New Book Revives Lost Notions of Boyhood

Tuesday , July 04, 2006

By Wendy McElroy


Snakes and snails and puppy dog tails are what readers of a surprise bestseller are made of.

The Dangerous Book for Boys by the British brothers Conn and Hal Iggulden is a practical manual that returns boys to the wonder and almost lost world of tree houses and pirate flags. It celebrates the art of teaching an old mutt new tricks and accepts skinned knees as an acceptable risk for running through fields with the same dog yapping along.

As of July 3, The Dangerous Book is the number one seller on Amazon UK and it is holding steady at about 7,000 on Amazon in the U.S., where it was published on June 5. The Australian News reports that the book "has made it to the top five of…Amazon [Australia], after just a week."

Those results make publishers take notice. But social commentators are also reacting with both applause and condemnation.

Condemnation arises because The Dangerous Book breaks the dominant and politically correct stereotype for children's books. It presents boys as being deeply different than girls in terms of their interests and pursuits. Although it is highly probable that bookstores will sell the book to girls who then will go on to practice skimming stones, nevertheless the genders are separated within the book's pages.

The authors clearly believe that the majority of children interested in learning to build a catapult are boys. Girls are included only through a final chapter in which boys are admonished to treat them with respect.

In celebrating old-fashioned boyhood and providing a blueprint on how to reclaim it, The Dangerous Book is revolutionary. It discards decades of social engineering that approaches children as being psychologically gender neutral. The book implicitly rebukes school texts that strip out gender references. Instead, it says 'boys will be boys'; they always have been, they always will be, and that's a good thing.

Thus The Dangerous Book achieves social revolution without preaching or politics; it does so in the name of fun.

The sort of fun promoted has also raised eyebrows. In a society that is preoccupied with safety, The Dangerous Book promotes activities in which boys are likely to get scuffed. This is a book for tree-climbers who occasionally pause to decipher enemy code or erupt into wood-wielding pirate fights.

Why would the Iggulden brothers imperil children?

Clearly they do not think the rough-and-tumble of boyhood constitutes a health hazard. Perhaps they agree with parents who view over-protectiveness to be a greater danger, who wish to stir the imagination and muscles of their children instead.

But the brothers wish to achieve more than this. In a world where children are isolated behind computer screens and iPods, they wish to establish a niche for old-fashioned childhood.

The brothers state, "In this age of video games and mobile phones, there must still be a place for knots, tree-houses and stories of incredible courage." They advise children to "play sport of some kind. It doesn't matter what it is, as long as it replaces the corpse-like pallor of the computer programmer with a ruddy glow."

Their vision is not utopian or even impractical. For example, a tree house requires only a blueprint, some scrap lumber and a willing parent. The latter requirement turns The Dangerous Book into something more than a work for boys. It is also a guide for parents, especially for fathers who wish to establish an old-fashioned connection with their children.

Indeed, since parents purchase most children's books, it is reasonable to assume that the run-away success of The Dangerous Book is partly due to their longing for a better connection.

One father describes his experience with the book, "I gave it to my 11-year-old son Charles and his friend…Then I stood well back." Raised on The Lord of the Rings, "they immediately turned to the section of the book that showed them how to create their own Legolas-style archery kit, using bits of old branch no longer needed by the Ents. When they began stripping the bark off with a big, shiny, sharp-bladed Swiss Army knife, I had to dig down deep in order to ignore the parental risk-ometer readings that were going off the scale, accompanied by vivid flash-forwards of the inevitable long, bloodstained-bandaged hours ahead in casualty."

Happily, the only injury was to evildoers who lurked in the garden shrubbery.

These days, the news about boys is not happy and often contains the word 'crisis.' The Education Sector, a non-profit think tank, offers a typical description of the perceived 'crisis' within education.

"After decades spent worrying about how schools 'shortchange girls,' the eyes of the nation's education commentariat are now fixed on how they shortchange boys. In 2006 alone, a Newsweek cover story, a major New Republic article, a long article in Esquire, a 'Today' show segment, and numerous op-eds have informed the public that boys are falling behind girls in elementary and secondary school and are increasingly outnumbered on college campuses."

Society is awakening to the possibility that boys have been disadvantaged. In past decades, what it means to be a boy has been redefined, deconstructed, reconstructed, politically analyzed and mathematically modeled. In the process, the meaning of being a boy's father has become jumbled as well.

In the midst of the confusion, The Dangerous Book brings non-political truths into focus. For example, most boys like rough-and-tumble. They are riveted by tales of heroism on blood-soaked battlefields. They will learn history eagerly if it is presented in a chapter on Artillery.

Like Peter Pan, the Iggulden brothers have rediscovered the Lost Boys and are beckoning for them to come out to play. "Oh…and bring along your father too," they add with a dangerous wink and a smile.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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