• About Farm School

    "There are obviously two educations. One should teach us how to make a living and the other how to live."
    James Adams, from his essay "To 'Be' or to 'Do': A Note on American Education", 1929

    We're a Canadian family of five, farming, home schooling, and building our own house. I'm nowhere near as regular a blogger as I used to be.

    The kids are 18/Grade 12, 16/Grade 11, and 14/Grade 10.

    Contact me at becky(dot)farmschool(at)gmail(dot)com

  • Notable Quotables

    "If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."
    William Morris, from his lecture "The Beauty of Life"

    "‘Never look at an ugly thing twice. It is fatally easy to get accustomed to corrupting influences."
    English architect CFA Voysey (1857-1941)

    "The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead."
    Clarence Day

    "Anyone who has a library and a garden wants for nothing."
    Cicero

    "Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtile; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend."
    Sir Francis Bacon, "Essays"

    "The chief aim of education is to show you, after you make a livelihood, how to enjoy living; and you can live longest and best and most rewardingly by attaining and preserving the happiness of learning."
    Gilbert Highet, "The Immortal Profession: The Joys of Teaching and Learning"

    "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment."
    Walter Wriston

    "I'd like to give you a piece of my mind."
    "Oh, I couldn't take the last piece."
    Ginger Rogers to Frances Mercer in "Vivacious Lady" (1938)

    "No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem."
    Booker T. Washington

    "Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."
    Attributed to Groucho Marx in "The Groucho Letters" by Arthur Sheekman

    "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."
    Alice Roosevelt Longworth

    "If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, we feel all our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'."
    Jean Hagen as "Lina Lamont" in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952)
  • Categories

  • Archives

  • ChasDarwinHasAPosse
  • Farm School: A Twitter-Free Zone

    antitwit
  • Copyright © 2005-2016 Please do not use any of my words or my personal photographs without my express permission.

But will they change Titty’s name?

From tomorrow’s London Times:

BBC hopes youth of today will thrill to Swallows and Amazons
by Ben Hoyle, Arts Reporter

It’s as far from a toxic childhood as you are likely to get. Captain John, Able Seaman Titty and Ship’s Boy Roger are to set sail again in a big-screen adaptation of the Arthur Ransome classic Swallows and Amazons.

Inspired by the success of The Dangerous Book for Boys, the BBC is betting that camping, fishing and messing about in dinghies will seem as thrillingly exotic to modern children as any special-effects-laden superhero movie.

The producers believe that the resourceful young heroes of Swallows and Amazons and the book’s idyllic Lake District setting possess an allure that they did not have when the tale was last filmed in 1974, before childhood hobbies became as sedentary, solitary and technology-driven as they are today.

It is a hope backed by the National Theatre, where a musical of Swallows and Amazons is in the pipeline, and at the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth, where an exhibition on Ransome’s work will open later this year.

There are 12 Swallows and Amazons adventures and BBC Films is close to acquiring options on all of them. Jamie Laurenson, executive producer for BBC Films, is hoping for a cinema release next year. He said: “It’s a great story and a fantastic adventure.”

If Swallows and Amazons is to work, Mr Laurenson said, it also needs to make the natural world genuinely frightening. “For a modern audience you need to bring out that feeling of danger. It’s only implied in the action because of when it was written, but it’s about children taking on adult responsibilities. The youth of today are cosseted. We rail against couch potatoes and obesity in children but ban conker fights [see aforementioned Dangerous Book], so I think this is very timely.”

Ransome would have agreed. He was a charismatic man with a love of the outdoors. In a life packed with adventure he married Trotsky’s secretary and may have spied for the Bolsheviks before settling down in the 1920s to work as an occasional foreign correspondent and angling columnist for the Manchester Guardian. He made his breakthrough as an author with Swallows and Amazons, which was published in 1930. …

Purists should be reassured that they will still be set in the prewar years, he added. “I think that period feel is part of their charm.”

Geraint Lewis, chairman of the Arthur Ransome Society, said that the modest nature of the stories themselves was an important element of their appeal. “Ransome was a very good writer and his deceptively simple style has endured. They have never gone completely out of fashion but there does seem to be a welling of interest in them now,” he said.

