Departments: Society: A Dangerous Book for Girls

MY HUSBAND DOUG and I were watching the marching band perform at our son’s high-school football game when I noticed something. There on the field amid the sequin-spangled flag twirlers was a slim black-clad figure, bouncing to the beat of “Beauty and the Beast” and proudly unfurling a rainbow swath of satin in time with the rest of the row. “Is that a boy?” I asked.

Doug peered at the bobbing, swirling dancer. “That,” he said, “is the bravest boy in the world.”

And, clearly, a boy who doesn’t own a copy of The Dangerous Book for Boys, the compendium of British boy know-how — School Library Journal called it “old-­fashioned and politically incorrect” — that last spring was published by ­HarperCollins in an Americanized version that’s been parked atop the New York Times best-seller list ever since. If he did, he’d be building tree houses and chipping flint arrowheads and (eck!) skinning rabbits, because those are boy things to do, and if boys don’t do them, if they instead play video games or twirl flags with girls, they’ll never grow up with the true “attributes of manliness,” as the book puts it.

Andrea Buchanan, who lives in Center City, and Miriam Peskowitz, of Mount Airy, are authors, friends, and the owners of MotherTalk, Inc., which organizes online “virtual book tours.” (“Moms can’t get to the bookstore,” Buchanan explains, “but they can get to the computer at 2 a.m.”) Hired by HarperCollins earlier this year to construct such a tour for Boys — with book reviews and author interviews on websites and blogs — the two read the book and had identical reactions: “This is so great! Where’s the one for girls?”

“We figured they already had one in the works,” Peskowitz confesses. But they couldn’t stop thinking about what a girls’ book might contain. So they wrote to the editor of Boys, proposing a distaff version. Instead of building tree houses, girls would build indoor forts of sofa cushions. Where boys played rugby, girls would play hopscotch. And where boys skinned rabbits, girls would … well, there really wasn’t anything analogous to that. Girls would learn Japanese t-shirt folding, though.

“Within three days,” says Peskowitz, “we were on a train to New York and meeting with a room full of publishing big shots. We gave them our proposal, and at the end of the meeting they said, ‘Start working!’”

And thus their just-published The Daring Book for Girls was born.

It seems fair enough, prima facie, that where there’s a book for boys, there should be one for girls. After all, there’s blue and pink. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Football and cheerleading. One water fountain for the white kids, and one for the … oh, wait.

Perhaps the proper feminist reaction to Boys would have been to co-opt it, send forth an army of little girls chanting “Anything you can do, I can do better” as they laid tripwires and wrote secret messages in urine and, yes, skinned rabbits. But a book that says “We can, too!” isn’t a book. A book for girls, especially one that the publisher is producing more than half a million copies of, had to be different. Distinct. Girly. And so The Daring Book for Girls is … sparkly.

“The cover of Boys has gold lettering,” Peskowitz says. “When HarperCollins told us the lettering on Girls would be silver, we were disappointed. But then they said it would be sparkly.”

“All girls go through a sparkly phase.” Buchanan grins.

“I’m sure the neurobiologists,” says Peskowitz, “have some way of explaining the sparkly thing.”

Girls is sparkly inside, too. Like Boys, it’s a sequence of brief chapters: three pages on knotting friendship bracelets, four pages on slumber-party games, two pages on making a cloth-covered book, four pages on female pirates. There are lots of illustrations and diagrams — how to do a cartwheel, how to make a cootie catcher (those origami fortune-telling things), how to put your hair up with a pencil. There are lists of “girl classic” books (A Little Princess, Anne of Green Gables) and women inventors and “modern women leaders.” There are recipes for shortbread and fudge. It’s all done in a twee, vaguely British tone — “Bandanas are often sold under the nondescript name ‘All Purpose Cloth,’ or APC. A bit of a boring moniker, perhaps, but, oh, so true” — that mirrors the quaint, old-fashioned illustrations of girls in mary janes and dresses jumping rope and swinging on swings. It’s meant as … well, I’m not sure. Sugar-coated empowerment, I guess. But even the authors don’t seem quite certain what they’re up to.

