Giving Boys Their Mischief-And Manhood

By Coombs, Marian Kester | The American Conservative, July 16, 2007 | Go to article overview

Giving Boys Their Mischief-And Manhood


Coombs, Marian Kester, The American Conservative


[The Dangerous Book for Boys, Conn and Hal lggulden, HarperCollins, 288 pages]Giving Boys Their Mischief-and Manhood

DISCLOSURE-CUM-DISCLAIMER: as a middle-aged, middle-class female, I am the natural enemy of the Boy, the one who torments him to sit still, stop talking. Pay attention, have a seat, quit fidgeting, and behave. Yet I am fuU of compassion for his plight even as I pester him to act like a girl. It's as a fond if baffled fan of boys and men that I approached The Dangerous Book for Boys, created by British brothers Conn and Hal lggulden to be the book they had craved as lads.

And a handsome book it is indeed - hardbound, printed in strong fonts, and iUustrated with bold, old-fashioned graphics, photographs, and diagrams. The concept was so delectably clever that the brothers finally "had to avoid teUing anyone else about the book for fear of the extra chapters." The usual chorus of "What about a book for girls?" got the Igguldens' reply - surely the understatement of the brave new century - that "there are other books for girls." The authors continue, "The occasional girl [may be] interested in this stuff, but on the whole, boys are more interested in the use of urine as secret ink than girls are." NationaUty has been accommodated, though, with British, American, Canadian, and Australian editions already published and others in the works.

The book has roughly seven general themes or categories. "Questions About the World" answers basic queries Uke, "What is a vacuum?" and "How do ships sail against the wind?" Other nature topics include "Fossils," "Insects and Spiders," "Light," and "The Moon." "Famous Battles" is just that, from Thermopylae to Gettysburg. "Extraordinary Stories" are portraits of individual courage and perseverance such as Robert the Bruce, Scott of the Antarctic, the Wright brothers, and Douglas Bader, a World War II ace who had lost both legs in an earlier flying accident, but went on to record more than 22 kills in the Battle of Britain and as a POW made so many escape attempts from Colditz Castle that the Germans finally confiscated his artificial legs.

Also included are essential documents: the Declaration of Independence, "Seven Poems Every Boy Should Know," Latin phrases, key lines from Shakespeare, the Ten Commandments, the Seven Wonders of the World both ancient and modern. Instructions: how to play poker, chess, marbles, stickbaU; how to make paper airplanes, go-karts, tree houses, water bombs, timers and tripwires, electromagnets, bows and arrows, periscopes, pinhole cameras. Occult lore: card and coin tricks, codes, secret inks, girls ("If you see a girl in need of help - unable to lift something, for example - do not taunt her.") SkUIs: skipping stones, teaching dogs tricks, knot-tying, catching and cooking rabbits, tanning hides, first aid.

Skipping stones? It's tough to imagine a kid needing (or wanting) to learn that art from a book. (I'm surprised they didn't include that most proprietary of boy-skills: putting out the fire from a distance...) It does not tend to be books that chUdren turn to for inspiration but other children and the occasional louche or loose cannon of an adult (quirky aunts or ne'er-do-well uncles serve admirably). StUl, adventure stories by Zane Grey, John Buchan, Kipling, and Stevenson were long staples of boyhood reading, along with books on woodcraft by the likes of Ernest Thompson Seton and periodicals Uke Boy's Life, which began pubUcation in 1911 and became the official Boy Scout magazine.

In fact, the book the lggulden brothers craved has existed in many forms - it's simply no longer in print. When I first had chUdren and went looking for my own childhood favorites Uke Alice Turner Curtis (the "Little Maid of" series), The Brimful Book, the incomparable Journeys Through Bookland, the "Childcraft" series of 16 World Books for children, G. …

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