When I was young, I read books of SF and of fantasy as well as science fact voraciously. One thing I noticed was that there were commonly books that had children as protagonists – such as Edward Eager's Half Magic, or Edith Nesbit's Five Children and It, or the much more famous Narnia chronicles by C. S. Lewis – but often if anything fantastic or wondrous happened to the children, it was something treated as a secret – something that couldn't be told to the adults.
This didn't exactly fit with my mindset. My parents were the sort of people that you would never hide facts from – even quite bizarre and amazing facts. If I had encountered something truly strange in my life, I would have naturally and instantly brought it to my father.
So it was natural that one of the series that resonated most strongly with me as a child was the Danny Dunn series of books by Raymond Abrashkin and Jay Williams. Abrashkin, I learned years later, had ALS and became progressively more disabled, dying at the age of 49 after the 5th Danny Dunn book had been written. Nonetheless, Jay Williams insisted on Abrashkin getting full co-author credit on all subsequent books (which eventually numbered 15) because Abrashkin had been instrumental in the development of the concept and first books of the series.
What stood out – and, in some ways, stands out even more today – about the Danny Dunn books was that while Danny was the main protagonist, he was neither more competent than the adults around him, nor one who deliberately concealed interesting or important facts about his adventures from the adults around him. Adults were an important part of Danny's life, both as supporters and occasional obstacles, and Danny and his friends Irene and Joe were interested not in remaining children in some separate world of their own, but in understanding and, to the extent they could, entering the world of the adults around them.
The Danny Dunn series focused on science and mathematics as something that was fun, interesting, worth doing, and exciting. In general, the science was well done for a children's book, although – as with any good real science fiction novel – the novels might well take "One Big Idea" that was far out there to play with. Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint, for instance, had the eponymous paint which echoed H.G. Wells' Cavorite. Some adventures, though, stuck much more closely to reality, such as Danny Dunn on a Desert Island.
The interplay of characters drove the series very strongly, and provided me with my first clear understanding of the dynamics of writing in the sense of how characters had to interact. Danny was brilliant, highly intelligent and eager to please, but often very impulsive and overenthusiastic, prone to charging forward on an idea without thinking through the consequences. His friend Joe Pearson was near-opposite – not nearly so bright (although far from stupid), cynical and pessimistic, but with an artistic side that he would sometimes let show through the writing of poetry; the two would generally have the dynamic of Danny dragging Joe into some predicament (which Joe warned against). By the fourth book, the two acquired a third and moderating influence in the form of Irene Miller, a girl fully equal in intelligence to Danny, but more considered and less impulsive. She would be the voice of reason between Danny's overenthusiasm and Joe's proclamations of doom.
Many modern series – TV, movies, or books – seem to be designed to not merely appeal to a demographic, but to divide them. A show aimed at adults will rarely show children or involve them except in a symbolic "marker" way (this couple has children so they're a family of X type) or as sources of plot drivers (Melanie's daughter was caught smoking pot, etc.). A show aimed at children will make adults either nonexistent, or either adversaries, buffoons, or simply utterly clueless. A show aimed at teenagers/young adults makes younger children annoyances and adults opponents, hindrances, or well-meaning but clueless foils.
In Danny Dunn, it's very different. Danny does often trigger the sequence of events leading to his adventures, but it's just as often due to him causing an accident that leads the Professor to a particular train of thought or discovery as due to him actually thinking anything out. While Danny and his friends are quite capable and resourceful for young people, it's made clear that they need the help and guidance of their parents and adult mentors. At the same time, the adults who don't treat Danny and his friends with respect are shown to be just as much in the wrong as Danny might be when he ignores adult advice and charges forward without thinking. It's made clear that both children and adults are best working together – that each have things to offer the other, and that neither is the "enemy".
A particularly lovely example of the way in which the series worked – and the interesting changes wrought on it by the passage of time – is found in the book Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine, which is also the book in which Irene makes her first appearance. The book introduces Professor Bullfinch's latest invention, a new supercomputer (by the standards of the time); after Danny and his friends understand how the computer can be used, they start to use it to solve various homework problems assigned to them in school – perhaps not entirely with the Professor's permission. Everything goes well for a while – but then their teacher discovers what they're doing and gives them harder homework. Still, Danny, Joe, and Irene have everything under control until the day the Professor has to demonstrate the machine – which then proceeds to go completely haywire. Danny deduces that it must have been sabotaged by a recurring rival of his and manages to get the computer running again in time to save the Professor's demonstration. While the Professor had not intended the machine to be used for homework assignments, he agrees to allow them to finish the school year using the computer.
The "surprise" at the end for Our Heroes is to be awarded extra credit for the extra work they did; Danny protests that he actually thought they might be skirting the edge of cheating, but the Professor and Danny's teacher point out the simple truth; to properly program the machine to do the work, they had to truly understand the problem – they had to work it through, figure out what information the computer would need, and so on, and be able to understand it well enough to troubleshoot inaccurate responses. Plus they had to understand how to program the computer in the first place! So in truth they had been doing a lot more work than they would have if they had just done the homework as it was assigned.
As a general concept and story, Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine holds up just fine to this day. But the details show how views of technology have changed. MINIAC, the "miniature" supercomputer, is still the size of a filing cabinet. Its output is on paper tape. The numbers implied for its data storage and so on are… puny.
Yet at the same time, MINIAC can do things that modern computers cannot even begin to attempt. One of the things that Danny, Joe, and Irene have to do to give MINIAC the ability to answer the specific questions is to input their schoolbooks and associated materials. Which they do by reading the books into a connected microphone. Then MINIAC is able to sort through the information and answer questions.
The Danny Dunn series is filled with these kinds of things – startling inventions with mundane applications, mundane-appearing inventions with startling applications, and assumptions on all sides that provide an interesting window into the eras in which they were written. The entire series spanned three decades, but even the most recent date from the 1970s – now nearly forty years ago.
I have managed to purchase copies of several of the Danny Dunn books for my children, but they have been long out of print. I wish they could be reprinted – perhaps annotated, with references to the actual and fictional science, and the historical/cultural references, that would make the books possibly as educational as they can be entertaining. I started to talk with the heir to the estate about this possibility, but then my own job was lost and I spent the next few years scrambling to make ends meet. Perhaps it could still happen. But if not, I hope the work of Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin will be remembered.