Society: A Dangerous Book for Girls

Two Philadelphians have written a new guide intended to empower our daughters. But with Hillary running for president, are pressed flowers and cootie catchers what girls really need?

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 trip wires 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.