04 November 2007

Not About Daredeviltry

A delightful editorial in today's New York Times questions the true purpose of The Dangerous Book for Boys and The Daring Book for Girls. It says:

Here are some excerpts. Try these, girls, if you dare:

Page 57: “Putting Your Hair Up With a Pencil.”

Page 82: “The Daring Girls Guide to Danger.” (“5. Wear high heels.” “7. Try sushi or another exotic food.”)

Page 47: “Throwing the Ball.” (“Start with the ball in your right hand, stretching your arm straight out behind you. Standing with your feet apart, one forward and one slightly back, point your forward foot — or, the foot on the side of your glove hand — in the direction the ball will go ...”)

Hmmm. Maybe the “Dangerous” boys’ version is more adventuresome:

Page 98: “Making a Paper Hat.”

Page 180: “Wrapping a Package in Brown Paper and String.”

Guess not.

Having read both books, we can assure you that very, very little in them is remotely dangerous or daring, and that anything on the borderline, like shooting bunnies (“Dangerous,” Page 238) or climbing trees (“Daring,” Page 158), is covered by a very strict NOTE TO PARENTS: “All of these activities should be carried out under adult supervision only.”

We’re not sure if that applies to Page 171 of “Dangerous”: “Skipping Stones.”

These books are so clearly not about daredeviltry.

They are about ineptitude. They seem to perfectly capture a fear, floating in the culture, that a generation of preoccupied parents has been raising a generation of children full of sophisticated knowledge that is useless when the power goes out or the batteries die.
Ironically, the Style section of the same newspaper on the same day includes a review of The Daring Book for Girls which concludes: "It’s something you’d be glad to have on hand, in a house full of daughters, if the power ever goes out."


Anonymous said...

Now, I was thinking that if you had daughters, and the book, and the power went out, the daughters (being knowledgable and daring) would know how to start a fire with a twirled stick or with a magnifying glass, and then use the book pages for tinder in order to ignite the table legs and make a roaring fire that would keep everyone warm. But maybe that's not what the reviewer meant. (I come from a long-ago era of girlhood.)

J. L. Bell said...

Obviously someone here has been a Girl Scout camp counselor.

Anonymous said...

Did you, like me, grow up on The American Boy's Handybook.

My understanding is that that book, which was written over 100 years ago, was written because the author thought the kids of his day were missing out on the true adventures of some previous generation.

Similar to the "lost art of letter writing" which according to Elizabeth Gaskell was already lost by the 1890s when she wrote My Lady Ludlow.

J. L. Bell said...

Yep, my family had a copy that was several decades old, and I've since bought a paperback reprint.

The easy availability of that book left me puzzled about the appeal of The Daredevil Book. If parents wanted a retro-looking package of small manly projects, it had been on the market for years!

david elzey said...

My take on this is, first, the titles are meant to evoke a response in readers to make them feel as if they are part of something more subversive, something that might upset their parents.

Second, there are various degrees of boy things and girl things in the world and any book aimed at gender needs to play to both sides and the full spectrum within those sides. So you're going to have girly things and not-so-girly things in the girls books.

Third, kids are hungry for these things which have -- through neglect, design or simply time management -- fallen away from the time honored tradition of being handed down.

I learned to build a fire with flint and steel as a boy scout but I learned chess from a kid down the block (my parents didn't know how to play, we never owned a set) and a neighbor kid taught me how to skip stones. If I were a boy today, raised and weened on video games an the Internet, it isn't likely I'd have learned these things through interaction but from a book like this. It's a sad commentary on the state of things, but I'd rather it come from a book than not at all.

As for the American Handybooks for boys and girls... c'mon, those things needed updating. The girl's version is particularly bland. Remember the audience it's supposed to appeal to...

J. L. Bell said...

The packaging of these two books, with the antique type design on the cover, makes me think that their primary intended market is not kids.

Only a very unusual ten-year-old would recognize and be attracted by that style. (Of course, I was that type of ten-year-old, but I didn't meet a lot of other kids my age in antiquarian bookstores.)

Adults, particularly parents, grandparents, and dangerous uncles, would see that "Dangerous" cover and "get" it. So I think they're the intended audience.

That's not to say the interior material and the slightly subversive aspect of the book wouldn't appeal to kids. But they'd probably enjoy the same things in a very modern, slam-bang package without the word "dangerous" or "daring" on the front.