Miriam Peskowitz has been a camp counselor, an historian, a blogger, a musician, a professor, and is the author of several books, including The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars: Who Decides What Makes a Good Mother? and Judaism Since Gender. Her latest endeavor, with fellow writer Andrea J. Buchanan, is The Daring Book for Girls (Collins, $24.95), a bestselling collection of stories, projects and ideas drawn from history, girl lore, sports and games and the great outdoors. From how to paddle a canoe to basic karate moves, from making a friendship bracelet to building your own scooter, from queens of the ancient world to the periodic table of elements, from rules for hopscotch and jacks to negotiating a salary, The Daring Book, write the authors, is a book "of possibilities and ideas for filling a day with adventure, imagination—and fun." Written for girls 7-14, girls and women of all ages are finding its pages sources of inspiration and self-discovery. Peskowitz and Buchanan have also written The Pocket Daring Book for Girls—Things to Do, which is due out in May.
Q: Your previous books included "Judaism Since Gender" and "The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars." How does this book build on your earlier books?
A: I have always been interested in issues relating to women and girls, and to gender issues. All my books seem very different from each other—the early ones where scholarly, and The Daring Book for Girls is a popular bestseller—but they each ask similar questions: What does it mean to be female? What does it mean to live a good and full life? What stands in the way, and what makes it possible?
Daring is very different from my books in Jewish studies, although it was great fun to be able to include Salome Alexandra among our chapters on five ancient queens. Salome Alexandra was queen of the Jews in the first century BCE. Her people loved her and she kept the country in relative peace for a decade—an amazing achievement when all's said and done.
Q: Is that the same Salome who was supposed to have asked for John the Baptist's head?
A: No. That's a different Salome. That was the New Testament Salome. She lived several decades later. Queen Salome was so popular that many people named their daughters after her.
Q: What messages do you think girls are getting in our society about who they should be?
A: I think girls get lots of mixed messages: to be very smart and to achieve great things, to be in great shape and to look hot, at very young ages, and to excel at everything. They get the message that they need to be perfect, as if this were possible. We've created huge pressures for our tweens and teens. No one can meet them and still be happy and healthy. There's been so much anxiety about achievement, and our girls bear the brunt of that. Nine is the new seventeen, and in fact, recent studies of nine-year-old girls reveal that their number one worry is getting into college! That's crazy! What ever happened to girlhood? Our girls become little women way too early.
Hence, the Daring Girl credo: "Relax. Enjoy life. Be interesting to yourself. Pursue great things not because you feel you must, but because you are truly fascinated by and passionate about something."
Q: Is your book, in a sense, a kind of "cultural literacy" for girls?
A: We think that the world is a big place. The more things we know about that world, the more exciting the world becomes and the more girls feel that they have arrived in that world. This is cultural literacy not for its own sake, but as a way to feel part of a huge big world out there, and to follow one's dreams.
Q: Why did you decide to incorporate hopscotch and jacks and other girls' games in your book?
A: Yeah, some people have complained about the hopscotch and handclap games and suggested we aren't serious enough. But that's the point. There's a history of girl games and lore that we wanted to include. Female history often is dropped by the wayside. I'd wager that most of today's women CEO's played hopscotch and jacks when they were girls, and look where they are now! It turns out, too, that the history of hopscotch is fascinating: it began as a military exercise for boys, and eventually was taken over by girls as an everyday game.
The other thing is that girls still play many of these games. We wanted to honor that, and to provide a way to learn the rules. Seven-year-old girls still play hopscotch. Nine-year-old girls on my daughter's swim team play complex hand clap games while they are waiting to be called for their heat. On elementary schools playgrounds in my Philadelphia neighborhood, girls play double-dutch when they are waiting outside for the bell to start.
Q: What skills do girls learn from your book?
A: Well, that's not really a question we asked ourselves. We started with the question: what might be fun? What are we curious about? What do our daughters want to know? You can turn the book into a list of skills--like learning how to tie knots, or use tools, or make a campfire, or how to speak in public or negotiate a salary for babysitting and dogwalking and the other things that girls do for money—and that's fantastic. But the point is for girls to follow their gut, have some fun, and be pleasantly surprised to realize they've learned great things along the way.
Q: How would you describe the purpose behind The Daring Book for Girls?
A: It's a joyous book. Our world can be tough and pressure-filled, and Daring is an alternative world for girls to live in during those tween and early teen years. It's a book of journeys and possibilities and exploration. Maybe you didn't know about the South Sea Islands, and now you do. Maybe you didn't know how to go into the hardware store and come out with a bagful of screws and nuts and bolts and wood and make a tree swing or scooter and now you do. Maybe you didn't know how to short sheet a bed or make a stink bomb and now you do.
Q: With so many more opportunities for girls in today's world, why does self-esteem continue to remain an issue?
