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What are little boys made up?

What are little boys made up?
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First Published: Sat, Jun 09 2007. 12 57 AM IST
Updated: Sat, Jun 09 2007. 12 57 AM IST
First, there was the question of the title: The Dangerous Book for Boys. HarperCollins Publishers’ chief executive Jane Friedman just didn’t understand what it meant. Sure, the book had been a hit in England and Australia, but that didn’t mean it would work in the US.
But the sales staff urged her to stick with it, and in just two weeks, Dangerous has become the breakout hit of the season. The News Corp. unit initially ordered up 91,000 copies. There are now 405,000 copies in print. One senior HarperCollins executive, extrapolating from overseas sales and population data, projects that Dangerous, which lists for $14.97 (about Rs600), could sell as many as four million in the US.
The book, by English brothers Conn and Hal Iggulden, purports to aim itself at a particularly inscrutable and un-book-friendly audience: boys around the age of 10. It tries to answer the question: What do boys need to know?
So here are instructions on how to skip stones, fold a paper hat, make a battery, and hunt and cook a rabbit. It includes a description of the Battle of Thermopylae, but also how to play Texas Hold ’Em poker, and use the phrases “carpe diem” and “curriculum vitae”.
The unapologetic message is that boys need a certain amount of danger and risk in their lives, and that there are certain lessons that need to be passed down from father to son, man to man. The implication is that in contemporary society, basic rules of maleness aren’t being handed off as they used to be.
The book aims to correct that. It does so with a pre-television, pre-videogame sensibility, and also by embracing a view of gender that has been unfashionable in recent decades: that snips and snails and puppy dogs’ tails are more than lines in a nursery rhyme, and that boys are by nature hard-wired differently than girls.
But The Dangerous Book for Boys is also aimed at boomer dads, who nostalgically yearn for a lost boyhood of fixing lawn mowers and catching snakes with their fathers—even if that didn’t really happen as often as they think it did.
On the back of the book’s cover—retro red cloth with oversized gold lettering—the come-on is “Recapture Sunday afternoons and long summer days”. Inside are odd-sized colour illustrations of fish, trilobites, and an example of marbled paper. Some have compared it to Daniel Carter Beard’s The American Boy’s Handy Book, originally published in 1882.
So, is this a book that Dad brings home and that then gathers dust in Junior’s room, forgotten behind the iPods and laptops?
Paul Bogaards, an executive for rival publisher Bertelsmann AG’s Alfred A. Knopf, says he took a copy home to his eight-year-old son, Michael, whom he describes as “junked up on Nick, Disney and Club Penguin”, a website. Bogaards says Michael took to it immediately, demanding that his dad test paper airplanes into the night, even missing American Idol. He adds: “That’s the good news. The bad news is that he now expects me to build him a treehouse.” He concludes: “Million-copy-plus seller easy, with the shelf life of Hormel Spam.”
“We initially thought that men nostalgic for their boyhoods would be the buyers, but people are also buying it for 12-year-old boys,” says Matthew Benjamin, a senior editor at the Collins imprint, which published the book. “This book teaches them its okay to play and explore.”
Concerned that the book would seem too British, Collins asked the authors to adapt parts of it for US readers. A section about royalty was replaced by the 50 states, American mountains and the Declaration of Independence. Baseball’s most valuable players and ‘How to Play Stickball’ supplants the chapter on cricket. But rugby made the cut: it was tough, dangerous and better-known in the US. A ‘Navajo Code Talkers’ Dictionary’ superseded Britain’s patron saints.
Unchanged for the US market were the two pages on the subject of girls. The first bit of advice: “It is important to listen.”
Dangerous ranks No. 4 in sales on Amazon.com Inc.’s website, which provides an adjacent diagram explaining how to tie some knots. A video, provided by the publisher, shows how a father and son can use the book outdoors, including a scene where Dad gives his son’s gravity-powered go-cart a push downhill.
HarperCollins says it doesn’t have any immediate plans to publish a girl’s version. HarperCollins’ Friedman, who has two sons and two stepsons, explains: “Boys are very different.”
Write to wsj@livemint.com
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First Published: Sat, Jun 09 2007. 12 57 AM IST
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