When "Harriet the Spy" comes home from school, she straps on her tool belt and heads out alone into the wilds of Manhattan's Upper East Side, creeping down alleys and peering through skylights. Unlike the 1960s heroine of Louise Fitzhugh's classic novel, 21st-century girls come home from school, sit down and log on.
Authors Andrea Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz set out to combat this sedentary, computer-centered culture in "The Daring Book for Girls," a companion to last year's runaway bestseller from Britain, "The Dangerous Book for Boys."
Between the book's eye-catching turquoise covers, embossed with retro black-and-silver type, are instructions for everything from paddling a canoe to tying a sari ("daring" apparently defined as any activity not involving a screen). Readers can brush up on the rules to such quaint pastimes as hopscotch and jacks or learn the more esoteric skills of reading tide charts and building clocks powered by lemon juice.
This and other recent titles touting hands-on over plugged-in experiences raise the question: Are they really for kids? Or are they for nostalgia-hungry adults -- those moms who want to relive summer camp circa 1979 by making god's eyes with their daughters? Perhaps these books are to girls what Martha Stewart Living and Real Simple magazines are to most women: invitations to fleetingly imagine oneself as the type of person who would, say, roll beeswax candles or color-code labels in the spice rack.
Still, just because a contemporary 10-year-old girl might spend more time playing with virtual stuffed animals on webkinz.com than handling her actual plush toys doesn't mean she won't occasionally hanker for something new -- or, rather, old. Laura Ingalls Wilder novels seem never to lose their power to inspire readers to dream of trading in their Hannah Montana T-shirts for calico. Jennifer Worick's "The Prairie Girl's Guide to Life" indulges this common fantasy, offering blueprints for re-creating an Ingalls-type lifestyle. Want to throw an ice cream social, learn how to find a good sledding hill or braid a rug? These are just a sample of Worick's 49 "pioneer projects" designed to introduce girls to the satisfaction of crafting things themselves instead of reaching for a credit card.
In "Last Child in the Woods" (2006), author Richard Louv coined the term "nature-deficit disorder" to describe how children are spending less and less time outdoors observing their surroundings. He points out modern children's curiously theoretical relationship with nature in which, for instance, they know all about the effects of global warming on Arctic polar bears, but never sit watching squirrels in their own back yard.
It's interesting that while "The Daring Book for Girls" promotes adventurousness, it includes relatively few rugged outdoor activities. A section on hiking implies that one needs to find an official trailhead to do it properly vs. simply setting off through the neighborhood. Readers of "The Dangerous Book for Boys" are instructed in the arts of building a treehouse and hunting and cooking rabbits. While Peskowitz and Buchanan do teach girls how to make a campfire, they also teach them how to make a portable seat cushion called a "sit-upon," seeming to suggest that girls are just too dainty to plop down on the dirt.
As much as these books point girls toward the past and an arguably simpler, more active way of life, they also reveal how times have changed. Parents are more protective. Children generally don't have the freedom to wander through the woods -- or even down the block. "All of these activities should be carried out under adult supervision only," Peskowitz and Buchanan warn in a disclaimer.
Even Worick can't completely keep the modern world out of her re-creation of the prairie. True pioneer women would be scratching their bonneted heads at her description of how to create calling cards, as their log cabins weren't equipped with inkjet printers -- "preferably color" -- or Microsoft Word.
Christine Heppermann also reviews for Horn Book magazine. She lives in Minneapolis.