Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Danny Dunn on a Desert Island by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin

Not one of his better adventures
Danny Dunn on a Desert Island, published in 1957, is the second novel in Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin’s series of books about a precocious boy’s scientific adventures. I read these books when I was growing up, and now, thanks to the recently released e-book editions from Wildside Press, I am reading them with my two young sons. They really enjoyed the first book in the series, Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint. This second installment was a little hard for them to get into at first, but eventually they both came to like it. They agreed, however, that the first novel was much better, and I concur.

You would think that the fifty years difference in technology would make it difficult for today’s kids to appreciate Danny’s adventures, but that wasn’t the case with the first book. My boys had no trouble engaging with Danny’s dreams of space flight, no matter how antiquated the speculative methods. In the second book, outdated tech really isn’t an issue because it happens to be the point of the whole story. Danny’s mentor Professor Bullfinch and his surly colleague Dr. Grimes get into an argument about which of them is the more practical scientist. In the heat of the debate, they agree to a “desert-island duel” in which they will voluntarily spend time on a remote island in order to see who can make the best use of primitive technology to improve their situation. The unbelievably permissive parents of Danny and his buddy Joe allow the two boys to accompany the scientists. On their way to the dueling ground, their plane crashes in the ocean, and the four end up marooned for real on an island somewhere near the Galapagos.

The main thrust of the book is that the castaways start out essentially in stone age conditions, and they are forced to use ingenuity and local materials to work their way through progressively more advanced technologies. That’s a difficult concept for a kid to grasp, and even for a grown-up, it’s not as much fun as other Danny Dunn offerings like a spaceship, weather machine, heat ray, or shrinking machine. Though the desert island plane crash sounds rather harsh, Danny and the gang never really seem to be in peril. In fact, the technological contraptions they rig up are not exactly the first things you would think of when it comes to survival—a bathtub and soap, for instance. Apparently, on this island cleanliness is a more urgent need than food or shelter.

The four friends speculate about possible inhabitants on the island, which brings up talk of cannibals. Given the time of publication, I worried about the potential for political incorrectness, but my fears proved unfounded, and it all worked out in the end. The main complaint one can hold against this second Danny Dunn volume is that it’s just not as scientifically wonderful as most of the other books in the series. Despite the lackluster premise, Williams and Abrashkin still manage to craft a fun story. My boys mostly enjoyed the repartee between the characters and laughed out loud at some of the jokes. They’re looking forward to the next installment. Wildside seems to be releasing about two of these books a year. The third and fourth volumes—the Homework Machine and the Weather Machine—are now available in e-book format.
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