Sunflowers are such calm, quiet, peaceful things, unlike boys. But my two boys, Hank and Gabe, are raising sunflowers in our backyard as part of The Daring Quest, and we want you to see the results so far, beginning at the, well, beginning.

Adding Fertilizer

Saturday, May 9, the day before Mother’s Day. Here are Jennifer and Gabe preparing the soil and planting the seeds. Each of us has our various jobs: Jennifer and I shovel dirt and mix in chicken manure to improve the soil in the bed, Hank stays inside the house working on his Alaska state project for school, and Gabe occasionally wields the shovel but mainly collects bugs that he finds in the dirt.

Handful of bugs

Lured by the prospect of seeing something gross, Hank comes outside to see Gabe’s bag of bugs. “Dude,” he says, “that’s awesome.” “Do you want to feel them?” Gabe asks. “No,” says Hank. I confess during the shoveling that in all my life I have never planted anything before-not one fruit, not one vegetable, and certainly not any sunflowers. “That’s amazing,” says Jennifer. “I’m so happy to be part of your first experience.” Hank adds, “I’ve never planted seeds in chicken dung before.”

Thursday, May 14. Gabe and I water the sunflowers. Like the American economy, no green shoots are visible yet. Watering the sunflowers quickly turns into watering Gabe. He starts running around the lawn giggling and exulting as the spray from the hose soaks him like a spring shower.

Hank picking off seeds_1

Sunday, May 17. Success! Here, Hank explores the eight to twelve tiny shoots that are suddenly bursting from the chicken manure soil. This is a testament to the wisdom of The Dangerous Book for Boys, our guide for The Daring Quest, which recommended sunflowers because they grow very fast and children (and their parents) can see immediate results. Afterward Gabe and I go up to my office to download the pictures he has taken, and I teach him how to use the Kodak photo editing  software. He quickly catches on and crops the photos and saves them to the desktop without my help. “I can do it,” Gabe says. “I know you can,” says his father.

In a moment Hank follows us into my office and learns to use the photo editing tools too. The two of them take turns editing photos, and it occurs to me that while the boys are ostensibly growing sunflowers, they are also learning some of the skills I hold dear: writing, editing, photography, design, publishing.

Tuesday, May 19. Before the finals of “American Idol,” I water the sunflowers and the other plants in the beds, something I’m doing much more than I ever have in the past. I feel more connected to the sunflowers because I helped plant them and they’re part of The Daring Quest. This seems a good lesson for teaching children as well: A thing that is done for them will never matter as much to them as when they do it themselves.

Saturday, May 30. I am brushing my teeth when Gabe runs into the bathroom to tell me something. This is not unusual. It is almost impossible to take a shower without Gabe coming in to tell Jennifer or me-whoever is in the shower at the time-his latest breaking news about how he can’t find one of his Warhammer toys or how he had a dream last night about a peanut butter sandwich. But this is truly a dramatic development. “I have good news and bad news about the sunflowers,” he says. “The good news is they’re growing. The bad news is they’re being eaten. By snails, I think.”

Springing into action,  I go down to the garage, find a bag of snail-killing pellets, toss some handfuls in the dirt, and create a snail Maginot Line along the edges of the bed. Take that, you pesky varmints!

Wednesday, June 10. The sunflowers are growing, and growing. According to Gabe’s measurements, the tallest is more than twenty inches high, and there are a bunch of other plants that are nearly as tall.


Thursday, June 18. Gabe measures again and the tallest is now two feet high. Two feet! It’s a miracle!

Big Growth!


Boys Will Be Boys, our other popular recurring feature here, is our modest attempt to teach the boys of America the inappropriate wisdom of their fathers. Men across the land have responded to my call and are sharing with me all the inappropriate, and often disgusting, activities they did as children. So far we have told about snipe hunting, spitting off a bridge, competitive belching, arm farts, and more, with many more rude and inappropriate activities to come.

What I am discovering, however, is that boys frequently do many rude and inappropriate things without ever having to be taught. For instance, wet towel snapping. The other day I was in the men’s locker room at the Benicia swimming pool and a group of boys were snapping wet towels at each other. A wet towel, unlike a dry one, can leave a quite a sting upon impact, and this is why, dating back to the beginning of time, boys have been engaging in wet towel fights in locker rooms. The greatest at this I ever saw was my boyhood friend Mark Croghan, who could snap a towel the way Indiana Jones uses a bull whip.

Do girls soak their towels or tee shirts in water, twirl them up like a rope, and then snap them at each other’s butt in their locker room? I do not know the answer to this, but my guess is…not. Nor can I imagine girls doing what I saw a bunch of boys do today at the pool. There were maybe six boys standing around, all in swimsuits, shirts off. One of the boys took his open palm and swung it as hard as he could against another boy’s back, hitting the skin so hard I could hear the pop several feet away. But the boy who was hit, instead of reacting with shock and anger as one might expect, was smiling.

