The Magazine

Boys Will Be...

...pleased by this garden of earthly delights.

Jun 25, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 39 • By ROGER KIMBALL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Dangerous Book for Boys

by Conn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden

HarperCollins, 288 pp., $24.95

I wouldn't be at all surprised if The Dangerous Book for Boys were banned by zealous school groups, social workers, and other moral busybodies. I first encountered this admirable work when it was published in London last year. I liked its retro look--the lettering and typography of the cover recalls an earlier, more swashbuckling era--and I thought at first it must be a reprint. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that a book containing instructions on how to make catapults, how to hunt and cook a rabbit, how to play poker, how to make a waterbomb, was published today, the high noon of nannydom.

The first chapter, "Essential Gear" ("Essential Kit" in the English edition), lists a Swiss Army knife, for God's sake, not to mention matches and a magnifying glass, "For general interest. Can also be used to start fires." Probably, the book would have to be checked with the rest of your luggage at the airport: If you can't bring a bottle of water on the airplane, how do you suppose a book advocating knives and incendiary devices is going to go over? Why, even the title is a provocation. The tort lawyers must be salivating over the word "dangerous," and I can only assume that the horrible grinding noise you hear is from Title IX fanatics congregating to protest the appearance of a book designed for the exclusive enjoyment of boys.

And speaking of "boys," have you noticed how unprogressive the word sounds in today's English? It is almost as retrograde as "girls," a word that I knew was on the way out when an academic couple I know proudly announced that they had just presented the world with a "baby woman."

No, I did not make that up, and even after due allowances are made for the fact that the couple were, after all, academics and therefore peculiarly susceptible to such p.c. deformations, it's clear that something fundamental is happening in our society. Some speak about the "feminization" of America and Europe. Scholars like Christina Hoff Sommers have reported on the "war against boys." A public school near where I live gets high marks for "academic excellence," but I note that they allow only 15 minutes of recess a day for kindergarteners and first graders. Result: By 2 P.M. the boys are ready to explode. That turns out to be a solvable problem, though, because a little Ritalin with the (whole grain) cornflakes does wonders to keep Johnny from acting up.

In a recent interview, Conn Iggulden, speaking about his collaboration with his brother in writing The Dangerous Book for Boys, dilated on this campaign against the boy-like side of boyhood. "They need to fall off things occasionally," Iggulden said, "or . . . they'll take worse risks on their own. If we do away with challenging playgrounds and cancel school trips for fear of being sued, we don't end up with safer boys--we end up with them walking on train tracks." Quite right. The Dangerous Book for Boys is alive with such salubrious challenges. Its epigraph, a 1903 letter from an army surgeon to the young Prince of Wales, advises, "The best motto for a long march is 'Don't grumble. Plug on.'" How antique that stiff-upper-lippery sounds to our ears!

The book includes instructions on making "The Greatest Paper Plane in the World." Did you know that many schools have outlawed paper airplanes? Might strike a child in the eye, don't you know. And of course, that's only the beginning of what many schools outlaw. The game of tag is verboten almost everywhere, a fact I learned this winter when our eight-year-old son fell and broke his elbow while playing the game. The final indignity came when, being down, he was tagged by the chap who was "it." Even that had its compensations, though, since James is looking forward to suspending his allegiance to the principles of the Sermon on the Mount and getting the fellow back when he fully recovers. Besides, although it hurts to break your arm, it is quite nifty to have your arm in a cast, especially if one of your heroes is Lord Nelson, to whom (or so one's parents assure one) you bear a strong resemblance when sporting a sling. Of course, I am sorry that James broke his arm, but I prefer his school's (unofficial) motto--"Better a broken bone than a broken spirit"--to the pusillanimous alternative.