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Books

An idea as dangerous as all outdoors

Karen Heller [The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)]

Could there be a more brilliant title than The Dangerous Book for Boys? You could take two empty covers, stick a book of matches inside -- dipped in wax for waterproofing as suggested -- and come up a winner.

This handsome volume, authored by brothers Conn and Hal Iggulden, proffers advice on such essentials as spiders, poker, invisible ink, skinning a rabbit and making a go-cart, things every boy's father knew as a boy.

OK, let's not kid ourselves here. Every boy's grandfather.

A phenomenon in the authors' native England where it was published a year ago, Dangerous was named British Book of the Year, with more than half a million copies in print. Since its May debut on these shores, the retro manual, which has a $25 list price, has sold 211,000 copies. It crests Publishers Weekly's best-seller list, outselling Reagan, Gore, Diana, Hillary, Einstein and, well, God.

The Dangerous attraction is its stealth assault on the great indoors favored by young Americans tube-tied to one screen or another. Children ages 8 to 18 spend 6 ½ hours daily with their electronica, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Teenagers, of course, spend the remaining 17 ½ hours sleeping.

Dangerous is traditional not only in design and content but tone, celebrating a boyish innocence free of the cynical snarkiness that taints virtually everything and chokes the blogosphere.

Though many girls might enjoy Dangerous, their books are coming. The Girls' Book: How to Be the Best at Everything arrives in August. A worrisome title this, with an emphasis on perfection and such topics as manicures and making your own lip gloss. Sounds like YM in hardcover. More promising is The Daring Book for Girls, scheduled for October, offering karate moves, female spies and how to fashion a zip line in the backyard.

Dangerous' timing is exquisite, coming as it does when the days are long, schools are shuttered and parents have to do everything short of bribery to get children outdoors, "a nature-deficit disorder," author Richard Louv calls it, with every wire an umbilical cord to the home.

Combating this behavior, which contributes to obesity, depression and vertiginous Comcast bills, Louv started a "No Child Left Inside" initiative, adopted by several states, promoting use of parks and outdoor programs. This month, the Conservation Fund launched the $20 million Forum on Children and Nature campaign.

"We've spent the past 20 years protecting America's great land legacy," said fund president Larry Selzer. "The staggering divide between children and nature places this magnificent legacy at risk. As this generation grows into adulthood, they may never feel a strong affinity for their natural heritage."

It always seemed astonishing that families of comfortable means would pay $3,000 to throw their children into wilderness programs with as few comforts as possible. Then again, once you can't get your own children outside for anything other than the ice-cream truck, you understand the reasoning.

It seemed more astonishing that families would pay $4,000 to get their well-off children to help the poor in Costa Rica. Couldn't they do this for free and get the same gratification helping the poor in Philadelphia?

I handed Dangerous to a certain indoor child of my acquaintance. He thought the title most excellent as well as the suggestion that no boy should be without a Swiss Army Knife.

Immediately, the boy constructed the "Greatest Paper Airplane in the World." He pretended he was Baron von Richthofen and his mother's head a member of the Royal Flying Corps.

Turns out the boy has perfect aim. And Dangerous is more aptly titled than its authors imagined.

Still, we'll take danger over sloth and the videocracy any summer day.

___

ABOUT THE WRITER

Karen Heller is a columnist for Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at kheller AT phillynews dot com.

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