Thursday, June 21, 2007

Danger? What danger?

So I was reading this blogpost from the Instapundit Glenn Reynolds's "lovely and talented co-host," his wife Helen Smith, and I supposed I'd better weigh in, since I bought the book in question last week. It's The Dangerous Book for Boys, and Dr. Helen's post did two things for me: first, it noted the upcoming publication of The Daring Book for Girls, a companion book of sorts; and second, it made me roll my eyes at the willingness of some folks to see sexism behind every door and under every throw rug. (Not Dr. Helen - Cathy Young, on whose post Dr. Helen was commenting.)

I have children of both genders, so I'm thrilled that the wonderful Dangerous book has a possible Daring commadre. Because I loved Dangerous. I haven't finished reading it yet - but man alive, just its table of contents sold me. Seven poems every boy should know! Spies - codes and ciphers! Making a paper hat, boat, and water bomb! First aid! Extraordinary stories - part one: Scott and the Antarctic! Coin tricks! Tanning a skin! Grinding an Italian nib! (Hang on, I want to check that one out right now.)

Okay, grinding an Italian nib is a little... arcane. And it's not the only thing contained herein that a whole lot of boys (and girls, and men and women) might not find all that interesting. (I myself found that particular bit very interesting indeed; I'm just not willing to try it with any of my good pens! I thought it'd be about actually making a quill pen, which I've always wanted to try. Not as if there's a dearth of goosefeathers around my house...) But the overall flavor of the book, both at the table-of-contents level and at the level of the actual articles and essays, is delicious. And dangerous in only one sense:

This book is about concepts, skills, even values, that are on the verge of passing into history, a place I don't believe they belong, because too many people disagree with me. I think I've written on heroism once or twice; today's heroes must be antiheroes, or minimally have Size 13 EEE feet of clay, or their stories aren't told. Scott's Antarctic expedition failed, it's true, both in its goal to be first to the Pole and for its members to return alive - but the attempt was great, and kids should know the story undistracted by petty details. There is plenty of time to learn whether Scott and Oates squabbled on the way south, or whether Shackleton was a dilletante, or whatever (I made up both of those irrelevancies); but the value of the story is in the determination of the men to overcome hardship, to win one of the original great races, to return triumphant, and failing that, at least to die well.

I think every kid should make invisible ink. I think every kid should be familiar with the biggies of Shakespeare. I think every kid should know what a mackeral sky means (that a warm front is coming - rain in a couple of days, if the clouds have enough moisture in them). I don't think calling a book The Dangerous Book for Boys is either sexist or a significant barrier to any girl; I think (boys and girls being what they are, society today being what it is) a book called The Daring Book for Girls is less likely to be seen in a boy's hands than the other way around, because, for instance, girls can wear skirts or pants, but a man in a kilt still attracts attention in today's United States, however unfairly. I'm looking forward to Daring, and I plan to photocopy good parts for my boys if need be.

Basically it comes down to this: I want my kids, all of them, to be brave, virtuous, resourceful, polite, and determined, among other things. If Dangerous and Daring help, even a little, to counteract the effects of The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, then they have a place in our library. (Like all the Harry Potter books, which celebrate the virtues I'm trying to teach.)

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