The Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden

If the two iconic Toms of Anglo-American boyhood — Tom Sawyer and Tom Brown — pooled their expertise, the result might resemble The Dangerous Book for Boys, Conn and Hal Iggulden’s salvo in defense of boyish adventure. Against a world that, in their view, seeks to leach boys of their vim and vigor, the Igguldens propose a range of activities, from making a bow and arrow or a go-cart, or hunting a rabbit, on the one hand, to, um, marbling paper and playing Dungeons and Dragons on the other.

I will say this: My four-year-old thinks The Dangerous Book for Boys is the greatest book I’ve ever been assigned to review. It’s the only book he’s stolen off my desk, and he asks me about pictures or stories from it almost daily. This is almost entirely the result of “Famous Battles — Part One,” “Famous Battles — Part Two,” and “A Brief History of Artillery,” though sections on astronomy and on bugs have also piqued his interest. There can be no doubt that the Iggulden brothers have a fine sense of “what boys like.”

Then again, the fact that my son recognized the topics of the book at a glance suggests that the crisis of Anglo-American boyhood might be a little overstated. (Might I suggest taking a break from Christina Hoff Sommers?) Let’s face it: As an English professor and book reviewer, I’m hardly the burliest guy out there — yet even my kid knows about soldiers and battles and the virtues of honor.

The Dangerous Book for Boys takes as its inspiration the old rhyme about “snakes and snails and puppy dog tails,” spruced up with back issues of Boy’s Life. To make the analogy to scouting complete, the Igguldens even provide badges at the end of the book. Baden Powell might not have endorsed teaching boys the rules of poker, but almost everything else here would pass muster. There’s advice on finding north, on dressing bandages, writing codes your sister won’t break, and more.

The Igguldens apparently have a sense of humor, though it’s one that might not parse with young readers. Or maybe this is a difference between American and English fishermen: “Anglers are not patient. Anticipation and concentration can make fishing an exhausting sport. It is mainly a solitary occupation. You hardly ever see people fishing in groups, laughing and chatting with each other, or drinking alcohol and singing.” While I’ve never been around singing fishermen, I’m equally sure I’ve never been around fully sober ones. Other instances of British wit are less equivocal, and — keeping in mind this book’s dual audience of fathers and sons — offer developing readers a sense of camaraderie.

A high point of unintentional comedy is the Iggulden brothers’ suggested reading list for boys. The titles are generally unsurprising — although how Three Men in a Boat makes a list for boys, when there’s apparently no room for Rider Haggard or Poe or Lord Jim is beyond me. (I love Jerome K. Jerome, and Three Men is a hilarious novel. Just not sure that its appeal to boys is quite as wide as some of the other novels mentioned.) But what’s comic about this list is the scale of difficulty, wherein we learn that one need only be a “confident” reader to take on Twain, Kipling, or Orwell, but should be an “accomplished” reader to grasp Stephen King.

The Dangerous Book for Boys is new in an American edition, the predictable result of its runaway success in England. The revisions are uneven at best. For instance, I’m not sure it will help many American boys to know that “the principles [behind the Panama Canal] are similar to any British canal.” Also, despite brash claims to political incorrectness, it’s clear that the book’s been massaged to forestall critics on the right and left. There’s no Lewis and Clark, almost nothing about the civil war, more or less nothing about nonwhite heroism (except for the Navajo code talkers), no stories about the Old West, and so on. It’s probably slightly churlish to reproach them for omissions — part of the book’s appeal is its manageable size — but it is somewhat remarkable that there’s an oddly-chosen timeline of American colonial history (one in which, curiously, the native American population apparently took no relevant action), but nothing past 1789. To my mind, it would have been better to simply reprint the original than to pander to American readers in this way.

Broadly speaking, I am sympathetic with the aims of The Dangerous Book for Boys. Just about any parent of a young boy has probably muttered in disgust, “he’s a boy, let him play” at one point or another. (Probably while at My Gym, or Gymboree, or at youth sports.) And I genuinely have had a good time talking through some of the illustrations and stories with my son. Having said that, the book’s class and racial politics — the white, middle-class boyhood it lovingly idealizes — range from homogenous to retrograde, which is disappointing, and for which I don’t think that the Igguldens ought be let entirely off the hook.

RATING 6 / 10