The Dangerous Book For Boys, that large, hardcover encyclopedia of facts and activities and diagrams published in the U.K. in 2006, is an awesome book. It teaches how to build a tree house and a pinhole camera, lists famous battles and famous quotations, diagrams some easy science experiments, and is filled with invisible inks and pirate codes and word origins and maps of the solar system. It is fun-loving and subtly educational: It encourages reading and gentlemanly behaviour (particularly to girls – it warns that you must wash and be polite if you want their attention). I can't wait till my son, now four, is old enough to enjoy it. There is almost nothing in it that should appeal for any biological reason exclusively to boys, so from a philosophical point of view it's problematic, but I don't think it will encourage him to behave in a boorish or stereotypically violent way.
And it will be attractive to him in a way that all exclusive clubs are: If the secrets available to him appear to be available only to boys then it makes them cooler, and that makes the entire activity of opening a book – something increasingly seen in the world at large as a feminine activity – itself manly. Anything that encourages a boy to open a book, in a world of more violent and therefore more compelling video games, is something I'm going to pay for.
Were that book to be published today it would not be eligible for review in the British newspaper The Independent on Sunday, which has declared a new policy: No children's book marketed specifically at one gender will be reviewed in their pages. This policy will rapidly be picked up by other newspapers, as it is part of a general well-meaning trend toward fighting silly gender stereotypes in children's toys and entertainments. Campaigns such as Let Toys Be Toys are an understandable response to the idiocy of gender divisions that plague toy stores and bookshelves, where everything feminine is pink and princess-like.
Anyone reasonable favours breaking down these walls. And yet I can't help feeling sad about The Dangerous Book For Boys. That may be because I feel sad for boys in the literary domain generally. Most critics of gender division are women, and they're worried about girls and the roles presented for them by gendered entertainments. They are quite right to be. Telling girls that the cars and the guns are beyond their domain of expertise, and that they should content themselves with clothes and friendships, is limiting. The worry about girls' toys and girls' books is that they stress how to host a tea party over how to change a tire, and changing a tire is the more valuable skill. This is true; the fear is justified.
They don't seem to worry as much about boys. The boys' books already have the cool stuff in them, the stuff about soapbox racers and how paper routes work, that girls want and need access to.
It is also true that many books targeted at small boys are similarly crude and limiting. My son craves picture books about Transformers and Ninja Turtles and the Hulk; they show one fantastic creature smashing or zapping another into smithereens on page after page. They are dull and ugly and show no interesting stories or models of conflict resolution or character building. Now that he knows what violent delights await him inside their covers, if one of them is on offer he can't be persuaded to pay attention to a more gentle story. He has already been conditioned to think that domestic settings, are for girls; he already knows the word "boring" to refer to anything that doesn't feature sparks and smashes.
The Dangerous Book for Boys is then a useful compromise. It's a kind of a trick; it promises manly adventure but slips in the pleasures of actual reading and knowledge. Politically wrong, perhaps, but practical for a parent in a pinch – and parents in pinches know that short-term fixes are the ones we are most likely to reach for. (By the way, the companion volume, The Daring Book For Girls, was published the following year with very similar content – lots of "tomboy"activity, science projects and female heroes in history.)
It is simply more difficult to get little boys to sit still and read a book. They would rather be squirting the cat with water or experimenting with the controls on the gas stove. So one can be forgiven for trying whatever works. Plastering the word "boy" across the cover simply makes reading more attractive to the distracted.
And if my little guy finds books like this exciting, then he will go on, I hope, to enter the more-or-less gender-equal world of Narnia and Harry Potter – a brief respite before teenage segregation begins and the literature he will see all around him will be for girls only (so-called Young Adult fiction is marketed primarily to girls; there is no teenage boy equivalent). And once he attains adolescence and sets eyes on Wattpad, with its endless high-school romances and Twilight mashups, he might start to believe that the entire enterprise of writing stories is a girls' club. It's nice for him to have some early role models that show the contrary.
Of course all these ghettos should be broken up. But it's hard to persuade children's publishers that they are in the wrong with their marketing efforts when the grownup-book pushers do the same thing. We are still vulnerable to gender-targeted marketing no matter how carefully we edit our children's bookshelves. It's a bit hypocritical for the guardians of culture to insist on plentiful nurturing spaces for women's voices – such as the "Summer Reads" table at Indigo – and deny similarly proudly gendered literary spaces for boys when they are at their most diffident and easily dissuaded when it comes to reading.