Book says raising boys should be ''Dangerous' work

Published: Sunday, July 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, June 30, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

When his family was young, Pete Bonesteel, 71, used to sit at the sliding glass door of his second-floor living room, watching the blond heads of his three children appear in view, and then disappear, as they bounced on the trampoline in the yard below.

That was good, dangerous fun.

Yes, two-story bouncing leads to banged-up knees, but in the old days, says Bonesteel, children seemed more durable.

Today, says the grandfather, "Parents spend so much of their time just protecting them."

Perhaps the pendulum is swinging back. Bonesteel recently sat in the Atlanta home of his 12-year-old grandson, J.P. Smith, leafing through a book that celebrates a life with bounce - and the occasional bruise.

"The Dangerous Book for Boys" enthusiastically embraces weaponry, action and risk. A runaway best-seller in England and the United States, it's a droll guide to such archaic boyhood activities as building a treehouse, making your own bow and arrow, playing marbles, hunting and skinning a rabbit and tying a bowline knot.

"A lot of that struck familiar chords in my memory," says Bonesteel. "That's the way I was raised."

No accident. With its marbled endpapers and charming illustrations, the book evokes a previous century when life was simple and boys played outside.

In a marketing video for the book, a father hands the volume to his pasty, video-game-playing son, and soon they're off on adventures together, charging through the woods and throwing water bombs.

"In this age of video games and cellphones, there must still be a place for knots, treehouses and stories of incredible courage," write brothers Conn and Hal Iggulden.

Their message is that boys need to get off the sofa, go outside and poke things with sticks. The response? Hallelujahs and crowds throwing cash. Published last month in the United States (and a year ago in Britain), "Dangerous" is No. 5 on Amazon's best-seller list and has spawned such spinoffs as "The Pocket Dangerous Book for Boys."

"It's a handbook for being a regular guy, and that's always handy," says J.P.'s father, Bill Smith. "It's kind of a response to our litigious society where everybody has to cover their 'rear' on everything."

"It has a bunch of cool stuff," agreed J.P. "There's stuff about how to tan a skin in there, and that might be fun to do with Dad. You have to have a skin first, and, conveniently, it's right after the part about how to hunt and cook a rabbit."

Air rifles? Check. Bows and arrows? Check. Sharp knives? Double check. Dangerous boys play with all these things, though they also memorize Latin phrases and the rules of poker. The authors have cleverly packaged some high art in a tome marketed with its edgy appeal.

Learning Shakespeare and building a treehouse were part of childhood in London for the Igguldens. Their father taught them basic carpentry, how to recite poems and understand the phases of the moon. Conn became a teacher, then a writer of best-selling historical novels based on the lives of such swashbuckling figures as Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan. His brother, Hal, is a theater director.

Together they decided to collect the sort of boy stuff they loved as kids - tripwires, paper airplanes, famous battles - and put it into a single volume, along with such disappearing lore as Morse code and the game of marbles.

"The original idea was perhaps to produce something for my own son to read, but it's still been a surprise finding out how many other people care about exactly the same things," Conn said in an e-mail interview from his home in Hertfordshire, England.

A theme of self-reliance runs through the book's projects and stories. Boys will enjoy an electromagnet more if they build it themselves. Or if they build it with Dad.

A fail-safe activity for fathers and sons is "making something - anything," Iggulden said. "A kite, a go-cart, a bow and arrow, repairing a car, anything that involves you spending quiet time with the kid and showing him how something works."

Contractor and carpenter Danny Feig-Sandoval knew that long before the book came out, and built a treehouse with his son Cory two summers ago at their Inman Park home. "We were looking for a hangout place," Feig-Sandoval said. "We do this stuff all the time. He's a project kind of guy."

Much of the philosophy of the book is in sync with the world of scouting, and many of the Igguldens' activities - tying useful knots, identifying trees, learning how to navigate by the stars, fishing - can be found in the Boy Scout manual. "They are life skills that we try to teach kids - how to cook, how to take care of themselves - because one of these days they're going to be feeding themselves," said Tom Morin, scoutmaster of Marietta Troop 1776 and executive board member of the Atlanta Area Council.

Unlike most team sports, which put children on the field and parents up in the stands, many of these activities put them together. "Whether it's building a Pinewood Derby car or hiking up Kennesaw Mountain, it's something they can do, and they can do together," said Morin, who sent three sons and a daughter through scouting.

Just like Scouts, the boys who read "The Dangerous Book for Boys" learn to build fires, carve with knives and do things that aren't without risk.

While the "dangerous" element in the book may be overstated (there isn't anything life-threatening about raising sunflowers or reading up on Waterloo), there is an underlying acceptance that risk is good.

"Boys need to learn about risk," Iggulden told Amazon. "They need to fall off things occasionally, or - and this is the important bit - they'll take worse risks on their own."

The Feig-Sandovals would agree, which is why their treehouse has a 25-foot swinging bridge that connects to the deck. "OSHA would never give us approval for this," joked the dad.

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