And the related leading article, also in tomorrow’s Times,

No Duffers
Don’t just watch Swallows and Amazons — be them

From an ancient farmhouse on a peaty fellside, into the jump-cut mayhem of X-boxes and preteen blockbusters, come John, Susan, Titty, Roger and a gaff-rigged dayboat called the Swallow. They’ll fill her up with bread and cheese and tents stitched by their mother. They’ll sail her from a Peak in Darien to an island in the “great lake in the North”. They will find a secret harbour and the perfect campsite. Nearby, still warm, there will be embers. Undeterred, the Swallow’s crew will unroll their sleeping bags and wake to the hearstop-ping sight of an arrow in the gnarled bark of the great tree at the high end of the island.

Oh, to be under surveillance by a faceless enemy armed to the gunwales and master of the timing of her attack! Yes, hers, because the Amazons will soon reveal themselves, not just to the Swallows but to a global audience of millions courtesy of BBC Films. The rights to Arthur Ransome’s books may not be in the bag but they’re being hotly pursued. A feature is planned, and possibly a franchise. Time’s wheel has alighted on the most wholesome of all parallel children’s universes as the best bet for a filmic expression of everything that Nintendo is not.

Good luck to the producers. What greater thrill can there be for any child, in any age, than to create her own world in the real world and be allowed to risk her life in it? For that is the explicit premise of Swallows and Amazons, set out in the children’s father’s legendary telegram sent from his naval ship on service in the Far East: BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN. Tough love was never since so tough (and in any case has long since been outlawed by social services). But this was the green light that sent Roger hurtling down towards a mythic Coniston to tell his siblings their great adventure was a “go”. Let the film version spawn thousands more like it – real ones, rich with the smell of wet rope, burnt camp-fire sausages and lichen on granite. Because Tomb Raider takes some beating.

In other words, paddle your own canoe, and mess about in your own dinghy.

A manual for childhood

This came across my Google Alerts, and strikes me as worth reprinting. From David Phillips, the publisher of The Spring Grove Herald in Minnesota (additional links are mine, not Mr. Phillips’):

PUBLISHER’S NOTEBOOK: Do children need a manual for childhood?
by David Phillips

As the Christmas shopping season kicked off a few weeks ago, I recommended buying a book as a gift. That’s because, according to a recent report by the National Endowment for the Arts, reading provides some amazing lifelong benefits for individuals and may just preserve our civilization.

If you are a parent, two books you may have considered are “The Dangerous Book for Boys” and “The Daring Book for Girls.” That these two books are on the best seller lists raises some interesting questions, perhaps more intriguing ones than the study showing how little people read for pleasure today.

The books are manuals for youth on how to be, well, kids. The book for girls shows them how to do such activities as press flowers, jump rope, use a pencil to put up their hair, play slumber party games, set up a lemonade stand, do hand clap games, tell ghost stories, play jacks, pitch tents and have endless adventures. The book for boys explains things such as how to make paper airplanes, skip stones across water, play in the backyard, tie knots, go fishing and build a treehouse.

Has childhood changed so much in our modern world that we need a manual to explain how to enjoy childhood?

Perhaps so.

It isn’t just that the cell phone, computer screen and television set have replaced good, old fashioned romping around, parents are so protective today that it seems every single moment of youth has to be scripted. Even the authors of one of the books add a disclaimer that “all of these activities should be carried out under adult supervision only.”

Although no study has been done on this subject, the lack of unstructured play in youth today may lead to negative consequences on our economic, social and civic life, similar to what the recent study found was happening due to our lack of reading.

Of course, in this ultra-serious age, advocating seemingly mindless play is a tough sell. We all know reading is serious stuff and many people became worked up over the study on the consequences of not reading. Mention play, though, and people will shrug it off as a cute byproduct of being young, not something that could lead to the downfall of civilization.

After all, we have, as a society, made it difficult to play. Even preschool children are plopped in front of a computer or television screen in hopes of giving them an edge in soaking up knowledge. Academic learning, and testing, is starting earlier than ever. Parents insist on scheduling their children’s lives so they become as booked as adults. Fear prevents adults from encouraging children to freely roam the parks and dwindling public green spaces.

As surprising as the best selling manuals on how to be children is the need for new occupations and organizations that advocate play.

For example, in England, a new professional, called a “playworker,” is trained to facilitate play with children in adventure playgrounds and other settings. These professionals don’t lead the children in play, but encourage it. And in the United States there is an Alliance for Childhood, which states that the benefits of play are so impressive that every day of childhood should be a day for play.

This harkening back to a time when children played from morning to night, running, jumping, playing dress-up and creating endless stories out of their active imaginations may appear as mere nostalgia. However, fun time really does have many serious benefits.

