The Wall Street Journal, May 18, 2007
First, there was the question of the title: "The Dangerous Book for Boys." HarperCollins Publishers' Chief Executive Jane Friedman just didn't understand what it meant. Sure, the book had been a hit in England and Australia, but that didn't mean it would work in the U.S.
But the sales staff urged her to stick with it, and in just two weeks, "Dangerous" has become the breakout hit of the season. The News Corp. unit initially ordered up 91,000 copies. There are now 405,000 copies in print. One senior HarperCollins executive, extrapolating from overseas sales and population data, projects that "Dangerous," which lists for $24.95, could sell as many as four million in the U.S.
The book, by English brothers Conn and Hal Iggulden, purports to aim itself at a particularly inscrutable and un-book-friendly audience: boys around the age of 10. It tries to answer the question: What do boys need to know?
So here are instructions on how to skip stones, fold a paper hat, make a battery, and hunt and cook a rabbit. It includes a description of the Battle of Thermopylae, but also how to play Texas Hold 'Em poker, and use the phrases "Carpe diem" and "Curriculum vitae."
The unapologetic message is that boys need a certain amount of danger and risk in their lives, and that there are certain lessons that need to be passed down from father to son, man to man. The implication is that in contemporary society basic rules of maleness aren't being handed off as they used to be.
The book aims to correct that. It does so with a pretelevision, prevideogame sensibility, and also by embracing a view of gender that has been unfashionable in recent decades: that frogs and snails and puppy dogs' tails are more than lines in a nursery rhyme, and that boys are by nature hard-wired differently than girls.
But "The Dangerous Book for Boys" is also aimed at boomer dads, who nostalgically yearn for a lost boyhood of fixing lawn mowers and catching snakes with their fathers -- even if that didn't really happen as often as they think it did.
Insects, juggling are among topics in 'The Dangerous Book for Boys.'
The gender-exclusive nature of "Dangerous" bothers some women. In a posting on the livejournal.com Web site, one woman, addressing the book and boys in general, wrote: "Here's a tip, kiddies: maybe the girls want to have the same kind of fun you do, instead of sitting around the house and learning how to be a servant." (Matthew Benjamin, a senior editor at the Collins imprint, which published the book, says, "There hasn't been any organized protest.")
On the back of the book's cover -- retro red cloth with oversized gold lettering -- the come-on is "Recapture Sunday afternoons and long summer days." Inside are odd-sized color illustrations of fish, trilobites, and an example of marbled paper. Some have compared it to Daniel Carter Beard's "The American Boy's Handy Book," originally published in 1882.
So is this a book that Dad brings home and that then gathers dust in Junior's room, forgotten behind the iPods and laptops?
Paul Bogaards, an executive for rival publisher Bertelsmann AG's Alfred A. Knopf, says he took a copy home to his eight-year-old son, Michael, whom he describes as "junked up on Nick, Disney and Club Penguin," a Web site. Mr. Bogaards says Michael took to it immediately, demanding that his dad test paper airplanes into the night, even missing "American Idol." He adds: "That's the good news. The bad news is that he now expects me to build him a treehouse." He concludes: "Million-copy-plus seller easy, with the shelf life of Hormel Spam."
"We initially thought that men nostalgic for their boyhoods would be the buyers, but people are also buying it for 12-year-old boys," says Mr. Benjamin. "This book teaches them its OK to play and explore."
Concerned that the book would seem too British, Collins asked the authors to adapt parts of it for U.S. readers. A section about royalty was replaced by the 50 states, American mountains and the Declaration of Independence. Baseball's most valuable players and "How to Play Stickball" supplants the chapter on cricket. But rugby made the cut: it was tough, dangerous and better-known in the U.S. A "Navajo Code Talkers' Dictionary" superseded Britain's patron saints.
The book's cover emphasizes the text's retro feel.
Unchanged for the U.S. market were the two pages on the subject of girls. The first bit of advice: "It is important to listen."
"Dangerous" ranks No. 5 in sales on Amazon.com Inc.'s Web site, which provides an adjacent diagram explaining how to tie some knots. A video, provided by the publisher, shows how a father and son can use the book outdoors, including a scene where Dad gives his son's gravity-powered go-cart a push downhill.
Barnes & Noble Inc., the country's largest book retailer, likes the title so much that it has already stacked it on its Father's Day table and says it will give the book its own additional table later this month. Mike Ferrari, a director of merchandising, says the retailer has classified "Dangerous" as a reference book, and is stocking it in the front of the store.
Mr. Ferrari notes that some reference titles from the United Kingdom have done particularly well in the U.S., including Lynne Truss's "Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation," published by Pearson PLC's Gotham imprint in 2004. Today there are nearly 1.6 million hardcover and paperback copies in print.
HarperCollins says it doesn't have any immediate plans to publish a girl's version. HarperCollins's Ms. Friedman, who has two sons and two stepsons, explains: "Boys are very different."
Write to Jeffrey A.Trachtenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org