See, he was in on it. It was probably his idea. And he looked proud as all the other boys crowded around him to see what kind of mark it had left on his back. It was bright red and seemed even larger than the hand of the boy who hit. Better still, it remained a conversation piece for quite a while as the boy walked around the pool showing it off to other friends. He could even make the mark get bigger or smaller by moving his shoulders back and forth.

How do boys get ideas to do hare-brained things like this? Got me. But if you ever did any stupid, idiotic pranks when you were a child, or had any done to you, drop us a line. We’re always interested in foolishness of all kinds.

Here is a picture quiz on chess that in all the Milky Way vastness of the Internet, you will find only on Kevin Nelson, Writer.. …So you think you can play chess better than a fifth grader? Well, maybe you can-that is, if you can identify the pieces. This is a problem I ran into playing chess with my sons, and now I want to see how well you can identify the pieces in a specialty chess set based on the characters in Lord of the Rings.

Playing chess is one of the challenges in The Dangerous Book for Boys, and thus in the Dangerous Quest, and it was a snap to do because I’ve played chess with my daughter and sons for years. But what I found when I started playing on this movie-based novelty set is that I couldn’t tell which pieces were which, and so Hank, who just graduated from the fifth grade, beat the pants off me. Is this a queen? Wait, it’s a bishop? Oh geez, well then I’ll move my rook. That’s not a rook but the king? Oh come on!

Now here’s your chance to see if you can do better. Below are pictures of chess pieces from Lord of the Rings. Your job is to identify which ones they are-pawn, rook, queen or whatever. Gabe wielded the camera and I put my hand behind each piece because it cut down on the glare in the photo. In the first set of photos we deliberately did not shoot the insignia at the bottom of each piece because that gives away what it is. In the answers section we’ve shown the piece in full frame so you can see what it is.

Got it? Six dark pieces and four light. See if you’re smarter than a fifth grader chess player and tell what they are.

1. Something. Lord. a_1




3.Lord. cropped_1














10. lord. 2_1

Answers are here.

1. King 1a. Lord. a

2. Rook/Castle

2b. lord.ans

3. Queen

3a.Lord. answer

4. Bishop


5. Knight


6. Pawn


7. Knight


8. King


9. Bishop9a.lord.answer

10a.lord. 1

10. Pawn


The latest in my quest to do all the challenges in The Dangerous Book For Boys with my sons in a year…
The Dangerous Book for Boys, the sourcebook and inspiration for The Dangerous Quest, is not merely an activity book; it poses questions about the world, discusses geography and aspects of natural science, contains maps, diagrams and charts, tells the stories of epic world battles, shows pictures and provides information about pirates, the Navajo language, military codes, national flags, and other topics, and recommends poetry and literature for boys to read.

The thinking of authors Conn and Hal Iggulden is that boys should know about such things just as surely as they should know how to make a homemade battery or create invisible ink using urine. In “Sampling Shakespeare” (p. 150, DBFB), the Igguldens seek to introduce boys to Shakespeare, excerpting some of the Bard’s best lines from his plays. (In an unfortunate oversight, however, there are no excerpts from the sonnets.) But in skimming over these lines, I wondered if just having Hank and Gabe read lines from Lear or Romeo and Juliet would actually achieve the desired effect of making the words of the World’s Greatest Writer Ever come alive to them.

At dinner the other night I happened to mention Portia’s “Mercy” speech from “The Merchant of Venice,” fumbling to remember those beautiful and perfect sentiments. Whereupon my wife, a former Shakespearean actor who studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, rose from the table, stepped over to a bookshelf, and took up “The Comedies” from the National Shakespeare, an oversized cloth facsimile edition of the first folio of 1623 that she bought at a Sotheby’s auction when she was a student in London. Turning to the speech, she began to speak it trippingly on her tongue:

“The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath.
It is twice blessed.
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes
It is mightiest in the mightiest…”

Jennifer explained to the boys afterward that Shakespeare’s words were four hundred years old and that even though she had studied him at one time, she had to really concentrate on what he was saying in order to understand it. I added that we had seen a production of “Twelfth Night” last fall and that a lot of what the characters were saying had just gone past me; I didn’t get it.

The boys listened politely (unusual for them at dinner; normally they’re squawking at each other and interrupting constantly), but I think Portia’s words droppeth right past them and they didn’t get a bit of it. When they were gone I asked Jennifer how she thought we could establish a connection with the Bard, complicated as always by the fact that Hank is eleven and Gabe eight and naturally have different reading and comprehension levels. She said that when she was a girl her mother had offered her a bribe to memorize the great speech in “Richard II” about England: “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.” (This passage is also quoted in DBFB).

