May 19, 2011


50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do). By Gever Tulley and Julie Spiegler. New American Library. $18.

Young Fredle. By Cynthia Voigt. Illustrated by Louise Yates. Knopf. $16.99.

Poppy and Ereth. By Avi. Illustrated by Brian Floca. Harper. $5.99.

     Scissors are rounded, with plastic blades. Playgrounds have super-soft surfaces, squishy plastic equipment, and no slides or monkey bars. We have to protect our kids! There’s risk, risk everywhere! Danger! Danger! Danger! And we’ll keep protecting them until they go out into the larger world, at which point…uhh…they’ll have no idea whatsoever of how to handle a non-protected, non-risk-free environment. Zero-risk parenting, zero-risk teaching, zero-risk playtime – all are artificial constructs that fail to prepare children for any sort of life outside a super-protected bubble. The result: kids who are afraid to try because they might have a problem, might get hurt, could have difficulty. So much for adventure, innovation and outside-the-box thinking – it’s so much safer to stay in the box, preferably a well-padded one. Parents who find the whole notion of 100% vigilance and 100% risk avoidance offensive, or at least silly, really should turn to 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do) and, if possible, get some super-cautious fellow adults to take a look at the book, too. Gever Tulley and Julie Spiegler, founders of a hands-on educational program called Tinkering School, suggest controlled exposure of children to danger – that is, experiments in which there could be some level of harm, but with an understanding in advance of what the dangers are and a chance to prepare to face them. This is much closer to real-world thinking than what is practiced nowadays in most schools, where any sharp object, any chance of even the slightest injury, is met with expressions of terror and vastly overdone protective attempts. Each of the 49 suggestions in this book (the 50th is to invent a challenge of your own) comes with a how-to section, a list of requirements, a “duration” and “difficulty” scale, and warnings about possible harm resulting from the experiment. A “supplementary data” section provides information about how the experiment fits into the real world. And the value of each hands-on idea is explained at the back of the book, for adults who may be wavering in their support of the whole concept of allowing kids to do anything even remotely worrisome. For example, No. 22 is “bend steel,” and involves using open fire to shape a wire coat hanger (with adult supervision); this item includes explanations of why the hanger gets red-hot but pots on stoves usually do not, plus a note on how quenching strengthens some metals. No. 33, “dive in a dumpster,” explains where to find a trash receptacle that could contain interesting stuff – but not biohazards or other genuinely dangerous items. No. 32, “change a tire,” prepares kids for a real-world feat that even some adults do not know how to do anymore – and explains the global rate of tire production and the coding found on tire sides. No. 39, “cook something in the dishwasher,” explains how residual heat from the drying cycle can be used to prepare certain foods – and notes that “dishwashers don’t actually scrub dishes – they just squirt water relentlessly around the dish compartment until everything gets clean.” For each experiment, there is a full blank page for “field notes,” and when the book is finished, kids will have a better understanding of science, mechanics, life experiences and their own capabilities. This is a wonderful idea that seems counter-intuitive only because adults have allowed their own fears for their children to trump their common sense regarding the importance of having kids learn to function in a world where there are dangers all the time – unavoidable ones that kids need to be able to handle.

     Authors of fiction for children tend to prefer to teach real-world lessons through make-believe stories – often ones with animal protagonists. Two Newbery-winning authors, Cynthia Voigt and Avi (pen name of Edward Irving Wortis), both use that approach in, respectively, Young Fredle and Poppy and Ereth. A mouse is the protagonist of both books – or one of the protagonists, anyway. The title character in Voigt’s has a placid enough life in the kitchen until he one night finds himself outdoors, in a world filled with fascination (colors, grass, sky) and danger (snakes, rain, raccoons). Voigt never pretends that freedom is easy or is guaranteed to be pleasant, but her message is that the risks are more than worthwhile, because the rewards are so great – an attitude that hyper-safety-conscious parents would do well to bear in mind. Fredle spends considerable time with a group of raccoons – and they are planning to eat him, but not just yet. He eventually gets away, not without problems, and realizes, “If you will have only one chance, you want to make it the best it can be.” After his escape, Fredle encounters some cellar mice, who are friendly enough but obsessed with playing it safe at all times: “‘Our territory is down here, and besides, why would anyone want to leave a place where there is always food and water, and shelter, and almost never any predators?’” But Fredle cares less about comfort than about getting home, although he admits that the cellar mice seem particularly happy with their limited lot in life: “He had never seen mice like this, unworried, unafraid, contented.” Fredle does get home, eventually, and realizes how big a gulf has opened up between him and his safety-focused family – an understandable abyss, to be sure, but one that the book’s conclusion indicates can sometimes, under some circumstances, be bridged.

     The mouse in Poppy and Ereth is not a house mouse but a deer mouse, and this is the final book in Avi’s Tales from Dimwood series, which started in 1995 with Poppy and also includes Poppy and Rye (1998), Ragweed (1999), Ereth’s Birthday (2000) and Poppy’s Return (2005). The latest book dates to 2009 and is now available in paperback. Ereth is a porcupine – the name comes from that species’ scientific name, Erethizon dorsatum – and the unlikely friendship between deer mouse and porcupine is part of what drives the book. Another part is Poppy’s unending search for adventure, which in Poppy and Ereth results in a major misunderstanding: Poppy is grabbed by Luci the bat and taken to the bats’ cave, and Ereth is convinced that Poppy has died, so Ereth sets about giving her friend a wonderful funeral – while Poppy, very much alive, seeks a way to escape and find her way home. The themes of adventure and home-seeking are handled as well by Avi as by Voigt, despite the many differences between these books, and the message that it is all right to take chances as long as you face the consequences and are prepared to overcome adversity is communicated equally strongly in both novels. Indeed, Poppy needs to learn about the importance of unlikely allies – not just the bats, eventually, but also the fox, Bounder – in a climax during which all the animals are in great danger and must find a way to support each other in the face of an overwhelming threat. Although Young Fredle and Poppy and Ereth soft-pedal their lessons about risk-taking and independence instead of presenting them frontally in the way 50 Dangerous Things does, all these books are ultimately trying to show children and parents alike the same thing: the world is not risk-free, and it is far more important and far more realistic to learn how to face and overcome danger than to assume it is possible to keep it at bay at all times and in all places.

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