Flashback of a Flashback: A “Dunn” deal . . .

You’re a curious kid with a yen for science and math.  Your widowed mom is the live-in housekeeper for a brilliant professor who invents some crazy cool stuff.  So it’s only natural you’re going to want to poke around and try things out . . . and that’s going to lead you and your friends into some wild science fiction style adventures!

Do you remember:  

Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint by Jay Williams & Raymond Abrashkin, illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats (McGraw-Hill Companies, c1956)

I was far too young to encounter the original Tom Swift series when I was a child, but I did manage to catch the tail end of the Danny Dunn books during the early 1980s.   The basic premise of these books was that Danny and his mom lived in Professor Bullfinch’s home and Danny was the kind of bright and curious boy who loved to learn about the professor’s latest inventions–sometimes without asking permission first.  He and his friends, Joe and Irene, wind up having a series of adventures that went on for 15 books spanning three decades.

Authors Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin worked together on the series for the first five books, but by the end of the fifth title, Abrashkin succumbed to ALS at the age of  49.  Jay Williams insisted that Abrashkin be given full co-author credit for all the remaining titles as he felt the man was essential to establishing the characters and nature of the series.  Something I learned while looking up the titles is that Ezra Jack Keats illustrated the first four titles of the Danny Dunn series.

Like the Tom Swift stories, these science fiction tales for young readers involve adventures surrounding scientific inventions and breakthroughs.  They are science and tech positive without much exploration of the darker application or dangerous uses of science–lightweight and fun for readers just getting into longer chapter books.  Also like the Tom Swift books, these titles are more than a little dated.  What’s interesting about the books, though, is that there is a lot of sound scientific discussion and exploration going on.  So despite the dated aspect and the fact that some of the science is incorrect or has been surpassed, this still holds up fairly well.

What smart phones looked like in the 1950s . . .

What makes these markedly different from the Tom Swift adventures is that Danny is not a super-genius.  He’s got an interest in science and a good head for it, but he’s not the brilliant inventor, boy wonder.  He’s the boy next door, the curious kid who idolizes the professor and wants to grow up and do similar kinds of work.  Also notable is his friend Irene (who I believe is literally the girl next door) is just as intelligent and interested.   She’s a real character in the story and contributes to the adventures.   I think her inclusion made these books more appealing to boys and girls alike.  Given that most of the serials out at the time completely separated boy stories and girls stories, this one managed to be a little less of an all-boys club.

Now, I haven’t read all of these titles since they’re hard to get a hold of.  Currently all of them are out of print, which isn’t surprising given how the stories have become so dated.  Still, it would be a boon if they were at least available electronically, since I don’t think they should be lost to the foggy shores of obscurity.

I firmly feel we need more modern-day stories like these.  Books that push the boundaries of science and get the younger readers involved and excited about the scientific process and discovery, about invention and technology.  The Danny Dunns and Tom Swifts of yesteryear can’t quite do it.  We need new stories in this vein for the newer generations of readers.

If you’re wondering about the order and titles of books in the Danny Dunn series, I’ve listed them here, along with a quick bit about the plot.  In several cases I’m working from very meager knowledge about the actual story–please feel free to correct or add information in the comments so I can fix any errors or exclusions.

1. Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint (1956) –one of the weakest of the bunch, this featured space travel before man had actually gone into space and thus is full of incorrect assumptions and ideas.  Still, this was the title that started the series.

2. Danny Dunn on a Desert Island (1957) When the Professor and Danny and his friend crash-land on a desert island, they need to figure out how to survive with only the items in their pockets until help arrives.

3. Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine (1958)–Danny and his friends decide to use the Professor’s state of the art cabinet sized computer to help them get the answers for their homework.  But when a rival sabotages the machine, it’s up to Danny and his friends to help the Professor repair the damage.

4. Danny Dunn and the Weather Machine (1959)–Danny accidentally discovers that the Professor’s ionic transmitter can make small rain clouds.  So now rather than complaining about the weather, Danny wants to do something about it!

