June 25, 2007

IT'LL ALL SCAB OVER (via Gene Brown):

In Praise of Skinned Knees and Grubby Faces (Conn Iggulden, June 24, 2007, Washington Post)

When I had a son of my own six years ago, I looked around for the sort of books that would inspire him. I was able to find some practical modern ones, but none with the spirit and verve of those old titles. I wanted a single compendium of everything I'd ever wanted to know or do as a boy, and I decided to write my own. My brother, now a theater director in Leicester, a city in the midlands of England, was the obvious choice as co-writer. I had dedicated my first book "To my brother Hal, the other member of the Black Cat Club." It was official at last. I persuaded him to come and work with me 12 hours a day for six months in a shed.

We began with everything we had done as kids, then added things we didn't want to see forgotten. History today is taught as a feeble thing, with all the adventure taken out of it. We wanted stories of courage because boys love those. We wanted stories about men like Royal Air Force fighter pilot Douglas Bader, Scott of the Antarctic, the Wright Brothers -- boys like to read about daring men, always with the question: Would I be as brave or as resourceful? I sometimes wonder why people make fun of boys going to science fiction conventions without realizing that it shows a love of stories. Does every high school offer a class on adventure tales? No -- and then we complain that boys don't read anymore.

We added sections on grammar because my brother once said, "If anyone had told me there are only nine kinds of words, I'd have damn well learned them." Boys like to see the nuts and bolts of language. Of course they can empathize and imagine, but they need the structure as well. Why should the satisfaction of getting something right be denied to those who have been educated since the '70s?

We filled our book with facts and things to do -- from hunting a rabbit to growing crystals. As adults, we know that doors have been closed to us. A boy, though, can be interested in anything.

Finally, we chose our title -- "The Dangerous Book for Boys." It's about remembering a time when danger wasn't a dirty word. It's safer to put a boy in front of a PlayStation for a while, but not in the long run. The irony of making boys' lives too safe is that later they take worse risks on their own. You only have to push a baby boy hard on a swing and see his face light up. It's not learned behavior -- he's hardwired to enjoy a little risk. Ask any man for a good memory from childhood and he'll tell you about testing his courage or getting injured. No one wants to see a child get hurt, but we really did think the bumps and scratches were badges of honor, once.

Since the book was published, I've discovered a vast group that cares about exactly the same things I do. I've heard from divorced fathers who use the book to make things with their sons instead of going out for fast food and a movie. I've received e-mails from 10-year-olds and a beautifully written letter from a man of 87.

I thought I was the only one sick of non-competitive sports days and playgrounds where it's practically impossible to hurt yourself. It turned out that the pendulum is swinging back at last. Boys are different from girls. Teaching them as though they are girls who don't wash as much leads to their failure in school, causing trouble all the way. Boys don't like group work. They do better on exams than they do in coursework, and they don't like class discussion. In history lessons, they prefer stories of Rome and of courage to projects on the suffragettes.

It's all a matter of balance. When I was a teacher, I asked my head of department why every textbook seemed to have a girl achieving her dream of being a carpenter while the boys were morons. She replied that boys had had it their own way for too long, and now it was the girls' turn. Ouch.

The problem with fighting adult gender battles in the classroom is that the children always lose.

I expected a backlash. If you put the word "boys" on something, someone will always complain. One blog even promoted the idea of removing the words "For Boys" from the cover with an Exacto knife so that people's sons wouldn't be introduced to any unpleasantly masculine notions such as duty, honor, courage and competence.

The dark side of masculinity may involve gangs and aggression, but there's another side -- self-discipline, wry humor and quiet determination. I really thought I was the only one who cared about it, but I've found many thousands who care just as much.

Our kids finished school last week and they called a local oldies statiuon to request "School's Out for Summer" (Alice Cooper) and "We Don't Need no Education" (Pink Floyd). The station manager told the seven-year old she was the youngest person they'd ever had call the oldies request line. Haven't been able to convince them to play kick-the-can yet, but they play a mean game of flashlight tag.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 25, 2007 8:00 AM

We picked up the Dangerous Book for Boys last week, and my kid has already made the bow and arrow. Hasn't tried to gut a rabbit yet, though. Every 8 to 12 year old boy should be given a copy of this book.

Posted by: ted welter at June 25, 2007 8:44 AM

Boy is laid up this week with an extremely painful ear infection so I'm hitting Borders (for this book) and the comic book store (for some Spidey back issues) to give him.

Posted by: Bryan at June 25, 2007 10:14 AM

Bryan, a cheap way to get the old comic stories is to buy one of the Essential volumes (Essential Spider-Man, Essential Fantastic Four, etc. - the DC versions are called Showcase). They are only in black & white on newsprint, but you get about 25 issues in each volume. They are only about $15 and you can probably get those at Borders and Barnes & Noble too.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at June 25, 2007 10:36 AM

I bought 2 for gifts, hubby kept 1.

I'm almost tempted by 2 more and donate to my daughter's school library and our local library.....

Posted by: Sandy P at June 25, 2007 10:50 AM

My wife bought one for me as well and it's really quite good.

Also, it looks like the copycats are starting:


I would be interested in how to rip a phone book in half, though.

Posted by: Rick T. at June 25, 2007 11:05 AM

Oh, yes, those Essential and Showcase books are great. Boy can toss a couple in his backpack and not worry about losing the "mint" condition and all that comic collector stuff.

If I remember my Mr. Wizard correctly, you bake the phone book an an oven for awhile to weaken it.

Posted by: Bryan at June 25, 2007 1:04 PM