In 1956, Raymond Abrashkin and Jay Williams published their first young reader science fiction book: Danny Dunn and the Anti Gravity Paint. Penned almost fifteen years before Neil Armstrong took mankind’s first steps on the moon, the science in this series is dated but still magical and full of wonder. Nearly seventy-five years after H.G. Wells’ publication of War of the Worlds, this brand of science fiction is about possibility instead of terror. At a time when science fiction was exciting and the thing that many little boys dreamed of, the Danny Dunn books are a snapshot of 1950s American childhood with all of its hope and traditional values.
Typical of boys of that era, Danny is smart, curious, respectful of his mother, and famous for getting in and out of trouble. While Danny’s age is never really mentioned, it can be presumed that he is in the 10-14 age range throughout the series.
Danny’s father died when he was a baby. To provide for her little family, Danny’s mother became the live-in housekeeper for an eccentric but wise physics professor at the local university. Professor Bullfinch serves as a loving, kind, and invested father figure in Danny’s life. The home life in this book is heart warming, traditional, and fun to read. Danny’s mom has a good bit of personality, Professor Bullfinch is reliably strong, and Danny could not love and admire both of them more. Through a combination of natural aptitude and the influence of an excellent mentor, Danny desires to be a scientist when he grows up.
In this first book, Professor Bullfinch discovers a substance which they dub “Anti Gravity Paint.” While the science is really unclear, it doesn’t resort to cheap magical tricks. There is a sincere effort to use scientific reasoning and what little information they knew about space to make this plausible. What we know now probably makes it harder to accept the ideas as credible theories, but it really doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the story line. Perhaps a little bit like watching old Doctor Who or Star Trek, we just laugh at their misunderstandings of rockets and outer space.
Thanks to an emphasis on STEM and the celebrity status of scientists today, there are a number of science-themed children’s series’ available. Many, however, are not that great. This series was created in a time when traditional values promoted a culture of respect and optimism which is sadly missing in storylines today. Highly creative and moderately old-fashioned, I would say that this series is more wholesome than the Lucy and Steven Hawking, “George and the Secret Key” series or the Bob Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith, “Nick and Tesla” series, but less “perfect” than Homer Price. I do recommend this book, but I want to highlight a couple of reservations.
The first book of the series was published in 1956. Danny’s teacher (and the childhood teachers of the others scientists in the story) are unimaginative, small minded, and rather punitive when feeling challenged. Despite the private agreements between Danny, the professor, and his mother that these teachers lack vision, Danny is respectful and compliant when being corrected by the misguided adults. Refreshingly, Danny’s mother and the professor each support the teachers’ corrections despite disagreeing with them; a wonderful classic example of old fashioned parenting.
Sadly, however, Danny has a habit of bending the rules – even when he knows it is wrong. When required to write 500 sentences as a correction from his teacher, Danny accepts the help of a friend after first articulating that it would be wrong to do so. Shortly after that, when Danny has a secret, he tells lies of omission to his mother, whom he otherwise respects and honors. In both cases, Danny rationalizes these decisions and justifies them to himself. I wasn’t impressed with this turn of events.
Because of the lying and cheating, I decided to purchase the two audiobooks, but declined to purchase the spines of any of the fifteen books in the series. My concerns are small ones, but until I have time to preview more of the books, I don’t like the idea of small, poor choices compounding over many books and subtly teaching my son that lying and cheating are an acceptable way to get things done.