'Dangerous Book' a guide to delightful trouble

"The Dangerous Book for Boys" is a guidebook of sorts, written by two brothers, Conn and Hal Iggulden, aimed at boys from "eight to eighty," urging them to "recapture Sunday afternoons and long summer days."

It covers some 80 topics, from building a tree house, to Spies-codes and ciphers, understanding longitude and latitude, juggling, coin tricks, making a periscope, extraordinary stories of bravery, as well as grammar and history. There is also a guide to what essential gear every boy should possess, if not on his person, in an old tin (Swiss Army knife, compass, handkerchief, box of matches, a shooter &

meaning a favorite big marble, needle and thread, pencil and paper, small flashlight, magnifying glass, band-aids, and fishhooks).

The book, with a vermilion cover, the title in black and gold script, was first published in Britain in June of 2006 and reached number one on the nonfiction charts, selling over half a million copies. When it hit the U.S., in late spring of 2007, the only book to outsell it on the Amazon.com charts was "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows."

Clearly, this book has struck a chord in England and America. In a brief preface, the brothers write, "In this age of video games and cell phones, there must still be a place for knots, tree houses, and stories of incredible courage. When you're a boy you want to learn coin tricks and how to play poker ... you want to be self-sufficient and find your way by the stars."

In truth, "The Dangerous Book for Boys" is a nostalgic reflection on what it means to have a boyhood that is not framed by days seated in front of a screen of some kind &

computer, television or cell phone. In other words, a retro-boyhood, one on the loose, out and about, mirroring what the Igguldens remember as the best of their youth.

But there is something else in play, here, and that is the belief that our boys are in crisis and have been for two decades or more. Something is missing in their lives. According to some scholars, they are not being well served by society or schools. From elementary schools to high schools they have lower grades, and lower class rankings. According to Michael Kimmel, professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, "They are 50 percent more likely to repeat a grade in elementary school, one-third more likely to drop out of high school, and about six times more likely to diagnosed with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)."

Christina Hoff Sommers, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, in a recent Time Magazine interview, said, "Boys don't read as well as girls. Fewer boys than girls take the SAT and fewer apply to college. Fewer boys than girls express a passion for learning and fewer are earning college degrees. Even sperm counts are dropping." It's true at every level of society, continued Sommers, that boys are stumbling behind. "Boys are five time as likely as girls to die by suicide."

College stats are similar, says Kimmel, "if the boys are there at all." Women now constitute the majority of students on college campuses, having passed men in 1982. Women will soon earn over 58 percent of all bachelor's degrees.

Some make the argument that schools are designed for passive behavior, where seat-time is a premium. With the cuts brought about by No Child Left Behind, activities such as P.E. and recess and hands-on labs have been cut, to the detriment of boys who are active, exuberant, rambunctious, and trying to survive in an environment that is, according to Sommers, "inhospitable."

It is an interesting debate, with other scholars insisting that there has been a gradual turnaround of late and boys are improving. For example, there has been a 4 percent increase in boys' graduation rates as well as a — percent increase in their SAT scores. However, according to the "America's Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2007" the boy crisis is still a reality and parents and professionals should be alarmed.

The success of a book like "The Dangerous Book for Boys" reflects, it would seem, the anxiety of parents and educators regarding the preparation boys receive for a life to be lived in the global community, one that will require a high degree of literacy, an ability to learn continually, to adjust, and to live with a flexibility, leavened with courage, that wasn't required of their parents.

The concern of the Igguldens is that such boys will have to know more than simply how to turn on a toy, pop in a DVD, or plug in an iPOD. Clearly they believe that modern boys need far more adventure in their lives, and not the kind that comes from over-organized sports or being driven to planned activities. They need to be reminded of the words of James Joyce who wrote, "He was alone. He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life. He was alone and young and willful and wild-hearted, alone amidst a waste of wild air and brackish waters and the seaharvest of shells and tangle and veiled grey sunlight."

And wasn't it Huck Finn who said, "But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can't stand it. I been there before."

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