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?

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 both 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, believe boys today are way too enamored of technology, and were on a back-to-basics mission. 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?