Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint by Jay William and Raymond Abrashkin (1956)
Danny Dunn begins as a fifth grader in the small town of Midston -- location unknown, but internal evidence indicates that it may exist somewhere in Maine. Danny, whose father died Danny was an infant, lives with his mother, who serves as cook and housekeeper to renowned scientist Professor Euclid Bullfinch. Danny and his mother live at Bullfinch's home and the Professor has become a surrogate father, close friend, and scientific mentor to the young boy. Bullfinch admires Danny's nimble mind, scientific curiosity, and his precocious and sometimes headstrong personality. Needless to say, Bullfinch is patient, kind, and oft-times eccentric.
Danny's best friend is fellow fifth-grader Joe Pearson, a perfect sidekick, both amusing and often overwhelmed by the "science-ness" of their adventures. In the third book of the series, they are joined by Irene Miller, Danny's new next-door neighbor and a strongly intellectual character in her own right. With the addition of Irene to make a triumvirate, the series improved by leaps and bounds for this reader.
Most of Danny's adventures involve something invented by Professor Bullfinch -- these inventions can be either deliberate or accidental. At times, as in this, the first book in the series, the invention comes about accidently through Danny's a) eagerness, or b) clumsiness.
The world is agog at the first artificial satellite now orbiting the planet. [Note: the book was published in 1956 and Russia's Sputnik satellite was not launched until October of the following year. No mention is made here of who launched the satellite, but its description is pretty close to that of the early low-orbiting satellites. So much for the myth that Sputnik's launching took the world completely by surprise.]
I should add here that, while the basic premise of most of Danny's adventures is fantastic, much of what follows tends to have a solid scientific basis.
Anyway, back to Danny and Professor Bullfinch. Bullfinch, who firmly believes that space travel could be accomplished within ten years, was working on a type of insulating paint for rockets. H thought he may have achieved his goal and invited Willoughby, a scientist from the National Research Council, over to discuss it later that day, but the the liquid suddenly began to unexpectedly and strangely glow and quiver. Danny, doing what Danny often does, knocked the flask containing the material over, smashing it on the floor. Immediately after Danny and the Professor clean up the mess, salvaging what they can, the NRC representative arrives, bringing with him Doctor A. J. Grimes, the president of the International Rocket Society. (Grimes would go on to have a recurring role in the series as Bullfinch's argumentative friend.) As Bullfinch goes to shake hands with Willoughby, a small spark of static electricity between the two and Bullfinch rises into the air until he hits the ceiling.
Grimes believes this to be some sort of trick, worked out through ropes or hypnosis or something. Every time the two other scientist try to pull Bullfinch down from the ceiling, Danny's friend and mentor rises up again.
It's left to Danny to figure out what had happened. He noticed some of the glowing formula on the soles of Bullfinch's shoes; when the static electricity hit the formula, an anti-gravity effect had occurred. To test this hypothesis, Bullfeather takes off a show and has the others push him (carefully!) to an open window where he releases the shoe, which immediately flies into the air and is soon lost out of sight. Aha! Not only do they an anti-gravity formula, they may just have a means of space travel in the very near future/
Because government works so well and efficiently in books aimed at the 8- to 12-year-old market in the 1950s, by the next morning both approval and funding were achieved to go ahead to build a spaceship...but the entire project was designated highly classified. (Translation: Danny could not tell anyone, not even his best friend Joe. **sigh**)
But secrets cannot be kept for long. a few months later, Joe -- concerned about Danny's secretive behavior -- follows him through nearby woods to a large red barn that, for some reason, does not have a roof. Joe discovers the nearly completed space ship.
The ship is meant to crewed by trained military men, first through a series of test flights of about 2000 miles up, then through a drive-by of the moon and back. Through a series of coincidences, accidents, and bad luck, Danny. Joe. Professor Bullfinch, and Dr. Grimes find themselves being hurtled into space alone. A things continue to go wrong, the foursome find themselves heading to Mars and beyond with no hope of ever returning to Earth.
Whoops. Did I say no hope? Actually hope comes in the form of Danny's intuition, which appears to be (eventually) spot on.
I also have to admit that I look askance at the celestial mechanics Williams and Abrashkin provide here, but then again, I am no longer the 8-year-old target audience for this book. (At least, mentally and chronologically, if not emotionally.)
I really, really enjoy this series but I am a sucker for juveniles of this kind. (I am also a great fan of Ellen McGregor's Miss Pickerell and her pet cow, so there!) Give it a try and see if you can discover your inner child.
The Danny Dunn Series, in order:
- Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint (1956)
- Danny Dunn on a Desert Island (1957)
- Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine (1958) [introduces Irene Miller]
- Danny Dunn and the Weather Machine (1959)
- Danny Dunn on the Ocean Floor (1960)
- Danny Dunn and the Fossil Cave (1961)
- Danny Dunn and the Heat Ray (1962)
- Danny Dunn, Time Traveler (1963)
- Danny Dunn and the Automatic House (1965)
- Danny Dunn and the Voice from Space (1967)
- Danny Dunn and the Smallifying Machine (1969)
- Danny Dunn and the Swamp Monster (1971)
- Danny Dunn, Invisible Boy (1974)
- Danny Dunn Scientific Detective (1976)
- Danny Dunn and the Universal Glue (1977)