“The Dangerous Book for Boys” meets “The Daring Book for Girls”

Our 5-year-old daughter is angry. At bedtime we’ve been reading out loud to her from Donald Duck comics. But now her 8-year-old brother is jeering, “Girls can’t be in the Junior Woodchucks. The Junior Woodchucks are for boys. The Chickadees are for girls.” That seems fair: one scouting group for boys, one for girls. But since the stories in the comics are never about the Chickadees, all my daughter can do is withdraw in tears of frustration. She doesn’t belong to the club that counts.

I don’t give feminist lectures at home; I don’t want to ruin anyone’s fun. But it doesn’t take a girl to see that the stories aren’t fairly divided. “Where are the women superheroes?” my son once asked me, in all innocence. “Good question,” I said.

What can you do if you’re a girl? You can try to participate in boys’ things until your nose bumps up against the ways in which you’re being left out; or you can form your own club and discover that you’re still not being taken seriously. You can read Donald Duck and be left out once a week, or you can subscribe to Katrien, the girls’ edition, which only comes out six times a year. The editor-in-chief of Donald Duck said recently in an interview, “Comic books are a guy thing.” It’s true. But is it chicken or egg?

Lately both men and women seem to have grasped, with the grim determination of a mountain climber clinging to a rope, the theory that boys and girls are biologically different. Finally we don’t have to pretend to be what we’re not, is the relieved, or irritated, logic. Not only does innate difference often seem to work as an explanation, it’s genuinely restful. If you’re a woman, you can give up changing bicycle tires; if you’re a father, you can quit keeping track of your children’s socks. If you are a girl, you can plead for My Little Pony toys and actually get them; if you are a boy, you can let your dolls, or rather, “action figures” ax murder each other. Why waste time doing something badly when your entire sex seems to be doing something else well? Efficiency is a virtue these days, and no one wants their children to fail.

One thing is clear: difference is a gold mine for marketers. My brother and I had a toy castle as kids; but when I went to look for one for my own children, I couldn’t find a unisex fortress. Now castles come in boy editions (gray and fierce) and girl editions (pink and lacy). The knights rule one realm, the princess another, and the toy company chalks up two more sales.

There’s a notion of encouraging boys that plays into this, too. It’s sometimes argued that boys don’t fit into the too-feminine, over-organized world we’ve made for our children, that they need to see positive images of themselves, that they no longer have anything of their own. Fine, that makes sense.

But if women are sometimes a bit more wary of gender divisions than men are, it’s because so often the game turns out to be slightly rigged against the girls. For example: The New York Times recently reported on a large management study that showed that however women behave in the workplace, it’s never right. Qualifications for the ideal manager vary from culture to culture. In Britain, “inspiring others” is seen as most important, while in Norway, it’s “the ability to delegate.” But there was one consistent result: whatever was valued most, women were perceived to be less good at it. And if women were good at a particular task, then that task was given less value.

All this doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the UK and US best-seller The Dangerous Book for Boys, now published in Dutch as Het Jongensboek. Written in a lively, accessible style for boys around age 12, and meant to promote independence and adventurousness, it’s full of all kinds of worthwhile information. It instructs preadolescents in how to tie knots, write messages in code, provide first aid, do coin tricks, skip rocks, and talk to girls. It teaches them how identify trees and insects. It includes sections on fossils, astronomy, history, and the rules for football and marbles. It contains accounts of famous battles in history (a subject I found morbidly riveting as a child) and instructions for how to shoot, skin, clean, and cook a rabbit. It reminds me of the illustrated science books my brother and I had as children, like the geology one, with its cutaway illustrations of hillsides and volcanoes, showing the geological layers, and its lurid, enticing color photographs of gems.

The “dangerous” in the title is a bit misleading. Aside from chapters like “The History of Artillery,” much of the information is scholarly and canonical: here are poems every boy should read, Latin phrases, the parts of a sentence (grammar, very good) and rules for spelling. With its art nouveau cover, recalling children’s fantasy books circa 1900, the book is as old-fashioned inside as it is out. One’s wariness is eased by the realization that, aside from the rabbits (which have been left out of the Dutch edition), this is pretty square stuff. My husband, who was curious enough to buy the American edition, was disappointed. “Where is pop culture?” he muttered. “Where are the Beatles?”

With its focus on history and literature, the Dangerous Book lends itself to a harmless form of national pride. The book’s adapter, journalist Hans Hoekstra, has taken the opportunity to fill the Jongensboek with Dutch and Flemish history: great navigators and inventors, the Eighty Years’ War, 120 years of bicycling in the Lowlands. Shakespeare has been replaced with Multatuli, Hastings with Heiligerlee. Bits of the new Canon of Dutch History are explained: who or what were Hebban olla vogala, Eise Eisinga, Annie M.G. Schmidt?

It’s fascinating, all of it—exactly the kinds of things I’d want my kids to know. The whole book radiates a warm, safe feeling of solidity, learning, and old-fashioned values. There’s just one burning question: what’s left over for the girls? Do we get half? If we ask for half, will everyone hate us for spoiling the boys’ fun?

At least two equivalent books for girls have appeared this year, one in the UK, the other in the US. The British version, The Great Big Glorious Book for Girls, has stirred up controversy for presenting an old-fashioned view of girlhood. It contains instructions on knitting, baking, braiding hair and how to do a stage faint, and explains, “Boys are physical, girls are emotional.” Instead, Dutch publisher De Harmonie has chosen to translate the American version, The Daring Book for Girls, by Andrea J. Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz.

