For Daniel’s eighth birthday last month, his grandfather sent him the UK edition of The Dangerous Book for Boys by brothers Conn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden. The book, an oversize red-covered tome, is an appealing jumble of activities and projects (make your own battery or tree house or the greatest paper plane in the world, learn basic first aid, five knots every boy should know), as well as useful knowledge — there are chapters on grammar, some of Shakespeare’s most famous quotations, Latin phrases every boy should know, and stargazing. Rather like E.D. Hirsch’s “What Your 4th Grader Should Know”, but in one volume with matches, alum, and copper batteries.
Snitching it from my son to read, at first I wished that the like chapters were lumped together, all the Famous Battles chapters and Extraordinary Stories (about extraordinary lives) together, and the various astronomy chapters (Astronomy, Charting the Universe, The Moon, The Solar System) together too, but then I realized I was looking at the book as a home educating adult woman in her forties, when what the average seven to 12 year-old boy (or girl — and anyone who lets the title of a book stop her has other problems) probably wants is the surprise of discovering what’s next. And that means chapters on codes and ciphers (including charts for Morse code and the NATO phonetic alphabet), making crystals, the story of Scott of the Antarctic, making a go-cart, and insects and spiders, side by side, by side by side. Enough to keep one happy on “Sunday afternoons and long summer days”, as noted on the book’s back cover, as well as winter days and tucked under the covers with one’s torch, er, flashlight, reading about Joe Simpson’s harrowing 1985 mountain-climbing expedition in the Andes with his friend Simon Yates.
The Dangerous Book reminds me a bit of an old but very useful doorstop I have on the shelf, the 1931 edition of The Volume Library: A Concise Graded Repository of Practical and Cultural Knowledge Designed for Both Instruction and Reference, with sections on Education, Language & Grammar, Literature, History, Geography, Trade & Industry, The Atlas, Biographical Dictionary, Dictionary, Mathematics, Science, Hygiene, Government & Law, Fine Arts, and Useful Miscellany (which, like The Dangerous Book, includes Answers to Puzzling to Questions). More than half the fun lies in not knowing where a turn of the page will take you, and knowing that you are also certain to learn something new and fun. But dangerous only in the sense that a little learning, even about knot-making, is a dangerous thing.
Likewise, there’s little dangerous or even brand-spanking new in the Igguldens’ book for old-fashioned, or I suppose “retro” (sounds less conservative and more trendy, doesn’t it?), families, where childhood still includes a bicycle, a patch of green to run around in, with some Latin and Shakespeare thrown in for good measure. And those of us who are fortunate enough to have the fortitude or constitution to let the running around be fairly unfettered (that would be those of us whose kids have all needed stitches and whose idea — the kids’, that is — of fun is leaping off stacks of big round straw bales), Dangerous is more of a remedial summer camp (and summer school) in a book, and there’s nothing wrong with that, especially for those last children in the woods. Which is probably why the book has been so popular in the UK and now the US.
Daniel, always one of the first children in the woods, in the mud, and into his father’s tools, reports that his new book “is good and it’s fun, but it’s more of a reading book than a doing book”. His first choice for a “doing” book is still The American Boy’s Handy Book by Daniel Carter Beard (do yourself a favor and get the Centennial edition published by Godine, with the lovely foreword by the late Noel Perrin), which is on target with my thoughts last year.
So I was interested to learn that both Daniel and I are in complete agreement with Mark Frauenfelder at Boing Boing, who wrote last week in his post Dangerous books for boys (and girls and men and women): “While the book is beautifully produced and entertaining, it really doesn’t contain any risky projects that the title and nostalgic design suggest.”
To remedy that, Mark suggests a list of his favorite “dangerous” books, including a couple by his friend (and Farm School favorite) William Gurstelle; also on the list is the Manual Of Formulas: Recipes, Methods and Secret Processes, originally published by Popular Science Magazine in 1932, which I think is the volume still on my parents’ kitchen shelf; I read it often but didn’t use it much because it required so many exotic, um, ingredients. (Though Davy might find the information on how to re-ink typewriters useful.) In a similar vein is Lee’s Priceless Recipes: 3000 Secrets for the Home, Farm, Laboratory, Workship and Every Department of Human Endeavor compiled by Dr. N.T. Oliver, which I discovered in the Classic Reprint series section of the Lee Valley Tool catalogue. The 1998 facsimile edition is a handy dandy size, 4-1/2″ by 6″ (and just under an inch thick), just right for keeping in a pocket or storing in, oh, say, a tree house, and was a bargain at under $8 Canadian; not surprisingly, the new edition comes with the following warning:
This is a reprint of a book compiled in 1895. It describes what was done and what was recommended to be done in accordance with the knowledge of the day.
On the medical side, some of the proposed remedies would not only be considered inadequate today, but would also be considered potentially harmful.
ON ALL MEDICAL ADVICE, CONSULT YOUR PHYSICIAN. DO NOT TAKE THE ADVICE GIVEN HERE.
It would also be advisable to treat all corrosive, explosive, and toxic materials with greater caution than is indicated here, particularly any materials that come in contact with the body.
Not a bad idea when some of the recipes, only a few for food (ice cream, lemonade, beer, etc.), include how to make “camphorated tincture of opium” for whatever ails you, and the book has an entire section on “Fireworks and Explosives”, with instructions on how to make dynamite. Dangerous doesn’t begin to cover it.
