I like this book. My 11-year-old self likes this book. The question is, will a boy just entering his second decade like it as much as a boy entering his seventh? The bestseller status of this series in Britain suggests that someone is reading them, or at least someone is buying them. Perhaps nostalgic grandfathers for their Xbox-bound grandsons?
Let me say right off the top that my objectivity is compromised in reviewing this compendious volume of things to do and stuff to make, of derring-do and wonders galore. It is an article of faith among those of us who write for young readers that, while the bells and whistles of youth might change at an alarming rate, youth itself is not so different from one generation to the next. The Igguldens (authors Conn and Hal) clearly believe this to be the case. "In this age of video games and cell phones," they write, "there must still be a place for knots, tree-houses and stories of incredible courage."
It's quite a claim, and one that Globe and Mail columnist Roy MacGregor seems to endorse. His foreword to the book is spirited and funny, recalling a childhood spent largely outdoors, replete with bows and arrows and not much that required batteries. An unstructured time. This is the ethos of The Dangerous Book for Boys , and yet, happily, the writing is resolutely not nostalgic. The book might be a throwback, but mercifully, there isn't a note of irony in the enterprise. The authors firmly believe that a boy today is likely to be every bit as curious about card tricks, code sticks and cipher wheels as a boy of any other era with a little time on his hands. So they have written about such matters in a straightforward, no-nonsense way. There is nothing cute here. Even the discussion about girls is frank.
Wait, girls? Well yes, because the book is about all manner of curiosities and a little advice on the fairer sex seems in order. For example, the point is made that, as a general rule, "girls do not get quite as excited by the use of urine as a secret ink." The Igguldens also warn their young male reader to avoid being vulgar. "Excitable bouts of wind-breaking will not endear you to a girl," they suggest. So yes, girls find their way into this rich farrago, but that being said, they only get half the coverage that a brief history of artillery does.
Boldly it is proposed that boys of this new and distracting millennium might still want to know how to hunt and cook a rabbit, or for that matter to tan its skin. No squeamishness here. There are also directions for making a 10-penny battery or a simple electromagnet. But a boy might also want to learn a few choice phrases in Latin, right? And it goes without saying that knowing how to say, "No way! That's stupid," in six languages can't help but come in handy.
Dipping into the book, one is reminded of the idea of a gentleman: a chap brave enough to conquer the North Pole but who can also quote Shakespeare and knows how to write in a fair italic hand, having crafted his own nib to do so. MacGregor recalls his own father, who was a logger by trade and an outdoorsman by inclination, but who could quote every stanza of The Cremation of Sam McGee . I learned that poem by heart, myself, and here it is, by gum!
There are cracking good tales here: battles like Thermopylae and Hastings, and, because it's the Canadian edition, the Plains of Abraham and Vimy Ridge. There are also adventures about the voyageurs and Josiah Henson, to mention a couple. I did not know the story of Francis Pegahmagabow, an Ojibwa, highly decorated in the First World War for bravery and marksmanship, but whose greater struggle came when he returned to his native Ontario to face the far more insidious enemy of institutionalized racism. So not exactly the kind of thing I recall in the Eagle boys' annuals that my British grandparents sent me every Christmas.
The Igguldens have raised the consciousness of this very old genre. I have before me a Boy's Own Annual from 1926, with much the same kind of fare: "the proper hold for a crocodile" and how to make a wireless set. My Boy's Own , however, opens with Troop One of Labrador , a story by Dillon Wallace, author of Grit A-Plenty , as it says under a lithograph of a slathering wolf pack bearing down on a sledge. And here is where The Dangerous Book differs from its literary ancestry: There is no fiction. Is it just that the writing of this particular brand of grit-a-plenty short story is a lost art? Or is it the audience that has been lost to Halo Wars and Street Fighter IV?
So, no fiction and nothing virtual. Still, there's enough here for the mind and hand to while away a month of Sundays. You might even have to turn off the tube when you get to the tricky part - the part where you make something real.
Tim Wynne-Jones is the maker of innumerable bows and arrows. His next book is the thriller The Uninvited, due out in May.