- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2009

ON THE EDGE Column

So when did the kids’ section at bookstores become segregated by sex? OK, I’m exaggerating, but I can’t be the only one who’s noticed the raft of juvenile-literature titles - all with the same art-nouveau-looking cover designs - targeted specifically at boys and girls.

I don’t mean the obvious, if unspoken, gendered appeal of the “Hardy Boys” or “Sweet Valley High” fiction of yore. These books’ target audiences are very loudly announced and typically published as companion volumes: “The Big Book of Boy Stuff” and “The Big Book of Girl Stuff” by Bart King, for instance; the for-him and for-her manuals on “How to Be the Best at Everything”; or the Boys’ Box and Girls’ Box activity kits.

Arriving in stores this month are “The Boys’ Book of Survival: How to Survive Anything, Anywhere” and “The Girls’ Book of Glamour: A Guide to Being a Goddess.”

This newfound embrace of “la difference,” as the French say, can be traced to the astonishing international success of 2006’s “The Dangerous Book for Boys” by British authors Conn and Hal Iggulden.

The book - which instructs boys in manly pursuits such as building treehouses, skipping stones and learning Latin - was catnip for conservative critics with ears for Christina Hoff Sommers’ argument in “The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men” that modern American educational theory is inordinately troubled by blossoming masculinity, with the practical consequence that boys are disadvantaged in classrooms.

“The Dangerous Book for Boys” was a “brutal assault on wimpiness,” said Stefan Beck, blogging for the New Criterion, a right-leaning arts journal. Conservative critic Roger Kimball, reviewing it for the Weekly Standard, said: “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if ‘The Dangerous Book for Boys’ were banned by zealous school groups, social workers, and other moral busybodies.”

In fact, “Dangerous” has racked up sales of more than 1 million copies, and Disney last year acquired the rights to make a movie out of it. Not only that, it has spawned a cottage industry of copycats, starting with 2007’s counterpart “The Daring Book for Girls” by Andrea J. Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz. (A “Double-Daring” sequel is slated for release this summer.)

So prominent has the book become that there’s a canine-themed parody - “The Dangerous Book for Dogs.”

One doesn’t have to see culture-war significance in the book’s appeal; it was a runaway hit first in the United Kingdom, where such issues are not nearly as salient as they are here in the Colonies.

Yet it’s unassailably true that the book met a need that has gone unaddressed for years in the world of children’s literature: specifically, how to reach boys, who, “as they enter and proceed through adolescence, read less and less,” says Bob Hassett, head librarian at Luther Jackson Middle School in Falls Church.

Somewhat ironically, the virtue of “The Dangerous Book for Boys” may not be only that it teaches young males to take outdoorsy risks; rather, it’s that it also encourages them to engage in that indoorsy activity known as reading.

“It really did have a major effect,” says Marc Aronson, an educational lecturer and co-author of “For Boys Only: The Biggest, Baddest Book Ever.”

The children’s literature complex, he says, “is almost universally female” - the authors, the publishers, the buyers, the reviewers, the elementary school teachers. (Upward of 70 percent are women, according to recent Census data.)

Niches for boy- and girl-oriented books have existed for years, Mr. Aronson adds - but the boys’ category had been woefully underserved when “The Dangerous Book for Boys” emerged.

The great thing about the book’s success, as I see it, is precisely that it came from nowhere and swiftly found a home in the mainstream; there was no “Passion of the Christ”-type hand-wringing, no parochial funding source, no display of counterestablishment plumage.

Vicky Smith, the children’s book-review editor at Kirkus Reviews, is a self-described feminist who, nevertheless, has zero qualms about a book that acknowledges and speaks to the divergent reading needs of boys and girls.

There are, of course, exceptions on either side of the statistical bell curve, but on average, girls are far more amenable to narrative fiction than boys are. Reams of research bears this out (and gird oneself for Larry Summers-style ignominy) - Michael W. Smith and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm’s “Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys,” for starters.

“Very broadly speaking, boys are seeking to master the world around them,” Ms. Smith says. “Books are a way to get there.”

Consequently, they’re drawn to how-to manuals and guidebooks such as “The Dangerous Book for Boys” - books with clear applications to the real world.

John Scieszka, the children’s author and former elementary school teacher named by the Librarian of Congress as last year’s Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, oversees the Web site GuysRead.com to motivate fiction-wary boys to explore nonfiction writing, graphic novels, magazines and other reading material.

Mr. Hassett says he offers this guarantee to his students: “In this library, there is at least an armload of books that you will love. There are many that you’ll hate - but it’s our job to work together to find the ones you’ll love.”

Ms. Smith had been a librarian in Maine’s public school system; when hunting season came around, she had nothing but “Bambi” to offer bookish fathers and sons. The experience inspired her to write an academic paper - later published as an essay in Horn Book magazine, a children’s literature periodical - titled “A-Hunting We Won’t Go,” which decried the urban publishing bias against a legal, legitimate sport.

“It’s not horrible to acknowledge that little boys and little girls are drawn to different things,” says Rita Arens, who blogs on parenting and edited the recent essay anthology “Sleep Is for the Weak.”

Where the consensus breaks down is when talk turns to the female-specific counterparts, which seem to serve no market or social purpose other than as a me-too response to “The Dangerous Book for Boys” and thereby add to the glut of purple-pink-and-princess-obsessive literature.

Ms. Arens asserts that much of “The Daring Book for Girls” can actually be read “gender-agnostically.” What’s so girly about applying a tourniquet, after all?

The subsequent titles that are decidedly girly, to Ms. Smith’s lights, are increasingly, irritatingly formulaic and redundant - the last thing girls need is more advice on painting toenails or making friendship bracelets, she says.

Here we circle back to where we started: the dominance by women in children’s literature.

Market calculation and sheer common sense created an opening for “The Dangerous Book for Boys.”

A hunger for repeat success and an unbridled sense of fair play mean that neither girls nor boys will ever hear the end of it.

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