Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


(cross-posted at Midlife Mama)

Today is the birthday of Astrid Lindgren, creator of one of the most daring girls in children' s literature, Pippi Longstocking. So it seems a fitting day to be talking about the new Daring Book for Girls, by Andi Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz. (Full disclosure: I worked with Andi on Literary Mama, and, after reviewing Miriam's book for LM, have corresponded with her as well.)

My copy of The Daring Book arrived a couple of weeks ago and I put it on top of a stack of things to take care of later, as I (far too often) do. Nick (10) saw it first. "The Darling Book for Girls?" he asked. Then he corrected himself, but I thought the misreading was telling. Does he think girls are darling rather than daring? (Um, in a word--no. Not yet, anyway.)

He started flipping through it, immediately seeing the similarities to The Dangerous Book for Boys, which he received as a birthday present this year. "Hey! We didn't get instructions for how to make a volcano! Why didn't we get that?" He continued to turn pages, noting how many things "they" got to do that "we" didn't. "And why does it say 'no boys allowed' on the back? Mine doesn't say 'no girls allowed'!" He's not really one to be put off by prohibitions like that, but I was intrigued by his response. He found stuff he liked, and he didn't like being told it wasn't for him.

But then it got buried in the stack for a while and by the time I pulled it out again he was engrossed in a science project and didn't have time to check it out for a full review. So I handed it to Mariah (17) instead. She started by getting annoyed with the book. Too many games and jump-rope rhymes. "A lot of this is stuff that people think kids don't know but they do. Like, 'how to have a sleepout"?" So, it's a bit on the--perhaps unnecessarily--nostalgic side. But once she got past the games, she found a lot more to like: interesting stories about real princesses, crafts (she wants to go back and do some of those), Spanish and French vocabulary, Greek and Latin root words, more stories about interesting women..."Did you know Julia Child was a spy?" This is the kind of stuff she loves. She was a bit annoyed by the science sections--not because she doesn't like science, but because she does: "this seems like they thought, 'oh, girls don't like science, so we should put it in,' but they didn't even make it interesting! I think the periodic table of the elements is incredibly cool, but they made it boring!" So, on balance, she found things she likes and would go back to, but found the whole package a bit condescending. Well, she's 17--everything seems condescending to her. (Including, no doubt, that sentence. Sigh.)

So now both kids have had a crack at it, but I haven't even turned a page! Now, I'm a sucker for narrative, so what I go for are the stories: queens of the ancient world, unlikely spies, explorers (alas, I'm still waiting for the fascinating Isabella Bird to turn up in a book for kids...). These are all nicely done: short, readable, and intriguing.

Like Mariah, I am less fascinated by the handclap games and the jump-rope rhymes; those things really are still passed down on the playgrounds in my neighborhood, and one of the great pleasures of them is learning them from other kids, not from adults. But they take up a small enough section of the book. The page (!) on boys is blessedly sensible, and seems to take on the comparable section in the "Boys" book quite directly: while the "Boys" book starts with the premise that girls are different (because, apparently, they "do not get quite as excited by the use of urine as a secret ink as boys do"), the "Girls" book reminds girls that the generalizations they know about girls tend not to hold up, so the ones about boys are likely equally suspect. Nice work on that one, women.

Of course therein lies the essential paradox of this book: it exists only to demonstrate that it doesn't need to, trying to send the message that there's no reason girls and boys couldn't be equally daring and dangerous. I'm happy to read the message, and to shelve both books next to each other for both my kids to consult. And maybe, just maybe, we can look forward to a second, combined edition that dispenses with the particularity altogether.

1 comment:

  1. I'm staying away from the whole Daring/Dangerous book business, for oh so many good reasons. But I can't let a reference to Isabella Bird pass. What a great subject she would be for a kids' book!