5. Danny Dunn on the Ocean Floor (1960)–another accidental discovery leads to a material that helps Danny and the Professor explore the deeps of the ocean.

6. Danny Dunn and the Fossil Cave (1961)--The Professor’s new C-Ray that can see through rock offers the perfect opportunity for our characters to go spelunking, until they get trapped inside the caverns!

7. Danny Dunn and the Heat Ray (1962)–Danny tries out a heat ray that the Professor has invented. (not much info available on this one,

8.Danny Dunn, Time Traveler (1963)–The Professor’s time machine takes the kids back to meet Benjamin Franklin.

9. Danny Dunn & the Automatic House (1965)–Danny and his friends get trapped inside an automated house set up as a demonstration.  I remember reading this one.

10. Danny Dunn and the Voice From Space (1967)–The professor invents a radio telescope that the government hopes will allow them to contact extraterrestrials.

11. Danny Dunn and the Smallifying Machine (1969)–This one’s pretty self-explanatory.  What’s cool about this shrinking adventure is that the author explores some of the actual physics of being super small (water tension, challenge of walking, etc.)

12. Danny Dunn and the Swamp Monster (1971)–on the search for a swamp creature along the Nile river, Danny and the Professor discover a new species of fish.

13. Danny Dunn, Invisible Boy (1974) –Despite the title, this was more about the ability of using tiny bug like robots to explore (being essentially invisible)  the pilot uses gloves and a helmet for a sort of VR feedback.

14. Danny Dunn Scientific Detective (1976)–In order to solve a mystery at school, Danny “borrows” some of the professors new crime fighting science inventions.

15. Danny Dunn and the Universal Glue (1977)–The last of the series (most likely due to Jay Williams’ death the following year).  In it Danny figures out how to use an amazing glue the Professor has invented to help fix a pollution problem.

Did you read these books as a kid?  Which was your favorite?  If you have any plot points to add or fix, please comment!


About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on November 11, 2015, in Flashback Fridays and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I didn’t read any of these, but I did grow devouring Jules Verne’s books, which I loved for the science aspect of it, since he’d taken the trouble to research real scientific breakthroughs made by his contemporaries and then project them into what they might lead to in the future. You’re absolutely right that we need more books like that for young readers to get interested in science and also to understand what science can lead to – our own destruction for example, given that we have already stopped human evolution successfully with our meddling in stamping out a whole range of diseases and are hell-bent on producing only designer babies. Great post!

  2. I really loved these as a kid and I think it’s what pushed me on to become more of a sci fi reader later on. I read them in the late 70s with more updated covers and remember sharing them with most of my 5th grade class. I must have left them there becasue I don’t know what happened to them. I too would love to see a sci fi like series similar to this make a re-surgance. We had the Animorphs series in the 90s but they seem to have faded away.

  3. I recall Danny Dunn and the Ocean Floor. And I have a general idea that I read others, but I don’t specifically recall, so perhaps not… Thanks for the reminder.

  4. These sound so familiar, I’m sure I must have read them, though I have no specific memories of any of them.

    I think it would be very hard to create a similar series today, because kids grow up with the latest inventions at their fingertips, taking innovation completely for granted. Their world already gets completely transformed every six months, so to write a book capturing the enthusiasm and magic of science—”It Will Change Everything!”—for today’s jaded audience would be a challenge. A worthwhile challenge . . .

    • It doesn’t have to be tech that is that far out of reach–if folks are extrapolating from some of the scientific discoveries today they could do some amazing near-future adventures with fairly ordinary kids and this kind of thing. I think one of the best bits of Danny Dunn is that these weren’t some super special “chosen” kids, they’re just the kids down the block or next door. I’d love to see this done with a diversified cast. Closest two things I’ve seen in recent years have been The Flinkwater Factor and the Sci Hi series. Sometimes the smallest and simplest bits of tech advancement can be the most fascinating, especially when there’s not a far future world of golly gee whiz tech around it.

  1. Pingback: My 400th Post: What Brought Me This Far: 100 Books in my Blood | Views From the Tesseract

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: