I spent most of yesterday afternoon at a slumber party.
Actually, I didn't: I spent most of yesterday afternoon taping an interview for NPR's Weekend Edition, slated to run this Saturday, December 1. But it sure felt like a slumber party. I had the pleasure of talking about The Daring Book For Girls not only with host John Ydstie, but with five girls, ages 8 to 11. I think it's probably safe to say that this may be the most giggly segment ever aired on NPR.
We started out the session with the girls introducing themselves, getting used to the microphone, and testing the sound levels, and then quickly delved into the book. The girls each had a copy, and most of them had marked their favorite pages with colorful, sticky notes. The first item on the agenda was hand-clap games. I think the idea was that I might talk a bit about the chapter and maybe teach the girls some of the hand-clap techniques or rhymes, but it was immediately obvious that these girls were hand-clap pros. They not only knew the rhymes from the book, they knew the extended versions, the fancy versions, and even the racy versions (much to the embarrassment of one of the moms who listened in). And in the end, they were the ones who taught me a thing or two, demonstrating for me a hand-clap rhyme I hadn't come across in my research for the book ("Double-double this-this," in case you're wondering!).
It was an easy jump from the subject of rhyming games to another favorite chapter of theirs: "Words to Impress." The girls liked the words gustatory, sesquipedalian, brobdignagian, and sprezzatura, and had fun trying out their pronunciations for the microphone. Then we turned to the topic of silly pranks, and moved to the kitchen, the girls eagerly assembling the ingredients to make a stink bomb (that would be valerian root, vinegar, and a glass jar with a tight-sealing lid). After some debate about where exactly to set it off (a big brother's room was considered, but ultimately it was decided that since the room "smelled like a 16-year-old boy" anyway, the stink bomb might not make much of an impact), we took it outside and had a whiff. (One girl remarked, "That certainly is a brobdignagian smell!" and her friend rejoindered, "You and your sesquipedalian words!")
We then went back inside, where, the subject of pranking big brothers evidently still on at least one girl's mind, the girls decided to short sheet a bed. They raced upstairs to the brother's room and one of the girls, who had not only read the instructions on short-sheeting but had actually tried it out on her parents to great effect, led the team in making quick work of the task. Back downstairs, the subject turned to allowance and earning money by dog-walking. (One of the girls volunteered that she sometimes did cat-walking, but that the cats didn't actually walk much.) So it seemed the perfect time to talk a bit about the chapter on negotiating a salary. The girls listened politely ? this part of the afternoon was notably giggle-free ? but their complete and utter lack of interest was, shall we say, palpable. So we moved it right along to talk about something far more relevant to their pre-employment lives: spies and spy teams.
The girls had done a fair amount of amateur spy missions, it turned out, but they had a lot of fun recounting their experiences and talking about some of the cool things in the book about spies from long ago. We also talked about putting together a spy team, and they were so excited by the conversation that they began planning a mission right then and there ? but alas, the mom popped in to say that our time was up and the spy game would have to wait until another day.
The girls ran upstairs to make a lantern out of batteries, copper wire, and a light bulb while I talked with John about the book for the more formal portion of the interview.
We talked about girlhood and childhood, pressure and perfectionism, and nostalgia versus history. As much as some seem to see this book as harkening back to a nostalgic past, Miriam and I really see the book as very forward-looking. It's a collection of things to know and do that honor the very important history and traditions of girls and women, but it also embraces the very modern sense of girls and women having agency and power and importance, whether or not they conform to what has historically been defined as girlish.
Which brings us, in a way, back to the slumber party. How progressive is it, really, to celebrate an afternoon of hand-clap games, silly pranks, fantastic vocabulary, and female spies with a gaggle of girls? Isn't it backwards to encourage such frivolity and girly fun?
We say absolutely not. These are 8-year-old girls, 9-year-old girls, 11-year-old girls: why shouldn't they explore the world in the ways that interest them, that forge friendships, that link them with girls and women who have come before them? Who are we grown-ups to say, "Sorry, 9-year-old girls, no giggling for you ? you're setting back the women's movement!" Just in that one afternoon it was plain to see that, for all our good grown-up intentions, knowing your audience is key. How to negotiate a salary is certainly something important for women and girls to know, but these girls weren't worried about it, because not only is salary negotiation not relevant for them at 8 or 9 ? but what was important for them to hear was that they should, and that they can, and that in the future, they most certainly will.
So what if they were more interested in hand-clap games? At their age, they definitely should be.
Before I left, one of the girls told me, "This book is awesome. And it's not just full of girl-stuff. I mean, boys would think building a lemon clock or making a flashlight is cool!" She gave me a hug and then ran upstairs, readying herself to await her brother's reaction to his severely short-sheeted bed.