Books to Explore

Born to Explore: How To Be a Backyard Adventurer, by Richard Wiese, is the newest entrant in what you might call “the literature of childhood adventure” — books that encourage children to get outside and do and build the kinds of things their parents or grandparents used to do and build in the outdoors.

The first book of this type I ever read was The American Boy’s Handy Book, first published in 1882 and republished a century later, in 1983. Its author was Daniel Beard, an animating force behind the Boy Scouts. His purpose in writing the book was “to stimulate the inventive faculties” in city boys and to encourage them in independence and ingenuity. The American Boy’s Handy Book swam in the mainstream when it was first published, helping spawn such organized outdoor activities as summer camps, along with the Boy and Girl Scouts. In the foreword to the book’s centennial edition, writer Noel Perrin looked back on a hundred years of changing boyhood and found Beard’s book poignant in its assumptions of childhood freedom and innocence. With this history behind it, the book ends up being both father and grandfather to all later guides.

When The Dangerous Book for Boys, by Conn and Hal Iggulden, was published, in 2007, we received several copies from friends and family. The Dangerous Book for Boys casts its gaze back to Beard’s century, similarly giving directions on how to make a bow and arrow and skin and cook a rabbit. The book’s broader purpose, though — given the sections on British military exploits, the laws of cricket, and the Kings and Queens of Scotland — seems to be to refashion modern youth into British schoolboys circa 1900. Apparently, most of the people who bought The Dangerous Book for Boys were middle-aged men, which makes it successful as an exercise in nostalgia, though perhaps less useful in getting a younger generation out of doors.

A year later, The Dangerous Book for Boys acquired a distaff companion, The Daring Book for Girls. Ursula, who had fumed that the first book explicitly excluded her, dismissed that book as watered-down adventure. Setting up her own zip line, which sounded daring enough to me, didn’t overcome the dippiness of friendship bracelets and daisy chains. Never mind that she likes to braid string and weave flowers: She sensed that the two books peddled old-fashioned gender discrimination, and she was probably right.

Like the other books, Born to Explore speaks directly to a presumed young reader. Wiese sprinkles the pages with stories of his own youthful explorations, like climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro at age 11 and going for his scuba-diving certification before he’d earned a driver’s license. To parents, he is probably best known for having been the youngest president of The Explorers Club. To kids, he may come across as the cool older cousin who is forgiven for talking too much about himself because he also tells stories about jaguars and snakes.

Ursula and Virgil leafed through all these books while I was writing this review. Virgil lingered over the knot-tying instructions in The Dangerous Book for Boys and directions for building a World War II foxhole radio in Born to Explore. Ursula didn’t like the Dangerous and Daring books any more now than when she first saw them. She picked up Born to Explore and started reading. “Yeah, I’ll like this,” she told me.

Then she saw The American Boy’s Handy Book and noticed the knots and swings on the cover — but not, apparently, the gender branding that had so bothered her about the other books. “Cool!” she said, and “Cool!” again when she opened to the chapter on kites. She and Virgil disappeared with it. A while later, she poked her head in the door to say, “That book has exactly the stuff I want to know,” and started telling me about homemade boats and balloons.

My guess is that she and Virgil are drawn to the can-do spirit behind both The American Boy’s Handy Book and Born to Explore. I won’t be surprised one morning to find them “mining” iron from their breakfast cereal (one of Wiese’s “adventures”), but I’ll be impressed if they build one of the “Fourth of July balloons” in Beard’s book on their own.

Then again, they haven’t come to the chapter on “practical taxidermy” yet.

“Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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