bluebell Gadsby (Faber, £6.99) in which, again, the diary format is the medium for carrying the narrative. But, if only technologically, things have changed between the 1930s and the 1990s, and the prose entries in 13-year-old Bluebell’s diary are interspersed with the transcripts of short videos she has shot: verbal and visual are juxtaposed to telling effect, blending involvement in, and detachment from, what is going on.

In many respects Bluebell’s family is as unconventional as Cassandra’s, both their lifestyles being colourfully bohemian. But it is Bluebell’s twin sister, the Iris of the title, who makes the difference. She died three years previously, and the surviving members of the family are, in their different ways, still learning to cope and to accept. Add Joss, the boy next door, whose closeness gives rise to various romantic entanglements, and we have a novel that moves well beyond the usual self-absorption of the teenage diarist. A second volume is on the way in July next year.

From Bluebell’s strictly contemporary Notting Hill world we go back, in the actor Mackenzie Crook’s The Lost Journal of Benjamin Tooth (Faber, £9.99) to the rural England of the late 18th century.

The diarist here is, to begin with, 11 years of age, and we stay with him, through his selected journal entries, until he is in his early 20s. Benjamin, as he is quick to remind us, is “scientist, botanist, genius”, drawn particularly to exploring the wonders of the natural world surrounding the market town where, with his “horrible mother and ancient great-grandfather”, he is growing up.

A reader’s initial impressions of young Tooth are unlikely to be totally favourable. His confidence in the fame he early (and often) foresees for himself descends into self-regarding arrogance. But the book’s tongue-in-cheek humour – enhanced by Crook’s black-and-white caricature-style illustrations – makes its young hero appear in a more likeable light. When he eventually makes his great discovery we share his sense of excitement but at the same time understand the self-doubt when it finally sets in. His unrequited love for the beautifully named Izzy Butterford provides one of the book’s subsidiary delights.

Their engaging combination of snappy prose and comic-strip illustration has brought Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid books a worldwide readership. They may be very American in their idiom and in many of their cultural references, but they clearly, in their portrayal of their preteen characters, have a universal resonance. The eighth in the series, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Hard Luck (Puffin, £12.99), sees young “kid” Greg and his best friend, Rowley, forced into reviewing their friendship when the latter acquires a girlfriend, Abigail.

Numerous complications ensue, many of them extremely funny in both text and artwork. But Kinney’s greatest achievement is to reflect the way in which even the most trivial of childhood experiences can carry an intense emotional significance, especially when you are only 11 and prey to all sorts of insecurities.

With Christmas and a new generation of readers in mind many children’s publishers seize the opportunity to take a fresh look at some old favourites. Particularly welcome this year is the reappearance, in Oscar Wilde: Stories for Children (O’Brien Press, €14.99) of the unabridged texts of three of Wilde’s fairy tales – The Happy Prince, The Nightingale and the Rose and The Selfish Giant – and the decision to use, by way of illustrations, the early-20th- century artwork of Charles Robinson.

The art-nouveau style of his drawings, watercolours and border decorations, complemented by Emma Byrne’s book design, is an appropriate commentary on the themes and motifs of Wilde’s prose.

Robert Dunbar is a commentator on children’s books

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