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Boys at play

The Dangerous Book for Boys, by British novelist Conn Iggulden and his younger brother Hal, became a surprise bestseller in the U.K. and is now outpacing expectations in the United States

Issue: "Big bucks ministries," July 28, 2007

The red cover, embossed with gold, is bound with real cloth and not subject to warping in humid weather. The look deliberately harks back to the turn of the century: the 20th century, that is, when Britannia ruled the waves and Kipling's "If" (p. 185) was the model for stoic manhood. Some see the harking-back as cheerfully cynical, or at least tongue-in-cheek. Even if this is true of the cover, it's not true of the contents.

The Dangerous Book for Boys, by British novelist Conn Iggulden and his younger brother Hal, became a surprise bestseller in the U.K. and is now outpacing expectations in the United States. The Dangerous Book is a compendium of practical skills, useful facts, intellectual furniture, and subtle exhortation, wrapped up with good humor. Also with a sense of mission: "In this age of video games and cell phones, there must still be a place for knots, tree houses, and stories of incredible courage" (Preface).

In 270 thick, creamy, and unapologetic pages, with only a few warnings about adult supervision, the book spans a boy's life of topics, from Hunting and Cooking a Rabbit, Making a Bow and Arrow, and Building a Workbench, to less strenuous pursuits like Growing Sunflowers and Marbling Paper (all author-tested during six months in a garden shed). Scattered among the activities are Latin Phrases Every Boy Should Know, Famous Battles, and Extraordinary Stories. Toward religion, the authors are respectful but not devout, making room for the Ten Commandments but also "Invictus."

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The chapter on "Girls" assumes a future interest in these alien creatures ("you may already have noticed that girls are quite different than you"). Thus, eight rules for courtesy to the fairer sex, starting with, "It is important to listen."

One imagines militant feminists tearing their hair out. The largest thread in the comments section on Amazon.com is titled "Why do feminists need to bash this book?" But in fact the bashing has been muted, and publisher HarperCollins reports no organized protest. Nor are there plans to publish a corresponding volume for girls: When asked, Harper's tough-minded executive director Jane Friedman shrugs, "Boys are very different."

Is there a quiet revolution underway to let them be boys again? Parents report putting this volume in their sons' hands and watching them disappear into the backyard for hours. Perhaps society is recognizing that the manly heart is a terrible thing to waste. If so, it's not a moment too soon.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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