Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint
by Jay Williams & Raymond Abrashkin
Cover Artist: Ezra Jack Keats
Review by Paul Haggerty
Wildside Press Kindle Edition ISBN/ITEM#: B00PNPRBG8
Date: 15 November 2014
The Danny Dunn series of YA novels is comprised of 15 volumes dating from 1956 through 1977. Danny's age is never officially given, but he appears to be in his very early teens.
Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint introduces the reader to all but one of the main characters of the series. The last, Irene Miller, enters the series in book three. Danny's father died when he was a baby, and to support herself and her son, Danny's mother became the live-in housekeeper for Professor Bullfinch, a notable scientist and researcher at the local university. Danny looks up to the Professor as a mentor and strives to become a scientist himself one day.
While certainly intelligent, Danny suffers from a solid streak of recklessness and more than a smidgen of klutziness. The majority of the adventures throughout the series hinge on Danny not taking the time to think through the consequences of his actions. Fortunately, with the proper application of science, all will turn out for the best in the end.
The setup to Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint has Danny knocking over a flask of liquid in the Professor's lab. And like all good science of the 50s and 60s, wondrous inventions were assured to anyone that could combine chemicals in a new and never before tried way. In this case, Danny's minor accident leads to the discovery that the liquid (when charged with electricity) counter-acts the pull of gravity. And clearly, this calls for the immediate construction of a spaceship to make the best use of it.
Sworn to secrecy, Danny struggles with this introduction to adulthood where people are required to do (or not do) certain things whether they like it or not. Even though he knows what glorious events are to come, he can't tell his best friend, Joe Pearson, nor his teacher, who insists that spaceflight is at least 100 years away. Fortunately, Joe manages to stumble onto the secret on his own and joins the adventure. While Danny is a dreamer that believes the future is one bright shining utopia, Joe is convinced that nothing but death and ruin lie at the end of Danny's plans. But, being best friends, Joe will follow Danny all the way. Joe is a poet, and while he finds science interesting, believes that there is more to life.
So when Danny needs to sneak into the ship to retrieve some school work that the Professor accidentally took with him, Danny and Joe manage to accidentally launch the ship into space without the pilot on board. Danny, Joe, Professor Bullfinch, and the Professor's friend and rival, Dr. Grimes, are faced with a malfunctioning spacecraft and the highly likely possibility of death in the depths of outer space if they can't find a way to fix it.
The science of the Danny Dunn series is dated at best and any gaping flaws are usually simply ignored or solved off-page. But there are themes throughout the series that set it apart from other series of its time, or even some from today. Danny has friends and allies among the adults. Both his mother and Professor Bullfinch support Danny and do what they can to help him learn and grow from his experiences. There is little to no animosity between the generations. When Danny has a question or a problem, or when he finds out about some possible danger, he goes right to the adults, who take him seriously ... well, mostly. He does have to be able to prove he's right if he wants the adults to drop everything and rush off.
Likewise, the adults understand that Danny and his friends are capable in their own right. They may not be treated as adults, which they are most definitely are not, but they're not treated as incompetents either. When tasks need to be done, Danny and his friends are given important assignments but which happen to be at their level. This provides a framework where you can see the children slowly growing into adulthood, and becoming more capable and assured of themselves with without either dropping them directly into deadly danger or smothering them with safety ... which usually ends up dropping them into deadly danger that they were never warned about.
I first read the Danny Dunn series back in the 70s, before the final book was written. Other than some science lapses and some questionable (by today's standards) social structures, the books hold together and provide a couple of hours of fun and nostalgia.