Thursday, June 28, 2012

How to be Really Daring

By Juliet C. Bond

Recently, I came across an online article about those Daring Boys/How to Survive Anything etc., books for kids.  As a mother of three, I’d already noticed the difference between the chosen topics and presented advice in these gender-stratified manuals.  But the article did a great job of breaking down the antiquated messages (especially present in the How to Survive series) and, moreover, it made me worry.

Not that worrying is some new pastime for me.   I worry about everything from the state of my son’s fingernails to the state of the world.  But with the tide turning towards curbing women’s rights in general, with the onslaught of negative imagery and sexualization of younger and younger girls, my level of anxiety has been steadily climbing the charts.

What the heck IS this turning back the clock trend in reading content for girls?  With the fantastic exception of The Hunger Games (thank you, Suzanne Collins) and a few other worthy gems here and there (many of which haven't been marketed with the same zeal as Twilight) a heavy amount of what we have to choose from is predictably gender limited or subtly sending twisted messages about relationships.

So back to those how-to manuals out there for kids.  In the Dangerous Book for Boys, one finds detailed advice on:

·               Spies
·               Navajo Code
·               Astronomy
·               The Declaration of Independence

And while there are some good, gender-neutral activities in the companion Daring Book for Girls, there are also a host of rather mundane undertakings.

·               Spanish (and French) Terms of Endearment
·               Pressing Flowers
·               Putting Your Hair up With a Pencil
·               How to Tie a Sari

Right, as my daughter said, “uh, verrrrry daring…”

Each book also includes a chapter about the other gender.  In the Dangerous Book for Boys, the chapter entitled "girls," begins by pointing out, “that girls are quite different from you,” and that they can’t fathom your games, “involving wizards, or your understanding of Morse code.” 

Huh, the fabulous girls I know who just finished their summer Wizard Camp (under the awesome tutelage of Clare Tallon Ruen) might beg to differ.

And let me just point out that while the daring girl's book contains some basic information about navigating relationships and being kind, the dangerous boy's book includes very little on that topic.  Don’t we want our boys to be just as capable in this area?

Dangerous Book for Boys, goes on to list some strict (and ridiculous) guidelines on what girls will like, including:

·               They all love flowers (My daughter is allergic – so, no.)

·               They love mysterious Valentine’s Day cards with no name on them (What? Girls don’t want to KNOW who likes them?  Girls enjoy wondering who may be looking at them askance while they finish their science test – eyes crawling across their neck?  Yeah?  Well girls also love restraining orders...)

·               They prefer boys who have a “ruddy glow” from playing a sport rather than the “corpse-like pallor of the computer programmer.” (I hate sports.  My daughter hates sports.  And every time my husband bypasses a football game on the television to watch an episode of “Sherlock Holmes” with me, or opts for a trip to the library over something more athletic, I thank my lucky stars that he is a pasty non-lover of sports and then I swoon just a little.)

So the Dangerous/Daring books (and let’s just admit that “daring” is safer than “dangerous” so girls can handle it ya know? See, that’s why they didn’t call them both dangerous.  Girls couldn’t do dangerous, just daring * face plant *) are a wee bit sexist. 

But it seems that the new How to Survive Anything books are even more stereotyped than Dangerous vs. Daring series.  For boys, there are a host of natural disasters and wild animal/zombie attacks to navigate, while girls are told that they should be wary of:
            * Taking bad school photos
            * Knowing just how to keep a secret (healthy advice for anyone who appreciates the
               damage lying can cause to all genders and relationships)
            * Surviving crushes
            * Babysitting
            * Fights with your BFF
            * Pimples

Also, it contained a section on how to teach your cat to sit.

Woah, what?

The bad news is that the Daring and Dangerous books have been a huge hit.  They have a four star rating on Amazon and have sold like hotcakes.  In fact, their popularity spurred a sequel and a video game.

But there is good news.

After the more transparently sexist How to Survive series was released, people wrote in to Scholastic to passionately complain about the damaging messages these books send to boys and girls.

Consumers are powerful.

Some of my favorite comments include:

Carol: Am ordering copies. Too good a chance to pass up such great examples of outdated ideas that are still in circulation. Beginning teachers are hard to convince that gender bias still exists. These will be great examples.

And Rue, who included a list of improved topics including:

·               How to Survive a Kidnapping

·               How to Survive Getting Lost

How to Survive a Power Outage

How to Survive Drowning

How to Survive on $10

·               How to Survive the Death of a Pet

How to Survive Shyness

THAT book, I would buy for my daughter.

Scholastic has made a public apology asserting that, “no further copies would (sic) be made available.” 

Except, they are still available.

So if you really want some advice on how to be daring, I have some for you.  Sit down with your son and/or daughter (or your own wonderful self) and add your voice to a host of others who want to see better content for kids.  Just use this link to shoot off a short email encouraging Scholastic to get rid of the How to Survive series.

And if you're looking for books with better messages about gender, check out the Amelia Bloomer Project where, every year, a committee of writers and readers nominate books based on excellence in writing and better stories about girls.

Now that's daring.


  1. I'm going to check out the Amelia Bloomer Project. I haven't read any of the dangerous or daring books.

  2. Haven't read the books--and won't. I watched gender roles blur in my lifetime, & it was a good thing. Yes, boys are different from girls, but stereotypes are dangerous.

  3. I'm glad to have tuned you into the Amelia Bloomer Project, Stacy!

  4. Thanks for your comment, Kathy :)

  5. Sign my 8 year-old daughter up for Wizard camp with Clare: Check.

    Bookmark Amelia Bloomer Project website: Check.

    Add the following topics to the list of more useful "how to survive" topics:
    - how to survive the subway system
    - how to survive being bullied
    - how to survive not always getting what you want

    And one "How to prevent" topic:
    -How to prevent growing up too fast.


  6. Juliet, I see a market niche for you! PS Wizard Camp was awesome.
    - Daina