When I was young, I remember hauling around one of those big books of everything -- a phone book-sized tome with page-long essays on Cleopatra, dragonflies, volcanoes, etc. -- and devouring its pages. I'd read 50 entries on a Saturday, or 10 before bed. I bored the rest of my family senseless with various tidbits gleaned from my reading and, at one point, announced that I loved my volume of "facts, all facts."
Yes, those were good times for a curious kid. During the pre-teen years, the voracious reader wants to learn everything she can about her universe, and how to have fun in it. That's why I've been smiling nostalgically for the past 24 hours as I've paged through two new books, The Dangerous Book for Boys and The Daring Book for Girls. Done up to look a bit like old-fashioned encyclopedias, these volumes offer bite-sized essays on everything cool in the world, as well as how-tos that give you a mischievous feeling in this era of toy recalls and injury-proof playgrounds. For instance, the Dangerous Book for Boys tells you how to build a go-kart and hunt and cook a rabbit (with explicit instructions that you must eat it -- it's no good to kill things just for sport). Delightful!
Not to be outdone, the Daring Book for Girls instructs on building a clock powered by lemons (who knew?), biographies of female pirates, examples of karate moves, instructions for telling a really good ghost story, how to whistle with two fingers and how to tie a sari. Yes, the world is a complicated place, but armed with this knowledge, the 8-12 year old reader will sail through.
These books couldn't come out at a better time. As I've been pondering Christmas presents for the children in my life, the lists of hot toys are bringing out the Grinch in me. For starters, many of the mass-market girls' dolls are completely brainless. One that "eats like a real baby?" Oy -- girls, you'll spend enough time trying to steer strained peas into real babies' mouths later in life. Why play it now? Most of the other hot toys feature screens of some variety -- as if kids don't spend enough time watching TV -- and the one science kit type that's made some lists is for making bubbles. In other words, no chemistry set with strong oxidizers that go BOOM! And forget any possibilities of skinned knees. The seemingly-cool SmartCycle, a stationary bike type contraption you hook into a TV that gets kids spinning in order to zoom through video games is, in reality, a bike that can't fall over, located in the living room where you won't get the ruddy cheeks that come from zooming down a real hill.
The Dangerous and Daring books, on the other hand, tell you to save up for a Swiss Army Knife. They tell you how to play 14 kinds of tag (banned on more politically correct playgrounds). They give you a brief history of artillery. They note the differences between genders ("as a general rule," observes the Dangerous book, "girls do not get quite as excited by the use of urine as a secret ink as boys do.") And yet, both contain poetry and instructions on foreign phrases and proper grammar. We may be dangerous and daring, but it is important for all of us to learn to be civilized as well.
In short, I think these books make much better Christmas presents than more video games for the curious children in your lives. Here's hoping they stay atop the best-seller lists for the rest of the holiday season.