Thursday, May 17, 2007

Dangerous Gals, Coddled Kids: More Thoughts on The Dangerous Book for Boys

You would think that gender is a touchy subject in a household with an academically-trained feminist and a fairly unreconstructed 45-year-old boy. Well, not so much. Dee and I watch James Bond movies together. We may not be watching exactly the same movie (She: "Ugh. Okay, I get it. Smack, smack, smack. I hate these fight scenes— they just go on and on" ) but we both live for the gadgets and the stylish locales (I just double-checked, and she confirmed). The fact is, we are pretty evenly matched on the gender-assigned indulgences: I still troll eBay and Amazon for deals on pulp fiction, and she has a fetish for pink accessories. Our excuse is that we are post-modern, ironic urbanites but the reality is that we are relatively well-adjusted adults, each with a good a sense of humor and a dash of sentimentality.

I'd say most folks who contributed to Mother Talk's current Blog Book Tour are in that same category, judging from the overwhelmingly positive responses to The Dangerous Book for Boys. (See my own review posted below). Mothers seem to appreciate the constructive energy outlet the book offers for their sons and husbands, and they are enthralled by the book themselves. Kris at WonderMom wants to try her hand at being a WhizMom—— she's got a couple of years' head start on her five- and six-year-olds to learn some gadgetry from the book. Dani at Postcards from the Mothership ended up channeling her "inner-12-year-old boy," and Bethany at Mommy Writer Blog declares it to be the "KID BIBLE." Tellingly, it reminds her of the very things her father taught her when she was a little girl.

Here, I think is the crux of the matter: Dangerous is only a book for boys if by "boy" you mean any kid with heart and moxie. Fathers of past generations were conditioned to pass their moxie on to their sons, not to their daughters; they were content to let their daughters remain precious and mysterious, beyond their understanding and direct influence, except when there were no sons. Bethany and her sister, sure enough, had the Moxie bestowed upon them by their dad in the absence of brothers, which meant learning tree lore, and how to fish Brook Trout, Salmon, Pike, and Walleye, among other things.

In a similar vein, my own Dee, aka Deborah Siegel, recounts her experience as an only child in her essay “Triangulation: a Love Story” (from her anthology Only Child): how her father took her into the yard to watch electrical storms thundering in off Lake Michigan, and took her skiing down blizzard-swept slopes while they screamed at the top of their lungs. Believe you me, Dee still has Moxie to spare, which suits her bookish boyfriend just fine. She's become something more than a muse to me: she's also sideline coach and cheerleader, coaxing me onto ski lifts and saddles, prodding me to buy myself my first bicycle in a half a lifetime. When the time comes, I'll have no reason to leave any daughter of mine out of the boy's club. Hell, Dee will probably be the activities director!

Speaking of activities, I think one of the great boons of The Dangerous Book for Boys is that, by its very existence, it champions the right for kids to muse and ponder. Sure, set aside that Saturday afternoon to build a treehouse together... but for Pete's sake, let the kids alone to sit up there and veg (vedge?) out for a little while. To quote George Carlin, "Leave your kids the F__k alone! There's way too much structure!" Of course, he jokes about dumb kids doomed by Darwinian Natural Selection in the same skit, but he's only following Jonathan Swift's model: drop a pearl of wisdom into a keg of outrage. I'm sure my views will morph a bit once I have a child, but I do remember enough of my own childhood to know how much I valued the endless, featureless days of summer. Plenty of time to get in trouble, yes—— it was in the age before "playdates," and before the city put rubber mats in all the playgrounds. I once climbed the monkey bars unsupervised and dropped headfirst onto the bare asphalt. But reflexes honed by years of fending off neighborhood bullies (i.e., covering my head with my arms) served to save me from serious injury. I'm not sure you can pick up those reflexes from a Playstation or an Xbox. It's possible, I suppose.

"Dangerous" is a loaded term. So is "boy," and so is "girl," especially in relation to "dangerous." Parents are intrigued and disturbed by the emotions and associations around these terms that have been dredged to the surface by the popularity of this book. Here are a few final meandering thoughts on this: I don't think it is a coincidence that darkness has regained currency in children's literature and fantasy films lately. From Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to Revenge of the Sith to Bridge to Terabithia, danger is a palpable element. In the real world, crime levels may be down in the cities, but there's a war on—— kids nowadays can't be fooled. They know the world is a dangerous place. I don't believe it serves them well to be continually coddled and sheltered and hermetically sealed off from the world with helmets and shin guards. They need to know they can wield a sword or a light sabre to defend themselves against the Dark Side, or learn how to overcome obstacles, to swing over a chasm or a creek on a well-knotted rope, or simply to learn the magic needed to find one's way back home through a dark wood.

They need to find their own heart (and brain, and courage). Dorothy did, and she managed to find her way back to Kansas. Leslie Burke never came back from Terabithia, it's true, but she passed her heart, her Moxie, on to her best friend. And yes, Dorothy and Leslie were both girls. Amelia Earhart, Bessie Coleman, Beryl Markham, fearless adventurers all. So why The Dangerous Book for Boys? Because boys (and fathers) need to make believe, at least for a little while, that their secret is safe. Yet most kids know in their hearts the truth about Santa Claus long before the lie dies out in their minds. Boys will figure out the truth eventually.


Bethany said...

This is wonderfully written! I am so deeply flattered by your mention of me as well. Your thoughts are very much like mine (it must be the modern urbanite thing... well I like to think it is. Even though I live in the suburbs).

The world is a crazy place all round. Boys, girls--doesn't matter. But whatever it means to be a kid. I want my son (and soon to be daughter) to share in the beauty of it. And honestly, it is all about having that un-planned fun.

Marco Acevedo said...

Thanks, Bethany. Yep, it's definitely a crazy world. While I know we are becoming a global image-based culture, and that's cool with me, I get excited by iPods and iPhones as much as the next person, I'm glad for old-school books like this. I hope kids will continue to take the time to read a book and go on a hike every once in a while. Congrats on the upcoming daughter, BTW. We are trying to sort out when to start our own family, and whether we'll have an only or more. It's nervewracking.

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