“We have the things girls like to do,” says Buchanan, “but we don’t limit them to girly things. We walk a fine line between the stereotypes of girly-girl and tomboy.”

“We’ve had several decades of rapidly changing ideas about what it means to be male and female,” says Peskowitz.

“It’s ever-shifting,” Buchanan puts in.

“It takes some time to figure this out,” Peskowitz allows. “We’re not saying there’s just one way to be the 21st-century girl.”

The authors are quite clear, though, that Girls is meant to teach girls to stand up for themselves. Take the chapter on “How to Negotiate a Salary.” It quotes JFK (“Let us never fear to negotiate”), suggests girls research the going rates, and advises them to smile and be friendly.

Uh-huh. That’s how Rupert Murdoch made his.

IN PERSON, NEITHER Buchanan, 36, nor Peskowitz, 43, is sparkly. Peskowitz is professorial, which is to say bright and sincere and didactic. Buchanan is more easygoing. They were both musical prodigies, which means they spent much of their childhoods doing the exact same thing over and over again, which means hey, sure, hopscotch would look like fun.

Peskowitz grew up on Long Island playing cello, and majored in music and comparative religion at Oberlin before earning post-grad degrees from Duke. Buchanan is a Navy brat, born in Newfoundland, reared in Bermuda and California, a pianist who went to the Boston Conservatory and had a recital at Carnegie Hall. (“In the smaller venue,” she says modestly.) Peskowitz has two daughters; Buchanan has a daughter and a son. Both women have spent their professional lives pondering gender issues. Buchanan edited a twin-set of essay collections, It’s a Boy and It’s a Girl, in which women writers ruminate on raising children of each gender, as well as a collection, Literary Mama, of reading “for the maternally inclined.” Peskowitz has authored several books covering topics like religion and gender, plus 2005’s The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars, which argued that the stay-at-home mom vs. working mom dichotomy is a labor issue, not a catfight.

The two certified-feminist authors won’t say how much they were paid for this latest foray into the gender wars, but they’re willing to discuss how they came at the task. They point out that Conn and Hal Iggulden, the brothers who wrote The Dangerous Book for Boys, were on a ­mission — they had a bone to pick about boys today being way too enamored of technology, and were on a back-to-basics kick. Boys is plainly, luxuriantly nostalgic, wallowing in the good old days of stickball and marbles and the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Girls isn’t nostalgic, its authors say, because there isn’t much in the history of women to be nostalgic for.

“It’s girl lore,” Buchanan says. “We’re not sentimentalizing a time that never really existed.”

“Our book looks forward,” Peskowitz says archly.

“We didn’t approach it as ‘Kids need this,’” says Buchanan. “It’s more like a gift.” And that’s how the book’s most likely to arrive in girls’ hands: It will be bought for them — at $24.95 a pop — by moms and grandmoms, which is why the illustrations are more Bobbsey Twins than Bratz. That’s also one reason why the title isn’t The Dangerous Book for Girls.

“‘Dangerous,’” Peskowitz says, “has a different connotation for girls. You think of 13-year-olds going off in cars with boys.”

Buchanan nods: “It’s a loaded word.”

Grandmoms and moms, after all, don’t want their little darlings too edgy. Girls who aren’t careful — aren’t non-dangerous — get into big trouble. The problem is, when you excise the danger from a project like this, what’s left is a Girl Scout handbook with marbled end papers. And if you’ve ever read the Girl Scout handbook, you know it’s no fun. True, it was HarperCollins that nixed the chapter on building a backyard zipline, and the one on fence-climbing. “The feeling seemed to be,” Peskowitz says, “if there’s a fence, it’s private property.”

But she and Buchanan were their own fun-killers. Take the ultimate sleepover pastime, Truth or Dare. It’s a simple game. When your turn comes up, you’re given a choice: Tell the truth in answer to any question you’re asked, or accept whatever dare is put to you. Girls says, “It’s a good idea to set some ground rules before you play so that nobody gets her feelings hurt or gets in too much trouble.” Eh? In my daughter’s ­middle-school sleepover heyday, Truth or Dare was one of the few things that drove girls to push the limits of behavior, spurred them to be, well, dangerous, in fear-­nothing, Dangerous Book for Boys ways. But Buchanan and Peskowitz chose to minimize risk.