Play is the way children learn about themselves and the world. Through play, children learn to get along with others and sort out conflicts, develop motor skills, practice their language skills, boost their independence, self-esteem and creativity, relieve stress and improve their psychological well-being.

In a 2004 project of the Alliance for Childhood, researchers interviewed experienced kindergarten teachers in Atlanta. These teachers described how play had disappeared from their curriculum over the preceding 10 years, and reported that when they gave children time to play, the children “didn’t know what to do” and had “no ideas of their own.”

The alliance concludes that for those of us used to the fertile, creative minds of 5-year-olds, this is a shocking statement that bodes ill for the development of creative thinking. It points to a sad future for our society if citizens have no ideas of their own.

I’m not saying to throw away those books and move on to the next great cause. But, we should all realize that meaning is not always transparent to us, that purpose doesn’t have to end in a pre-determined goal.

Allowing your children to explore the world through playfulness may be the most lasting gift you can give this holiday season. So, turn off the television, refrain from directing their activities and give the kids some space to be silly and childish.

Your children will thank you when they become creative, well-adjusted adults. And, they may remind you that play isn’t reserved just for young children. Playfulness is a worthy trait in adults as well, but that is another chapter in this never ending story.

Have a merry, and perhaps at times, even silly, celebration this holiday season. Best wishes from the staff of Bluff Country Newspaper Group.

By the way, for any adults interested in the subject of children’s play, you can’t do better than the classic work by Iona and Peter Opie.

It just occurs to me to wonder if anyone has thought to ask Mrs. Opie (Mr. Opie died in 1982) her thoughts on The Dangerous Book for Boys, or on the present need for Dangerous Books for Boys and Daring Books for Girls.

How can you resist "the Anarchist Cookbook of the nursery"?

It turns out, according to The Telegraph, that the Forbidden LEGO book I looked at the other month is a “surprise Christmas bestseller”* (no, I decided against it for Daniel this year — in my head I sounded like Ralphie’s mother: “You’ll put your eye out” — instead biting the bullet and trying Sploids, which join Lego and K’Nex, though I still haven’t heard from anyone I know who has actually used them; and at this point, they’re winging their way northward, so if you have them and don’t like them speak up before I stuff them in a stocking); the book,

dubbed “the Anarchist Cookbook of the nursery”, is topping the Santa Claus wish list for naughty children and their parents all over the world.

Forbidden Lego, Build the Models Your Parents Warned You Against subverts a playroom favourite since 1958 to provide detailed instructions on how to turn the ubiquitous plastic building bricks into unauthorised working devices.

A toy Gatling Gun, a continuous-fire ping-pong ball launcher and a catapult siege weapon are among the designs featured.

The manual, created by two former top Lego research scientists at the Danish company, is mirroring the success of books like The Dangerous Book for Boys to put danger and creative risk back into playtime.

Ulrik Pilegaard, a one time senior designer at Lego and Mike Dooley, a former director of development, told the Danish media that the book allowed them to share all laboratory models they created but were unable to convince company risk assessment teams to let the public play with.

“When I worked for Lego, every once and a while we created some really cool things that couldn’t get approved,” Mr Pilegaard told the Copenhagen Post.

Mr Pilegaard and Mr Dooley, published by the self-styled “geek” publisher No Starch Press in San Francisco, aim to get both young and older Lego users “to try inventing their own rule-breaking models”.

“The Lego Company has its official (and sensible) rules for building that include no cutting or tampering with bricks, creating models that shoot unapproved projectiles, or using non-standard parts. Well, toss those rules out the window,” they write.

“You’ll learn to create working models that Lego would never endorse.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly Lego has responded cautiously to the book that promises to reveal blueprints for “high velocity aircraft launchers” or “a high voltage Lego vehicle” among other dangerous sounding devices.

“When we heard the title, we thought the authors were revealing the secrets of our products,” said Trine Nissen, a spokesman for Lego.

“But once we found out what it was about, we were much more at ease.”

The book has been enthusiastically welcomed by online reviewers and YouTube postings of rapid-firing Lego guns — with the plastic bricks acting as both the construction material and as ammo — have driven meteoric sales.

Andrew Liszewski, writing on OhGizmo.com, confessed that as much as he loved his “army of G.I. Joe figures and armada of Transformers” most of his time was spent with Lego.

“Like any kid tired of engineering my own miniature town I occasionally built a Lego gun or rifle but unfortunately they never actually worked,” he said.

