Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Daring Book for Girls

I feel unqualified to review this book, but after reviewing 'The Dangerous Book for Boys' (see my previous post here), I thought that in the interests of balance, I'd give it my best shot. I doubt that any adult male can adequately assess just how exciting this book would be for a girl. When I look at the contents page of The Dangerous Book for Boys I want to read every entry, make every thing included, and talk to other guys about it - in short I feel like a kid again. I flick the pages saying, "Wow"! "This is great". "I'd love to try that...". I suspect that girls will react in a similar way when they see the equivalent book for them.

'The Daring Book for Girls' is a companion volume to "The Dangerous Book for Boys." Like its predecessor, it is designed for children aged 7-12 years. It includes a mix of things to make and do, information about things that girls might like to know, biographical material, poetry etc. It has been produced again by Harper Collins and has a similar layout, size and range of contents. Even the cover is similar in design, to build on the success of the previous book. Andrea Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz have written the book. The Australian edition was released in 2008 and mirrors the US edition released by Harper Collins in 2007, but it includes some different Australian content.

The 'Daring Book for Girls' has many of the same great qualities as its predecessor for boys. Its format is to present mostly short factual pieces (over two pages) on varied topics with illustrations or pictures. Some have described the book as an "activity manual" but this doesn't incorporate some of the genres represented like poetry, history and biography. In reality, this book and 'The Dangerous Book for Boys', are strongly related to the traditions of the 'Boys Own' (and later 'Girls Own') publications popular for almost 80 years. The ‘Religious Tract Society’ first published ‘Boys Own Paper’ in 1879 to encourage younger children to read and to instil Christian values during their formative years. In the beginning the weekly newspapers were bound together annually and sold as a single volume. The publication went through various stages and stopped production briefly during WW2, but re-emerged as the ‘Boys Own Companion’ (1959-1963), then eventually ‘Boys Own Annual’ was published in 1964-65 and 1975-76. 'The Girls Own Paper' was developed after 'Boys Own' but has a similar history.

There is no religious motivation in 'The Daring Book for Girls' and the motivation in developing these books does not appear to have an agenda beyond encouraging girls to get involved doing practical things and learning about their world. This doesn't mean that specific values are not projected but this isn't the intent of the publication.

The book covers topics as diverse as:
  • The rules of netball, basketball, field hockey, tenpin bowling and darts.
  • How to whistle with 2 fingers.
  • Hopscotch and rope skipping.
  • Going to South East Asia.
  • A biography of Joan of Arc.
  • How to wear fairy wings.
  • A short history of women inventors.
  • Sleep-outs.
  • Greek and Latin Root Words.
  • Queens of the Ancient World.
  • Maths tricks.
  • Reading Tide Charts.
  • Bird watching.
  • Surf lifesaving.
  • Boys.
  • Watercolour painting.
  • Public speaking.
  • Writing letters.
  • Playing a Didgeridoo.
And lots more! The book has not been without controversy. The last topic listed above has outraged some Indigenous Australians because the Didgeridoo is only ever played male Aboriginal males (read a media report here). This led to a quick apology from the publishers (here) and may lead to a quick reprint.

One small criticism I have of the book is that it seems to me (as a male) that the authors have struggled with the delivery of a book that is meant to match the special tastes of girls, when deep down they struggle to admit that there are such differences. The section on "Boys" in this book contrasts strikingly with the section on "Girls" in 'The Dangerous Book for Boys'. Whereas the authors of the latter focus on differences between boys and girls, the authors of this new volume for girls seem unwilling to accept the differences. Its tone is different: "Some girls are led to believe that being liked by boys is important above all else. Some girls are told that boys are different, and that girls should adapt themselves to be like the boys they like.....Some girls are encouraged to think of boys as protectors, or, alternatively, as creatures that need protecting.....some statements are made about girls.....It's easier to think of boys and girls as being entirely different than it is to think about boys and girls as having lots of common ground..." Of course there's truth in the last statement, but there is also a lot of fence sitting going on here.

Maybe girls won't sense the gender confusion that seems to be here, or perhaps it's uncertainty on the author's part; perhaps they are aiming to cater for all views. I think the result is that some of the content in this book seems to lack the same level of relevance and excitement for girls that the content in 'The Dangerous Book for Boys' seems to have for boys. Are there really many 7-12 year old girls who would want to know how a car engine works, how to negotiate a salary, or how to execute five karate moves. I know, some girls are interested in this stuff, but surely not many.

In spite of this minor quibble, it's a great book that many girls will love. Certainly, the Girl Guide movement in Canada likes the book. It has posted a website in the name of the book designed simply to advertise the book and encourage girls to buy it and read it. In Britain, where the activity manual and its companion volume, The Dangerous Book for Boys, were originally published, both have been bestsellers. In the US, the two books were on the New York Times bestseller list for months.

I'd recommend the book for as an ideal addition to any library for children and as a gift for girls who are keen to learn, make things and explore their world. As well as the large format version of the book you can purchase the pocket book version that is more portable and cheaper.

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