The story behind The Double Dangerous Book For Boys
The Dangerous Book for Boys sold over 7 million copies globally, teaching a new generation about skills and tricks to make boyhood adventurous again. Now, the sequel is here...
The Dangerous Book for Boys was a surprise hit when it came out in 2006. Not strange for anyone who comes across it, for its mix of old school Boys’ Own skills and tricks and knowledge – from conker fighting to go-carting – was immediately appealing, but the size of its ‘3 million-copies sold in the Uk alone’ success gave pause for thought. Boys caught up in the digital age were clearly gagging for some outdoorsy, practical advice, but also dads were getting nostalgic for its lessons and enjoying it just as much as the kids. It was a phenomenon. And now author Conn Iggulden is back with The Double Dangerous Book for Boys, complete with new entries on matters such as how to pick a lock and how to master a Rubik’s cube. Brilliantly, Conn has brought his two sons, Cameron (18) and Arthur (11) in as co-authors. Here, we had a word with Conn about the making of the book…
Congrats on the excellent new edition – did the success of the first one take you by surprise?
Completely. My brother and I chose things we had done as kids – making a bow and arrow, say, or the go-cart, along with stories of courage and strange obsessions – like famous battles and grammar. It was such a personal mix, we didn’t think it would sell. The strange thing was finding out so many other people cared about exactly the same things.
What were your plans for this new one? What did you learn from the last one in terms of what worked and what didn’t?
A lot of this one came from my sons bringing ideas home. My oldest, Cameron, took to Rubik’s cubes and learned how to pick locks, for example. Picking locks! I couldn’t believe I’d missed that in the first book. My youngest son told me he’d learned sign language to signal to his friends without getting caught in class. I don’t know if I would have thought of that on my own.
As well as those, I was able to put in ones I found over the last twelve years, ideas that needed a home. I’m proud of the ‘Advice from Fighting Men’ chapter and the Questions about the Law, for example.
What worked tended to be simple and cheap. I didn’t put in our take on making a chess set, because it needed a lathe and a lathe is an expensive bit of kit. I’m usually happy operating at a very simple level. I think that’s why most of the subjects are easy to get into. Our elastic band gun is a great little design anyone can do.
What’s your method?
If I can’t make it, it doesn’t go in. That worked with the first book – it was the only way to be certain we knew where the problems were. I couldn’t get the flour tin to blow the lid off, so I left that out, even though I know it has worked for some people. Our flying machine works though. Not well – it flaps like a butterfly, but it is a thing of wonder.
I do the practical stuff with the boys – from playing cards, to roping in the whole family to make the Italian meal. After that, I write it up, then read it to them to check it goes across and I haven’t left anything out. They make suggestions and I tweak the text until it’s finished. It takes a lot of time, but it’s true what they say – do something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.
What are the toughest things to research? Do you test all the practical things out?
For the ruins chapter, I went to places, but it was over years. I loved seeing Sparta, the Acropolis in Athens, Pompeii, but also Pembroke castle and Sandal castle near Wakefield. I chose them for the stories they had to tell and that was a joy.
Every practical thing had to be tested. We did some chapters with chemicals – like setting things in resin. It took an age to get a coin to hang suspended in our Perspex dome – and when we put in too much hardener, it became almost too hot to touch. It’s vital to be sure it all works.
Do you attribute the success of the book to people wanting a retort to the digital age?
Boys aren’t born with knowledge, like the way birds can build nests. Instead, they look around: “What am I meant to know? What skills is the man I’ll be one day going to need?” I use a PC every day – to write this, for example. I use my phone all the time, for Netflix and sometimes, yes, Crossy Road. That doesn’t make me proud, however. That just steals time. What makes me proud is being competent – and passing good things on to my sons. The original Dangerous Book and the Double Dangerous are both to dip into. They won’t replace the internet, obviously. I hope though, that there is something interesting on every page. That’s all. That’s my contribution.
I had a lot of dads buying the first one for their sons, but also a lot of wives buying it for their husbands. Who knows, we all might need to know how to make a good set of jump leads one day.
What kind of reactions have you seen from boys? Do you get much feedback on what they’ve learnt from the book? What are your faves?
I’ve had letters and emails from around the world. From fathers who made things with their sons, from boys who put the tin of kit together and carry it with them. I’ve had replies from US and UK military camps in Afghanistan, from men in the toughest of circumstances who liked being reminded about trees and air rifles and stories of courage. That makes me proud, I can’t even tell you.
It has been an incredibly positive experience. Many people understand it’s important to bring boys up right, with role models, with patience and kindness and wry humour – and skills, loads of skills. We all know it matters, not least to the women who will marry them one day. Good men are vital – and they were all scabby-kneed urchins trying to do a wheelie once.
What were you like as a boy? What kind of things did you read and enjoy?
I loved making camps and trying slightly dangerous things – in the sense of having adventures, really. I brought a white mouse into school in my pocket. With my brother, we did get into trouble in all sorts of ways, but it turned out I could put half the things we tried into the first and second book. I made perfume for my mother, after stealing roses from all the local gardens. It ended up as a sort of brown water. There is a technique in the Double Dangerous that works. It actually works!
Under it all, beyond the inexplicable hamster deaths, the dog-powered-roundabout, climbing onto roofs and begging for money with car washing, carols and a penny-for-the-guy (clothes stuffed with straw sitting on the go-cart) was a love of books, of stories. I loved to read, to be gripped by a great page-turner. It’s what I try to write, pretty much.
I loved Willard Price books in primary school, then Adrian Mole, Three Men in a Boat, Jennings books – anything about school. There is a chapter of great books in the Dangerous Book – and another in the new Double Dangerous!
Are you finding there’s a huge amount of adult men reading the book too?
That surprised me. I think when the first one came out, there was a sense that our parents and grandparents used to know all this – Scott of the Antarctic, or the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World, or even simple grammar, but somehow… we didn’t. So yes, I’ve had great responses from a lot of men. They dip in, then find they’re still reading an hour later – with something to tell their mates.
What values do you hope to instil in people who read your book?
The understanding that boys need skills, competence and expertise. I’m sure some girls do as well, but boys really do. It’s their way of controlling the world – or seeming to. It’s the Dyson in the shed with five thousand protypes, or the author Jeffrey Archer with a hundred versions of his books before they go to print. It’s patience and hard work and taking the time to learn something amazing – because everything good in the world comes from those qualities, pretty much. Including being a father.
I’d like them to be as thrilled as I was by the story of Victor Gregg – perhaps the greatest war story of all time, as he was as El Alamein, Arnhem AND in a German prison in Dresden when the firebombing began. I’d like people to love books, to look on them with affection and to remember there’s Greeks, Romans and all sorts within. Just open it. It celebrates all that is good about being a boy, when no doors are closed and the whole world is an adventure.
What are you working on next?
I’m in ancient Greece in my historical fiction, just beginning a new series. Athens, Sparta and the Persian invasion. Themistocles, Aristides, Xerxes. From the battle of Marathon on, it is the best material in all human history. All I have to do is somehow do it justice.
The Double Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn, Arthur & Cameron Iggulden is published by Harper Collins £20, out now
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