* I checked, and it’s #410 at Amazon.com and #334 at Amazon.uk. Curiously, not available from Amazon.ca but Canadians can find it here.

Still searching for danger

From the editorial pages of today’s New York Times:

Childhood for Dummies

Nostalgic parents who made a best seller of a faux-1920s rough-and-tumble manual, “The Dangerous Book for Boys,” may soon do the same with its just-published companion, “The Daring Book for Girls.” …

Having read both books, we can assure you that very, very little in them is remotely dangerous or daring, and that anything on the borderline, like shooting bunnies (“Dangerous,” Page 238) or climbing trees (“Daring,” Page 158), is covered by a very strict NOTE TO PARENTS: “All of these activities should be carried out under adult supervision only.”

We’re not sure if that applies to Page 171 of “Dangerous”: “Skipping Stones.”

These books are so clearly not about daredeviltry.

They are about ineptitude. They seem to perfectly capture a fear, floating in the culture, that a generation of preoccupied parents has been raising a generation of children full of sophisticated knowledge that is useless when the power goes out or the batteries die. That children have superior thumb-joystick coordination and TV-plot-discernment abilities, but cannot tie their shoes. (We have Velcro for that now.) …

On the other hand, those in search of true danger and daredeviltry, especially with the holiday shopping season approaching, might be interested in the recently published Forbidden LEGO: Build the Models Your Parents Warned You Against by Ulrik Pilegaard and Mike Dooley, a sort of cross between The Unofficial LEGO Builder’s Guide (I bought this for Daniel last year, and was looking for something similar for Christmas when I found FL) and the books of William Gurstelle. Otherwise known, around here, as the best of both worlds. From the book’s contents page:

Chapter 1: How to Build Great Things
Chapter 2: Paper Plane Launcher
Chapter 3: Candy Coated Catapult
Chapter 4: Ping-Pong Cannon
Chapter 5: All-Terrain Lego
Chapter 6: High Velocity Automatic Lego Plate Dispenser
Appendix A: Tips and Tricks

Nothing says danger like “High Velocity”. Speaking of which, for more fun, er, dangerous stuff from the book, including a YouTube demonstration of a fully automatic LEGO gun, head over to the publisher’s website. If we do get the book, and I do say “if”, I think we’ll stick to the M&M catapult. For now, at least.

Lawn darts, slingshots, and pellet guns, oh my…

Not to mention lead-filled toy soldiers.

“Hasbro gets Dangerous”, Toy News Online reports. But no fear of boys putting their eyes out or requiring stitches, because Hasbro’s idea is to “develop board and travel games based on the hugely successful book brand”:

Andrew Lane, licensing director at Hasbro, said: “The book is fantastic, a fabulous concept and rich in material with which we can develop some great games”.

“We have established a key partnership with Hasbro, the first of many internationally renowned licensees we shall be signing. Our aim is simple, to make The Dangerous Book for Boys the best boys licensed brand ever” said Charlie Donaldson at Rocket Licensing.

Why safer isn’t always better

Listening to CBC Radio’s “Sounds Like Canada” show last week (podcast here; let me know if the link doesn’t work), I heard summer host Kevin Sylvester interview Matt Hern about the new U.S. edition of his book, Watch Yourself: Why Safer Isn’t Always Better, out last month in paperback; it was published in Canada last summer, but both Amazon.ca and Chapters list it with 4-6 week and 3-5 week availability, never a good sign, I’ve found.

The radio conversation, which was continued on today’s “Sounds Like Canada” show, and subject of the book, are right in line with my own thoughts about childhood fun, danger, acceptable risk, responsibility, and independence. From the publisher’s website:

From warnings on coffee cups to colour–coded terrorist gauges to ubiquitous security cameras, our culture is obsessed with safety.

Some of this is drive by lawyers and insurance, and some by over–zealous public officials, but much is indicative of a cultural conversation that has lost its bearings. The result is not just a neurotically restrictive society, but one which actively undermines individual and community self–reliance. More importantly, we are creating a world of officious administration, management by statistics, absurd regulations, rampaging lawsuits, and hygenically cleansed public spaces. We are trying to render the human and natural worlds predictable and calculated. In doing so, we are trampling common discourse about politics and ethics.

Hern asserts that safer just isn’t always better. Throughout Watch Yourself, he emphasizes the need to rethink our approach to risk, reconsider our fixation with safety, and reassert individual decision–making.