To my pleasant surprise, the Daring Book is just as useful as the Dangerous. It gives the rules of basketball and darts. It tells how to care for your softball glove, read a tide chart, paddle a canoe, fill a toolbox, and make a willow whistle. It gives math tricks, prints the Periodic Table of the Elements, lists women inventors and political leaders. It has some traditional girl stuff, too, like jumping rope and pressing flowers. (“Hey, pressing flowers, good idea,” said my husband, who studied biology.) And it has useful tips for the future, like how to negotiate your babysitting salary. While it still has a pop culture gap, it’s actually better and more useful than the boys’ book, at least if you’re an urbanite with no place to use a homemade go-cart.

In fact, almost any of these activities could have been in the boys’ book, or vice versa. And that, it seems to me, is the real trouble: to put a fence around one set of things and mark it “boys,” and another fence around “girls,” may be restful for a while—and it will certainly sell more books. But there’s always going to be someone who doesn’t fit. And then what? “It’s not bad to say girls and boys are different,” my husband commented. “But if you glorify or wallow in those differences, you’re in danger of undoing 40 years of feminist work.”

It’s the old-fashioned, blissfully nostalgic look and feel of this particular book for boys that makes it so popular, I suspect—but not necessarily because its readers are anti-girl. It also recalls an era when it was clear what we were supposed to learn, when grammar, history, literature, and science all mattered, when children were supposed to fill their heads with facts and dates, when they were encouraged to know what words meant and how to spell them.

It’s interesting that the quest for a literary and historical canon, the hunger for a Dutch national identity, and the longing to find immutable differences between men and women have all come into play at the same time. The pendulum has swung from “everyone is the same” to “groups are different.” We’re more interested right now in the rule than the individual, in solid footing than experiment.

Speaking for myself, I love traditional knowledge. I don’t want it to be thrown out. I think history is fascinating, even in the centuries when my sex doesn’t appear in it. I want to know about the voyages of Abel Tasman and the battle of Waterloo. I want a place of honor for Shakespeare, and I’m willing to accept a lesser role for women, if I must, in order to acknowledge his importance.

But must I? This is the less useful aspect of a canon, the way it has to exclude something (women, people of color, the Beatles) in order to be taken seriously, in order, in fact, to be a canon at all. Women and minorities water down the list. To include among the historical adventures a bold tale of escape from slavery would be immediately to open yourself up to charges of political correctness, i.e., lack of seriousness, no matter how thrilling the story actually was. At the same time, I suspect that the Daring Book is more appealing partly because it does show alternatives to that old-fashioned narrative of guns, heroes, and Latin phrases. (Not surprisingly, the girls’ book is somewhat less blindingly white than the boys’ one.) As important as general knowledge is, there are times when even men can be happier the edges than in the middle.

One thing I didn’t see in the girls’ book that I might have included is a section on archaeology. To be an archaeologist is an ambition of many preadolescent girls, along with the closely related professions of librarian and spy. These are fantasies, I think, about access to knowledge. Girls want to own the world of books. They’re drawn to secret information. They want to know what lies hidden beneath the soil. When girls can’t see themselves in the world of official knowledge, they search underground.

Still, I hope my daughter won’t have to look for her place in the world beneath the earth or in the dark. As my husband points out (so you don’t think I said it and call me a spoilsport), “Letting go of rigid gender roles has made the world a lot more confusing. But it also feels more like real life.”

Genghis and Jane

The writer of The Dangerous Book for Boys, Conn Iggulden (1971), is more conservative in interviews than in the book itself. The author of the Emperor series of historical novels about the life of Julius Caesar, and of a new series starring Genghis Khan, Iggulden comes down strongly on the “boys are different from girls” side of the debate. “You only have to push a boy on a swing to see how much enjoys the thrill of danger. It’s hard-wired.”

When an interviewer suggests that a boy might be drawn to a female role model such as Jane Goodall, he answers, “The simple fact is that boys are inspired by stories of men being courageous and self-sacrificing much more than Jane Goodall and her chimps.” Given the complexity of the gender debate, statements containing the words “hard-wired” or “the simple fact is” feel reactionary, no matter what the content. And yet Iggulden has also said that his favorite book as a child was The Secret Garden, and that it was his mother who gave him his interest in history.

His main concern, he says, is that kids are overprotected, and that we are producing “a generation of soft, pale, chubby boys afraid of their own shadow.” Once the culprit for “unmanly” men was overbearing mothers, now it’s computer games and the Internet—as if we can only escape the influence of the Internet by adopting old-fashioned, pre-broadband gender roles.

The authors of the US Daring Book for Girls seem determined, in interviews, not to get involved in the difference debate. But the authors of the British Great Big Glorious Book for Girls have said that they are happy to propogate traditional gender roles. Co-author Rosemary Davidson told the Times (UK), “While it is clearly [seen as] okay to endorse, or celebrate macho ideals – as Dangerous does – I do wonder whether girls should be genderless. Glorifying boyhood is good, but it is somehow wrong to know how to make a doll.” Statements like this led Lynne Truss, in a Times review, to comment that Glorious is “an incredibly perplexing book masquerading as a simple one.”

Trouw, November 24, 2007. Donald Duck comics are wildly popular in the Netherlands.