“We remember being really cruel,” says Peskowitz. “Girls have been told they’re mean, that mean girls are normal. But there are many great ways to play Truth or Dare without anyone ending up in tears.”

“It’s really very postmodern feminist!” Buchanan says. “We’re not automatically assuming the construct of mean girls/nice girls.”

“We were determined,” says Peskowitz, “to nip the Mean Girls thing in the bud.”

If girls are so nice, though, why do we have to caution them not to be mean? And if they can be anything they want, shouldn’t they be allowed to be, well, mean?

HARPERCOLLINS clearly expects great things of Girls. The initial print run is more than 600,000. Even before publication, the book was being translated into 10 languages. And Boys was optioned for a movie by Disney, after a bidding war the London Times termed “fierce.” While there are no movie deals finalized yet for Girls, there is a Daring Girls anthem that you can hear on the book’s website, “It’s got a great beat,” Peskowitz reports. “‘Daring girls prevail!’”

Buchanan and Peskowitz can try all they want to convince me Girls will make the world a better place for their daughters, but I don’t think they’re even convinced themselves. In the chapter on boys in Girls, the authors write that it’s “easier to think about boys and girls as being entirely different than it is to think about boys and girls as having lots of common ground.” So why perpetuate the gender-role divide? Why answer Boys’ celebration of the “attributes of manliness” with how to write a thank-you note and press a flower? Isn’t Girls, in its retro sparkliness, a Faustian betrayal of the dream of true equality? “Ghettoizing girls, reinforcing stereotypes — we talked about that every day,” Buchanan admits.

“It would be great if boys read Girls and learned about flashlight sleepouts and how to make a campfire,” Peskowitz says wistfully. Yeah, well, sparkly took care of that.

“If we’d written our book first,” Buchanan says, “we might have just written it for kids.”

BUCHANAN’S DAUGHTER, when she was three or four, was trying to jump from the coffee table onto the couch and kept missing. Finally she said, “I can’t do it! I’m just a girl!” Buchanan, horrified by this capitulation, rushed to assure her: “You can do it! Of course you can! Girls can do anything boys can do!” Her daughter looked at her and said, “Mommy, I’m not a cat.”

Sometimes we get so caught up in Mars and Venus that we assume our kids are fighting the same battles we do. And sometimes, like the stay-at-home and working moms, we fight battles where there are none. “Our book has the real Robert’s Rules of Order for running a meeting. Knowing Robert’s Rules makes you feel smarter than the other girls,” says Buchanan, only to be politely bitch-slapped by Peskowitz:

“Smarter with the other girls.”

They’ll work on that before they take their show on the road. “We’ll be doing a lot of TV,” says Buchanan. That would be grown-up TV, not kids’ TV. The secret to kids’ book publishing is that kids don’t buy books, even when the cover is sparkly. But parents and grandparents keep buying kids books, for the same reason we buy them tops and jump ropes and jacks. We’re not so much nostalgic for our childhoods as for the myth of our childhood, that idyllic time before adulthood clanked down when life should have been carefree, but wasn’t. We’re nostalgic for the childhood we wish we had, wish it so hard that sometimes we actually convince ourselves it was one long stretch of daisy chains and tag. The truth is, we remember the good times because that’s when we were happy, as opposed to the rest of it, when we were jealous of our siblings and ostracized by peers and desperately trying to figure out how to fit in.

If girls were buying this book for themselves, I’d be worried. I’d feel that 50 years of rabble-rousing and bouncing off glass ceilings has been in vain, and that we’ve failed the long line of women (Margaret Sanger, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, Gloria Steinem) who truly were daring, in that they were different and bold and unafraid to say boo to the status quo. But this book is a big, sparkly vitamin pill. Well-meaning adults will hand it to girls with an inevitable air of “Take it. It’s good for you.” And those 600,000 marble-end-papered volumes will wind up as relics, sitting on dusty shelves as boys and girls fumble onward, one male flag-twirler at a time, toward the freedom to be whatever they please.