Much more conversation on the radio than the website about the effect of all this caution on our children.

Looking up the book and author online, I was interested to learn that six years ago Matt Hern founded the Purple Thistle Centre for Youth Arts & Activism, a “deschool” in Vancouver, BC with “alternative ways of taking in information or learning skills”. Hern has written more about his thoughts of learning and deschooling in two books, the out-of-print Deschooling Our Lives (shades of Ivan Illich) and Field Day: Getting Society Out of School.

On a more lighthearted note on the subject of danger, I ran across this post, The Borderline Sociopathic Book for Boys, at the new-to-me and very enjoyable blog Sippican Cottage. The post has inspired Sippican’s new blog, The Borderline Sociopathic Blog for Boys, guided by the words of Mark Twain, “Now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates.” And, just in time for back-to-school season, don’t miss Sippican’s post last week on schools and education.

Erm, no thank you

Dangerous Book for Boys to Hit Screen: “Disney has snapped up the rights to the bestseller after a fierce bidding war.” It will be more than interesting to see how the folks at Disney plan to make a movie of a politically incorrect how-to-book that includes instructions on skinning a rabbit.

We’ll stick to the print version. And the UK edition at that.

In search of freedom and independence, and big bangs

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.

Outdoor life, or, How to have an old-fashioned, dangerous summer

A city-living friend, who always seems half-alarmed and half-amused by the fact that my kids tend to go through their days fully armed (pockets full of slingshots, jackknives, cap pistols, and lengths of rope, the latter of which came in surprisingly handy the other week when we had to move a neighbor’s sheep) and whose idea of fun is to leap off bale stacks and on and off a moving horse, emailed me the recent Guardian article about new UK publishing sensation, The Dangerous Book for Boys by novelist Conn Iggulden and his brother Hal. My friend wanted to know if I’d heard of the book, if I would recommend it for her city boy, and if I’d be buying it for my three desperadoes. “It tells you how to make a tripwire, you know,” she wrote.

I wrote back that, based on what I’d read about The Dangerous Book, what she really wants is The American Boy’s Handy Book written and beautifully illustrated by Daniel Carter Beard, the American outdoorsman and illustrator whose Sons of Daniel Boone organization was a precursor of the Boy Scouts. Available for half the price of The Dangerous Book and endangering lives for more than 100 years, the Boy’s Handy Book includes such projects and activities as How to Rig and Sail Small Boats (so you too can spend all summer dodging drowning just like the siblings in Swallows & Amazons), Home-Made Hunting Apparatus, How to Make Blow-Guns, Practical Taxidermy for Boys, and, proving that danger lurks year-round, Snowball Warfare. In fact, with the extra money, you can also buy The American Girl’s Handy Book by Daniel’s sisters, Lina and Adelia, rather more genteel but equally nostalgic and useful; or Daniel Beard’s Field and Forest Handybook: New Ideas for Out of Doors. While poking around for links to share, I found this, for Daniel Carter Beard’s Online Books. Well worth a peek.

More old-fashioned outdoor summer fun, dangerous and not so, and don’t be put off by any of the “Boys” in the titles if you have girls:

The Boy Mechanic, a four-volume series by the editors of Popular Mechanics, reprinted by the good folks at the Canadian woodworking and gardening institution Lee Valley, which also offers the reprint Boy Craft

Historical Headgear, Hats and Helmets: Where History Meets Duct Tape: The Ancients by Jean Lockwood and Thomas Lockwood; think of it as Red Green meets the Story of the World activity book. The publisher, BrimWood Press, new to me, specializes in “Tools for Young Historians” — definitely worth a look. (The “Coloring the Western World” coloring book has me very, very curious despite the $18 price tag. Color me interested.) Your kids can wear their helmets while perusing and working from

The classic Backyard Ballistics by William Gurstelle, author too of The Art of the Catapult: Build Greek Ballistae, Roman Onagers, English Trebuchets, and More Ancient Artillery

Mud Pies and Other Recipes: A Cookbook for Dolls by Marjorie Winslow, illustrated by Erik Blegvad; more genteel but not necessarily tidy fun

UPDATED July 10th to add that yesterday I realized that Jen at her Book Page also had a post on the The Dangerous Book, which somehow I missed when it originally went up; I like Jen’s idea that “you could have a lot of fun with finding companion books where kids in the book engaged in some of the same activities!” By the way, now that Jen’s back from her holiday, she’s posted another one of her nifty Sunday round-ups.