English professor examines underside of bestseller

January 29, 2008

To Associate Professor of English Becky Carpenter, the bestseller “The Dangerous Book for Boys” is dangerous indeed, but not for the reasons you might expect. Her research argues that the book promotes an exclusionary nostalgia for white, Christian, two-parent, middle-class families.

The “Dangerous Book,” first released in Britain in 2006, says it will help readers “recapture Sunday afternoons and long summer days.” Its contents include chapters about making paper airplanes and go carts, building tree houses and hunting rabbits, but also include many decidedly less-than-dangerous sections on topics like grammar, Latin, the Bible, and the history of the British Empire (from the Imperialists’ perspective).

“On the surface, the book is about getting people out of the house and into the great outdoors,” says Carpenter, who studies constructions of masculinity in British culture and literature. “On some level, this is appealing stuff. But it also describes what proper masculinity is, and is loaded with class, race and religious assumptions.”

She cites a section about building a tree house. “It’s a job for dads,” the book reads.

“The book tacitly assumes that dads are around and available for tree-house building, even though fully 25 percent of British children grow up in lone-parent households,” says Carpenter. “It also assumes that one has such middle-class suburban amenities as trees and sufficient money to build a tree house.”

Carpenter recently presented her paper, “‘It’s a Job for Dad’: Reinforcing Gender, Class, and Familial Norms in ‘The Dangerous Book for Boys,’” at the Mid-Atlantic Popular and American Culture Association. In her paper, she examined the class assumption behind the inclusion of the chapter “Latin Phrases Every Boy Should Know,” and questioned the author’s motivation for calling the King James Bible one of the three pillars of British culture.

“(The book) has strong associations with white, Christian culture, thus… tacitly suggesting that immigrants whose ideas of culture lie outside of the Christian domain will never fully be British,” she writes.

Carpenter says parents should be wary of the book’s assumptions about class, values and masculinity.

“It is important to be aware of the ideological content,” she says. “That way, parents can use the book selectively.”