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Is this really what girls are made of?





The Great Big Glorious Book for Girls has gone top of the bestseller list. Isnt it just a blatant rip-off


From The Sunday Times

August 12, 2007

Rosie Millard


There is a bit of a to-do about the book that has just hit the top of the nonfiction bestselling list. To its fans, The Great Big Glorious Book for Girls (Penguin) is a rather wonderful creation a nice, comforting volume of holiday-friendly activities that starts off at needlework and runs through everything girls might like to do, including a stage faint (Bend your ankles, bend your knees, and let yourself go floppy) and, naturally, how to make fairy cakes.


However, to its detractors who have come out in the press, the GBGBG is not only a wholly unoriginal copycat of last years bestseller, The Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn and Hal Iggulden, but twee, desperate and written with a tone that flickers between faux-naivety and irony.


Both books are written with a Baden-Powellesque slice of old-fashioned derring-do, but it seems that while advising boys how to tie a reef knot is good nostalgia, advising girls how to pack a snowball properly, or do French knitting, is bad nostalgia.


The authors, publisher Rosemary Davidson, an editorial director at Random House, and journalist Sarah Vine, a beauty editor, are a bit bemused by all the fuss. The accusation of retro irony is probably all my fault, says Vine, 40. I was aiming at girls aged between eight and 12, and felt there were lots of things I wanted to talk about, but couldnt. Indeed the GBGBG, illustrated with winsome pen-and-ink sketches of girls gathering posies and popping their dollies on swings is very wholesome indeed. No, we didnt include anything in there like bras or periods, says Vine, who has a two-year-old son and a four-year-old daughter. It was meant to be the sort of book filled with fun things to do, which takes you out of your mad, modern living.


But the girls aged 8-12 that I know rather like mad, modern living, I suggest. Their bookshelves are full of knowing volumes by the likes of Jacqueline Wilson who includes story lines about divorce, childcare issues and alcoholism in her bestsellers, not to mention families on the run.


The Brownie pack I help with is full of bright girls who are just as interested in rude jokes as they are in playing sleeping lions. Sleeping lions is in the GBGBG, but no rude jokes. I wanted to put in more grown-up things, counters Vine, but Penguin wanted it to be nostalgic and uncomplicated.


And pretty aspirational too, it seems, with chapters about owning your own pony and an introduction to Burmese pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi and the nine daughters of Zeus. Surely the market aimed at is pushy middle-class mothers not the average 10-year-old who might prefer to know more about the outrageous Louise Rennison (creator of Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging) than Virginia Woolf (creator of Mrs Dalloway).


Well, you write about what you are able to write about. I wouldnt dream of patronising a demographic that I wouldnt know, or understand, says Vine, very politely. The whole idea was to recapture some of those great 1950s books for children to have a bit of that lost spirit of childhood.


Why is the tone, though, so fey? Take the section on throwing, which begins, Its a myth that girls cant throw. Its just that boys are generally better at it because they have been practising since they were first able to pick things up. Maybe the nudge-nudge quality is because the original idea seems to have sprung from something rather close to a joke.


When The Dangerous Book for Boys came out and was such a hit, says Vine, I was asked to do a spoof girls version for a newspaper, and wrote a rather silly, jolly piece including things like how to have a sulk. Thats why this book came about. Anyway, I think the writing is characterful, not anodyne.


To be fair, my 10-year-old daughter has been champing at the bit to read the book since it arrived yesterday, and has already made hummus from the recipe in the cooking section. This book is not meant to be a postfeminist critique of girlhood, Vine continues. It is not politically correct, because I am not a PC person. Needlecraft is not an offence to the female sex. None of our sex is enslaved by needlecraft!


Her co-author Rosemary Davidson, 42, who is also the mother of two, is as intrigued, although a bit less defensive, about why the book has caused such a kerfuffle. Im really interested in why it is being attacked in the way it is, she tells me.


It is clearly a response to The Dangerous Book for Boys. However, while it is clearly okay to endorse, or celebrate macho ideals as Dangerous does I do wonder whether girls should be genderless. Glorifying boyhood is good, but it is somehow wrong to know how to make a doll. I dont think its wrong to want to make a doll. And I think knowing how to unblock a toilet [a particularly criticised section] is quite useful.


Still, the fuss doesnt seem to have impeded the books ascent up the bestselling chart. What, I ask Davidson, can be next? I hear that there is a Dangerous Book for Dogs about to come out . . . I think it is a spoof, actually, she adds, reassuringly.

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