Wednesday, June 29, 2016
Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin
To compute or not to compute?
Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine, published in 1958, is the third novel in the Danny Dunn series by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin. Danny is an adolescent boy who lives with the scientist Professor Bullfinch, for whom Danny’s mother serves as housekeeper. In each book Danny and his sidekick Joe co-opt some invention of the Professor’s and use it to get in and out of trouble. This time the theme is computer science, as the boys get their hands on MINIAC, a computer that Bullfinch is developing for the government.
In the first chapter of this third installment, Williams and Abrashkin introduce the recurring character of Irene Miller, who has just moved into the house next door. Like Danny, she is scientifically minded and intelligent beyond her years. She and Danny make fast friends, much to the chagrin of Joe, who feels he’s losing his best friend. It was smart of the authors to introduce a female character, thus creating a role model for girls as Danny is for boys. Irene proves that anything boys can do girls can do too, and also serves as a voice of reason in response to some of Danny’s cockamamie schemes. Joe expresses his disgruntlement over Irene’s arrival with utterances like “Dames! Who needs ‘em! Nothing but trouble.” While everything works out OK in the end, of course, I hope my sons don’t take to spouting anti-feminist rhetoric in the slang terms of the ‘50s. My 8 year old found the term “dames” to be particularly hilarious.
While Professor Bullfinch is away, Danny comes up with the idea of using the computer to complete his homework and convinces his two companions to go along with his plan. The authors make it clear to young readers that the computer is not a magic box that solves all your problems for you. A computer can only do what people tell it to do. So Danny and his friends have to program the machine, loading it with information before they can extract the answers to their homework assignments. Contrary to Danny’s plans, he thus ends up doing more homework than he was doing before. When Danny’s teacher finds out that he’s using the computer, he has a debate with her about digital ethics. The computer, he insists, is just another tool, like a textbook or slide rule, and why shouldn’t he use what resources are available to him? His teacher, on the other hand, is afraid it will hinder his learning. The discussion of such issues, however elementary, are still relevant to today’s digitally saturated kids who may wonder why studying is even necessary when you can just Google everything.
These books were originally intended for junior high-age readers, but due to the antiquated technology and obvious moral lessons, these days that demographic will probably find them painfully corny. The books will, however, appeal to younger readers with an avid interest in science. I read them with my two boys, who both loved the first book, Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint. They were split on this volume. My 6 year old lost interest halfway through, but my 8 year old was all-in until the very end. In my opinion, this is not one of Danny’s more exciting adventures, especially since computers have become so ubiquitous. Nevertheless, like all of the books in the series, it’s good, solid, entertaining fare for young readers.
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