Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Danny Dunn and the Swamp Monster by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin

A mysterious expedition to Africa
I enjoyed the Danny Dunn series when I was a kid, and now I am having fun reading them with my young son. Despite all the changes in science and technology over the past 40 to 60 years, the books in this series have held up remarkably well over time. A child’s scientific curiosity never goes out of style. Danny Dunn and the Swamp Monster, published in 1971, is the twelfth of fifteen Danny Dunn novels by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin. (Abrashkin actually died in 1960, but Williams insisted on crediting him on every volume in the series.) Though the books in the series are consistently good, this is one of the best that I can recall.

For those unfamiliar with the series, Danny Dunn is a teenage boy whose widowed mother works as housekeeper for Euclid Bullfinch, a professor of science (no specific branch, just a scientific jack-of-all-trades) at the local university. Danny and his mom live in the Bullfinch house, which gives the curious Danny the opportunity to observe, assist, and at times co-opt the professor’s experiments and inventions. In contrast to most of the other volumes in the series, Danny Dunn and the Swamp Monster is more concerned with nature than with technology, even though Professor Bullfinch does create an invention in the opening chapters that will get used later in the book. Bullfinch receives a surprise visit from a professional colleague, Dr. Fenster, a distinguished biologist who invites Bullfinch, Danny, and Danny’s friends Joe and Irene to accompany him on an expedition to Africa. Fenster has been investigating tales of a legendary monster known as the lau that reportedly dwells in the swamps of the Sudan. The science that is explored, therefore, is more biological than technological, and the book reads like an adventure that some naturalist explorer like a young Charles Darwin, Alexander Humboldt, or David Livingstone might have had tracking down a new species of animal in an exotic land.

The story does a fine job of illustrating how zoologists would actually go about accomplishing such a task. Though this is science fiction for young readers, it does depict the scientific process in a realistic manner. In the course of their expedition, Danny and his party get to know the local indigenous people, the Nuer. The book sets a good tone for these interactions, respectful and not condescending, and imparts a good message of friendship and cooperation between people of different nations, races, and cultures. The novel has a villain, which allows for some suspense, but the danger never reaches a level to scare young readers. The hunt or for the lau is exciting, and when the creature is revealed, it is pleasantly surprising that the beast is actually within the realm of scientific possibility.

The only problem I really have with the book is its illustrations. If you have a print edition, it will likely include the original illustrations by Paul Sagsoorian. (The recent ebook edition probably doesn’t include them.) While Sagsoorian is a fine artist for this type of book, the illustrations give away too many of the story’s surprises. This book would be a lot more fun if you didn’t know what kind of creature the lau is, yet almost every edition (not just those illustrated by Sagsoorian) features a front cover painting of the lau in all its glory, spoiling the big reveal towards the end. Nevertheless, despite that one caveat, Danny Dunn and the Swamp Monster, and the Danny Dunn series in general, make great reading for kids interested in science (and their parents).
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