The Great Big Glorious Book for Girlsby Rosemary Davidson and Sarah Vine
One of the publishing triumphs of last year, The Dangerous Book for Boys, with immaculate timing tapped into a rich vein that combined nostalgia with exasperation at the seemingly unstoppable advance of Nanny State, with her stifling regime of risk assessment and avoidance. It followed a long line of similar books stretching back over 200 years. In fact its objectives were identical to those of the authors of The Boy’sOwn Book of Sports and Pastimes (c. 1840), which was
an attempt to enable those who had the guardianship of youth to present their young protégés, in the form of a Holiday or Birth-day present, with a concentration of all that usually delights them, in a form more amusing and instructive to the juvenile mind than the cheap trash on which their hoarded shillings had been more usually expended.
For ‘cheap trash’ substitute ‘computer games’ — plus ça change. . .The further back one goes, the more robust the advice. One early 19th-century book I had as a child taught the boys in loving detail how to ‘contrive an earthquake’. The fine details elude me, but I remember being frustrated in the attempts by my inability to locate ‘a quantity of iron filings’.
Girls, on the whole, have fared less well. The heyday of these books, between 1890 and 1920, found them poised on the brink of new freedoms, not always welcomed by their parents. One mother, writing home from India to her daughter, who had expressed a desire to join the newly formed Girl Guides, lamented:
But why do you have to ‘smile and whistle under all difficulties’? Excessive whistling will give you muscular mannish lips and quite possibly a moustache.
This conflict between a sense of adventure and what was then rather drearily known as ‘womanliness’ haunts activity books for girls to this day. The authors of The Great Big Glorious Book for Girls, Rosemary Davidson and Sarah Vine, have had to contend with the modern version of the same problem. Girls have a daunting range of tastes, from the tomboy, who will already have been happily occupied for a year making water bombs with the aid of The Dangerous Book for Boys, to the so-called girlie girl, who loves her fairy outfit and will no doubt derive much pleasure from constructing fairy houses in the hedgerow as described in this new book.
The Great Big Glorious Book for Girls is a handsome volume in the same format as the boys’ version. While it is obviously intended to benefit from the success of The Dangerous Book for Boys, it is well worth possessing it in its own right. The authors cover most areas of expertise, one being a practical country type and the other urban and domestic. Natacha Ledwidge’s illustrations reinforce the deliberate feeling of nostalgia. This is a loving journey back to childhood as it was in the 1950s, but it is none the worse for that. It is a welcome reminder for forgetful grandparents of the rules of Hopscotch and French Skipping, or how to make a paper fortune-teller, or blow an egg (a hen’s one, for decoration, of course, in these conservation conscious days.) There is a good selection of simple recipes and things to make and do, including more robust guidance on subjects such as tree climbing: ‘Do not worry about how high up you are: you are perfectly safe, otherwise you would be falling — no?’
The most alarming section is titled ‘Dastardly Tricks’. If you give this book to your child, be prepared for itching powder down your neck, a tripwire across your door, a bucket of water on your head and an invisible layer of clingfilm across the lavatory seat.
The sections on make-up and boys are probably the least useful, as girls would be more likely to get this sort of advice from magazines, but the range of suggested activities is excellent and would be a real boon for anyone organising a children’s holiday club or a traditional birthday party. Above all, it ensures that there is no excuse for that maddening holiday moan, ‘I can’t think of anything to do.’