A: I can't answer that, but I can say that real esteem, real confidence and a real sense of self is based on knowing things and having interests and true desires. That makes it possible for girls to look at, say, the pressure to be super-thin, and laugh a little and not take it so seriously, because they know how big the world is, and how narrow certain messages are. I think that's where real self esteem comes in.
Q: I think that's actually true of every age of woman….
A: Absolutely. We get many notes from women in their 30s, 40s and 50s thanking us for this book. Women of all ages especially love the chapter on how to negotiate a salary…. That's something very few of us are taught.
Q: How does economic literacy fit into the picture of girls getting a better sense of themselves?
A: I've had so many teen girl baby sitters lower their heads when I ask them how much they charge per hour. I had to ask them: "Do you charge $6, do you charge $7…?" They don't feel safe enough to come out and say, "I charge $10 an hour," or whatever it is. We hope that every baby-sitting girl who reads our book will now go to her clients and ask for higher wages, and offer them a contract to sign. We want to empower girls to feel much more at home with money and to demand that they be paid well for their labor.
The issue of women and girls and money is important. I remember that around the time we were writing the book, an ad came in the mail from one of the local Jewish day schools. It had a tag line that said something like, "Our students do great at math and calling the stock market." The student they showed was a boy! Wall Street and the banking industry are still dominated by men, and here was a school that was perpetuating this inequity. We added the chapter about stocks and bonds and mutual funds, because we wanted to start changing assumptions like these.
Grown women often don't always feel at home with financial independence and don't always feel as self-sufficient and independent as they'd like to be. We hope to change this from girls all the way on up.
Q: You spoke about women in their 20s, 30s and 40s and up thanking you for the book. How have the girls responded?
A: They're loving it. At our local library, one girl has had their copy out for several weeks. It's way overdue, but she just won't return it! We get wonderful emails from girls saying things like, "I've never had a book I've loved as much as this one," and some moms have emailed to tell us that their daughters never liked to read until they read our book. Girl Scouts from all over the country are asking their Girl Scout troop leaders to do activities from The Daring Book for Girls.
Girls are often told to be one way or the other. They are told to focus on boys and clothing. Or they are told to be athletic, and that's it. Our vision for The Daring Book for Girls is that every girl can find herself in it. She can be an athlete and find herself there. She could be as girly girl as they come and find herself in the book. She can be supersmart and brainy girl and find herself there. That's our vision for the book: That all girls belong.
Q: How did today's dominance of technology influence your thinking?
A: Technology is great, and video games are fine, but then there's the rest of life. We want to make sure that all these things are integrated into a life with many interests.
At the same time, we are very concerned about what girls do online. On the one hand, girls are feeling at home on computers and the Internet. But on the other hand, many end up being consumers on the Internet and focus on their image when creating their My Space pages.
We wanted girls to have other things to know about. There is real confidence that comes from knowing how to make things. Several minigenerations of kids have been raised who don't know how to make things if the makings don't come in a ready-made kit. Whether it's making your own paper, or knowing how to fiddle with electricity and make a lamp or flashlight, these things feel rewarding, and we wanted to give that feeling back to girls.
Q: What are some of the things you have tried to teach your own daughters?
A: I have a nine-year old and a two-year old, so it's really more about the nine-year old. We live in Philadelphia near some wonderful trails, so by example, I've tried to help them feel at home outdoors. We go for hikes, and we snowshoe in winter and we try to notice what's going on the woods.
I've started to teach my older daughter how to use tools. Yes, this can be challenging! One Sunday she came in from the back yard with a hammer in one hand and some wood in the other, and told me she needed nails. I was busy with the baby, and asked her to wait, and she reminded me that she knew how to hammer. I admit, I worried: "Oh my gosh, she's going to hurt her thumb." I had to remind myself that we have to get over our fears that our kids might hurt their thumbs, because thumbs heal, and it's important to know how to make new things and fix those that are broken.
In encouraging my daughters to be adventurous, I have felt the anxiety that every parent feels. I have also felt excited and proud. One day my neighbor called, "You know your daughter is 25 feet up in our cedar tree, right?" And there she was, indeed, 25 feet up. We helped her climb down, we laughed and took some pictures. I want to encourage her to explore, to take on the world in ways that are challenging and safe at the same time. I want her to feel brave. I want all of our girls to feel brave.
Q: Traditionally, Jewish moms are known to be worriers, anxious about their children's safety. How can controlling this impulse help our daughters to grow?
A: We need to realize that the world is a safer place than we think it is.
Q: If you were write an addendum about adventures that Jewish girls might seek out, what would they be?
A: My advice is to encourage our girls to explore beyond the usual boundaries, wherever those are. And to not let stereotypes about Jewish girls limit their lives.