“I did it,” Jennifer recalled. “I memorized the speech, and I wasn’t any older than Hank is now. It was hard though.”

So what about bribing the boys to memorize a passage from Shakespeare? Bribery is a time-honored parental method to motivate children. I talked to a Mom last night at the pool who confessed that she promised her son a cell phone if he performed well at a county swim meet. He excelled and got his wish.

Jennifer’s mother (see The True Story of the Girl Who Shot a Book to learn more about her) had given her a nickel to memorize Richard, but that hardly seems adequate given inflation and the exalted financial expectations of today’s youth. What about a sawbuck to learn Hamlet’s soliloquy? Or perhaps a five-spot for the Saint Crispin’s Day speech (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”) in “King Henry V”? Too much or not enough? What, a bribe isn’t the right way to handle this? I’ll keep mulling.

Conn Iggulden, the co-author of The Dangerous Book for Boys and a successful and widely praised historical novelist, has a new novel out, Genghis: The Bones of the Hills, the third and final installment in his trilogy on Genghis Khan. The first two books in the trilogy are Lords of the Bow and Birth of an Empire, and you can watch an interview with him here.”You can’t find better stories than those in history,” he says, and as a lover of history and a person who writes about it as well, I couldn’t agree more.

To be honest, I haven’t read any of Iggulden’s fiction yet (he has also written a quartet of historical novels on Julius Caesar), but I’ve certainly been inspired by his nonfiction. As the critic Charlotte Allen writes, “The Dangerous Book for Boys became a No. 1 bestseller in 2007 because it offered…a chance for boys to be boys. On its pages they could learn how to do things that boys like to do-grow crystals, build fires, make paper airplanes, design a working bow and arrow, learn about dinosaurs and the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World-things designed to build their competence and self-confidence and help them grow into men.”

This is the goal of The Dangerous Quest as well, seeing if I can give my boys a little boost toward manhood and in the meantime have a little fun and bring other boys and men-and perhaps some girls and women-along for the ride too. Stick around, there’s more to come.

Travis and his brothers

Today we are introducing a new feature: Boys Will Be Boys. It is separate from, but not unrelated to, The Dangerous Quest, my attempt to do every challenge in The Dangerous Book for Boys with my sons in a year. It came about after I put out a call a couple of weeks ago for “inappropriate” childhood activities, and I was deluged with emails from men remembering all the hell-raising they did as boys.

We’ve already discussed 52-Card Pickup and Arm Farts, Pull My Finger, and Competitive Belching. In the weeks to come we will share more of these tender moments of boyhood, such as lighting farts, shooting rubber bands in class, chasing a babysitter with a dead mouse, setting off firecrackers, catapulting water balloons through open windows, and putting a shotgun shell on a fallen log, shooting it with a BB gun, and watching it explode.

Our initial offering is a childhood classic from Travis Roste of Minnesota: snipe hunting. Travis, the father of two daughters, grew up in a family of five boys and two girls. Above is a picture of three Roste boys: Travis and twin brother Trevor on the outside, and another brother Chad in the middle. When Travis and Trevor were young, their dad Myron took them into the woods to go snipe hunting. Here is how Travis remembers it:

“I grew up on a hobby farm, out in the country. It was a fantastic place to play and explore. I don’t have a lot of pictures when I was a kid, a couple of dozen, but hardly any of them show my dad. He wasn’t the kind of dad to pose for pictures. You had to kind of get him in a candid shot when he wasn’t looking.  He didn’t want his picture taken if he could help it. He was the old-fashioned type of dad. Didn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve. He showed us he loved us by taking us fishing and hunting and things like that. He’s 71 years old now and in great shape; he cuts wood and is active.

“My dad took me and Trevor snipe hunting in the woods not far away from our house. Here’s how you play: Go to a woodsy area when it is getting dark. Tell your boys to hold a burlap sack open to catch the snipe. You turn a flashlight on and put it in the bag, and tell them it will attract the snipe. Then tell them you are going to walk around in a big circle to drive the snipe toward them, but that they have to hold the bag perfectly still. Otherwise the snipe won’t come and they won’t catch any. To make sure they believe you, tell them that you did this as a kid.

“That’s exactly what my dad did told us, and Trevor and I went along with it all the way. We held the sack with the flashlight in it while my dad drove the snipe to us, as he said. We sat there for a long time while it was getting dark. Finally, when we didn’t see our dad anywhere, we went back up to the house, and there he was inside laughing at us. He told us that his dad had taken him snipe hunting too. We didn’t really get the joke too much back then, but of course we do now. It’s a grand tradition in the U.S. and we were glad to be part of it.”

Myron Roste and friend

Myron Roste and a friend.