Monday, February 8, 2016

Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin

Captures every kid’s daydreams of space travel
I don’t make a habit out of reading children’s or young adult literature, but when I learned that Wildside Press was bringing back the Danny Dunn series I saw it as an opportunity to relive some fond memories of my youth. I loved the Danny Dunn books when I was a kid. They were published a little before my time, but were a staple in school and public libraries in the ‘70s. The first installment of the 15-volume series, Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint, was originally published in 1956. I’m happy to say that, although the science in this science fiction is now a half century old, the storytelling still has the ability to delight and entertain.

Danny Dunn is a typical small-town American boy, with red hair and freckles just right for a Norman Rockwell painting. His widowed mother works as a housekeeper for Professor Euclid Bullfinch, a scientist at a local college. Danny and his mother live with the professor, who acts as a surrogate father to him. Danny has a precocious intelligence and an enthusiasm for science. Professor Bullfinch, who does not specialize in any particular field but rather functions as a scientific jack-of-all-trades, is always working on some scientific discovery that’s way ahead of its time. He demonstrates his inventions to Danny and explains the science behind them. Somehow, through some well-intentioned mischief, Danny always ends up co-opting the professor’s gadgets, usually to solve some problem or thwart some bad guy.

In this first adventure, as the title indicates, the topic is spaceflight. Professor Bullfinch has developed a fluid that, when charged with electricity, can defy the pull of gravity. The government immediately enlists him in a project to build the first manned spacecraft, right there in Danny’s hometown! It certainly isn’t difficult to see where this story is leading, but in this case predictability is forgivable. It’s all good, clean fun that plays to many a child’s daydreams of space flight. My two boys, ages 6 and 8, read picture books about real space travel and watch the NASA Channel on TV. Even so, despite the fact that this book was written before Sputnik went into orbit, they still managed to get caught up in Danny’s adventure. They weren’t offended by inaccuracies or anachronisms like speculations of plants on Mars. Series authors Jay Willliams and Raymond Abrashkin inject a good sense of humor into the books, and there were several scenes that my kids and I found laugh-out-loud funny.

As of February 2016, Wildside Press has made the first three books in the series available as inexpensive ebooks. The second and third installments are Danny Dunn on a Desert Island
and Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine. It’s been a pleasure to relive this book from my youth and to share it with my own children. As far as kid-lit heroes go, Danny’s a pretty good role model. If my kids were older, they might find these books corny and antiquated, but thankfully they’re still young enough to just enjoy a good story. As long as they remain interested, we’ll follow Danny’s adventures wherever they lead.
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