What caught my eye in Mark’s list of books was his mention of The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments, first published in 1960 by the Western Publishing Companty, in part because the kids spent the better part of the winter enjoying Golden Book’s Complete Book of Indian Crafts and Lore by W. Ben Hunt, and in part because the book is said to have influenced the Radioactive Boy Scout. Mark writes [emphasis on the third paragraph mine],
Dangerous projects [in The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments] include: making chlorine, ammonia, hydrogen, and ethanol.
The book is long out of print, and used copies are very expensive (Amazon.com has used copies for over $100). Of course, in today’s litigious environment, no major publisher would dare republish a book that had actual chemistry experiments in it, for fear getting sued. I have long wanted to own a copy of The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments. I sort of forgot about it, but recently a friend emailed me a page he had scanned from a copy he owns. It prompted me to search for a sub-$100 copy. I got lucky and found a $0 copy, thanks to BitTorrent. Here’s a link to the torrent file for a nice scan of the 112 page book.
The book is an example of everything great about vintage children’s science books. Once you lay your eyes on it, you will come to the sad realization that our society has slipped backwards in at least three important ways: 1. The writing quality in old kids’ science books was better; 2. The design and illustration was more thoughtful and skillful; 3. Children in the old days were allowed and encouraged to experiment with mildly risky but extremely rewarding activities. Today’s children, on the other hand, are mollycoddled to the point of turning them into unhappy ignoramuses.
Which ties in nicely with a point Natalie Angier made last week in her CBC interview about her new book, The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, which I forgot to mention in my post the other day, that the worrying drop in children’s scientific literacy is due in part to the idea kids have of science as dry and boring, brought home to them daily by dry and boring textbooks.
Unfortunately, BitTorrent doesn’t work for those of us with Macs. So try this free PDF file here, The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments; I discovered another PDF link (since disabled) in this nifty post about retro science books, which also mentions Mr. Wizard’s 400 Experiments in Science, by Don Herbert and Hy Ruchlis (the post also laments the absence of Mr. Wizard on DVD, though the kids and I discovered recently via Zip.ca that Mr. Wizard is indeed available on DVD). In some brief email correspondence, Mark at Boing Boing was kind enough to mention that The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments can be had in book form from Lulu for under $30 US, which does appeal to the Luddite in me, not to mention handier for handing to your child. And spark an idea for more chemistry for school next year, especially if I remember to take a look at the online catalogue of the homeschool-friendly Boreal Northwest lab supplies (which operates in the US as ScienceKit.com). Now if only I could get Tom to build us a small lab building, separate from the house, where the kids could make messes and things could go bump (and boom) in the night.
I’ll leave you with a bit of Noel Perrin‘s foreward to the 1983 centennial edition of American Boy’s Handy Book, on the book’s author, Dan Beard:
…of all the attempts to preserve wildness that he made in a long life (and he lived to be 90), the most successful was the book you are holding. It began as a series of articles for the old St. Nicholas magazine, designed to encourage city boys to recover their natural independence and self-sufficiency. It first became a book in 1882. For the next half-century it went through edition after edition, as innumerable fathers gave it to innumerable sons. Then as the new concept of boyhood gained strength, interest in the book faded, and now it has been hard to find for fifty years.
The book will be interesting to contemporary boys (and some girls, too, which would startle Mr. Beard) in two ways. First, like Huckleberry Finn — or William Dean Howells’ A Boy’s Town, or Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s The Story of a Bad Boy, or even like some TV programs on the “Little House on the Prairie” model — it gives a picture of a kind of childhood now quite rare. Being a manual or handy-book, it gives an unusually faithful picture. Beard describes nothing that American boys weren’t really doing a century ago — in fact, nothing that it didn’t seem to him almost any boy could (and would want to) do. It’s like being given a glimpse of your great-grandfather’s boyhood, only with none of the romantic haze the old man would cast around it, if he were alive and telling the story. Or it’s like a look behind the scenes in Mark Twain. So that’s how Huck and Jim cooked catfish; that’s how he and Tom Sawyer must have made fire-balloons.
But the book is even more interesting as an actual manual to use right now. It is possible — in fact, normal — to watch “Little House” in an entirely passive mode, with no thought of clicking off the set and going out to dig a well or catch prairie dogs. It is not possible to read The American Boy’s Handy Book without feeling a desire to try some of the things Beard talks about.
Parts of the book are, of course, outmoded. No one can go to the village glazier now and pick up free bits of surplus glass to use in making a home aquarium, or trot down the street to the blacksmith with directions for a couple of metal parts you want him to forge. …
But because nature itself has changed hardly at all over the past century, however much our attitude toward it has, and because jackknives, axes, and fishhooks remain readily available, a good half of the directions are as useful today as they were in 1882. And as fascinating.
Not to mention dangerous.
If you’ll excuse me now, I have to teach my six-year-old how to burn a hole in a leaf with a magnifying glass.
UPDATED to add: I forgot to mention one of our favorite out-of-print chemistry books, The How and Why Wonder Book of Chemistry by Martin L. Keen, illustrated by Walter Ferguson, published by Grosset & Dunlap, 1961, part of The How and Why Wonder Book series. The books are generally paperback, large format, more than 48 pages, profusely illustrated (with maps, charts, and drawings, rather than photographs), and begin with a narrative approach followed by a question-and-answer format. The Chemistry volume covers subjects from “What Is Chemistry?” and “The Ancestors of Chemistry” to “The Language of Chemistry”, “Some Interesting Elements”, “Organic Chemistry”, and “The Branches of Chemistry”. Well worth the (Canadian) quarter I spent, considering the original price was 59 cents. We’ve got quite a few How and Why Wonder Books, and I’ve been keeping my eyes open for “The How and Why Wonder Book of Beginning Science” and “The How and Why Wonder Book of Science Experiments”, among others.
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