Friday Fiction: “Danny Dunn” series by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin

Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine

This week’s Friday Fiction is inspired by Rachel Manija Brown, who reminded me about the “Danny Dunn” series by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin. They were quite formative for me, so thank you Rachel!

The first book came out in 1954 and the last in 1977. The first handful featured Danny Dunn (a curious kid way too smart for his own good), his friend Joe Pearson (a hilariously mopey budding poet and writer), and Professor Bullfinch (basically your stereotypical jolly scientist, for whom Danny’s mom is a housekeeper). Later on, Irene Miller (a Cool Girl who is just as into/good at science as Danny, her father is also a scientist) joins the team. Sometimes Professor Bullfinch’s frenemy Dr. Grimes shows up.

The books are written for older kids in school–you generally need some scientific understanding to enjoy them. They’re pretty fun, and very funny, and frequently formulaic. The formula runs something like this: Professor Bullfinch is working on something scientific. Danny et al mess with it in some manner. Adventure and shenanigans ensue!

Danny Dunn plots were usually a blend of adventure and SF, although some of the them were adventure-only. Like the one where they got stranded on a desert island. Anyway, the SF ones were probably the first SF books I ever encountered. I honestly can’t remember how old I was when I discovered the series. A kid for sure. A kid who hadn’t yet heard the bigram “science fiction.” But even if I had, I’m not sure I would have applied the term to the books.

Here’s an example. One of the first books I read was “Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine.” The main plot concerns Professor Bullfinch’s enormous computer (think UNIVAC and punch cards). When the professor leaves on a business trip, Danny promptly uses it to do his homework (proving the authors truly understood kids). I’m not a youngster, but when I was in high school, we had a standing PC at home. Danny Dunn’s machine was another world away. It was science fiction, all right … historical science fiction.

However, it was quite accurate, which I didn’t realize how much I appreciated until I got older and attempted to learn Java and Python. In that story, Professor Bullfinch had previously taught Danny how to program the computer. Danny realizes that he can use programming to do his and Joe’s homework, especially computation-heavy subjects like math … and does so. After he turns in the typed pages, his teacher objects on the grounds that it is not really “doing the work” if a computer is doing it for you.

Danny retorts that you have to understand the problem in order to program it well enough to have it do your homework, so he is totally “doing the work,” he is just being efficient (and perhaps a bit smug) about it.

Danny’s mother (more similar to Danny than he figures) realizes that while this is true, it is also Danny’s strategic weakness. So she gives a suggestion to Danny’s teacher that she call Danny’s bluff. And she does! She tells Danny that since he is SO advanced, and SO smart, then she should assign him more advanced work. After all, he’s got a computer to do it for him. Danny charges ahead but quickly realizes that it is a lot of work to do learn new knowledge and then to program it sufficiently that he can get the computer to spit out answers on command! Mom and Teach were right all along.

Curiously, debugging is not part of the plot. Just as well, I think poor Danny had enough to deal with at that point. Eventually he admits defeat and goes back to doing homework the old-fashioned way. The book ends on a brief discussion of humans vs computers and the professor declares that no matter how smart they get, computers will never have human creativity. (Someone needs to write the fanfic where Professor Bullfinch encounters story-writing neural networks.)

As you can extrapolate, the books were wholesome and fun and it was so nice to see a girl interested in science who was never, ever condescended to in the text. (Okay–Danny briefly tries, is slapped down hard, and never tries again.) In fact, Irene had some leading roles in the science plots. She made it seem incredibly natural and fitting that girls should be interested in science and should pursue a scientific career.

I have told some incredulous people that I never felt–as a child–that as a girl, I was unfit for science. Although I eventually encountered sexism and misogyny in science, that did not happen until college and graduate school–so judging by some stories I’ve heard, I was very lucky for a time. Which is a somewhat sad assessment, but that’s a different discussion. The point is that the Danny Dunn series were an extremely important part of my childhood experience that eventually led me to trying my hand at a science career. (It didn’t work out, but that’s hardly the books’ fault.)

Speaking of science careers, where would Danny have ended up? From the books, Danny is clearly ahead of the curve on intelligence. It’s unclear just how much, but I could easily see him going to–for instance–MIT for college. At the very least, he’d have one hell of a personal statement. Perhaps he would have pursued graduate school afterwards, although I could just as easily see him setting up a tinkering lab and inventing something and starting his own company.

And having known a lot of people with that level of intelligence, I must say that what really and truly stands out about the Danny Dunn series to me–at a level that approaches fantasy–is how ridiculously and wonderfully well-adjusted he is. If he continues down his path in life, he’s going to be the polar opposite of the Tortured And/Or Asshole Genius archetype. He has a best friend who is not into science but who is his equal! He is kind to an equally smart and well-adjusted girl! He still has a lot of room to grow (see above). When he messes up, he fesses up. His intelligence is occasionally no match for judiciously applied wisdom and experience (see above). And he still needs and loves his friends and his family.

As a former Smart Child, I used to wish I was smarter. But–to mangle that quote from Harvey–today I think it would be nicer to be more loving, and to be more loved. But of course, I hope Danny Dunn and his family and friends went on having both in their lives.

Friday Fictions: “Heidi” by Johanna Spyri

Today, Friday Favorites returns under a new name: Friday Fictions.

And since I recently moved to Switzerland, we’ll make it topical: this week the book is “Heidi” by Johanna Spyri. The book was written in German; I read an English translation. It’s free to read online at Project Gutenberg (English, German).

This book was apparently once a classic of Western kid lit but I didn’t read it until a few months ago on a whim. It turns out to be very Swiss, and very charming if you like the trinity of God, Nature, and Dairy Products.

So, the plot! Heidi is an orphan who has been raised by Dete, the sister of her dead mother. Dete has a chance at a new job but can’t bring a child with her, so she drops Heidi off with Heidi’s grandfather on a mountaintop.

The grandfather is known far and wide to be a crank, and the village gossip network scolds Dete all the way down the mountain. Fortunately for Heidi, grandfather takes to her very well. Plus Heidi is basically a five year old manic pixie, so I suppose Dete didn’t do too bad a job. She has a fantastic time with her grandfather, his goats, Peter the goat boy, and living on bread and milk and cheese (SO much cheese toast), and enjoying the great outdoors.

But then Heidi turns eight and Dete takes her off the mountain to be a lady’s companion to Clara, a young girl with unnamed but serious health problems. Clara’s family is ROLLING IN IT. The housekeeper is none too pleased at the thought of basically a mountain goat of a girl who can’t read or write being a companion for the young miss.

“Mercy upon us! you do not know how to read! Is it really so?” exclaimed Fraulein Rottenmeier, greatly horrified. “Is it possible—not able to read? What have you learnt then?”

“Nothing,” said Heidi with unflinching SWISS truthfulness.

Heidi and Clara become great friends, which eventually leads to Clara going to Switzerland and the whole gang coming together. And then A Miracle Occurs, of the same type that The Secret Garden invokes at its end.

Like I said, this book is VERY SWISS. To begin with, it is obsessed with nature and God. Like there’s a literal repentance scene and a whole Prodigal Son arc with the Grandfather. The Swiss are less obsessed with God these days but let me tell you, those two things are still your only options on a Sunday, unless you drag yourself to a Hauptbahnhof. In case you are wondering, public transit does run on those days. Gotta convey you up those mountains and/or to church somehow.

The nature comes, well, naturally. There are pages and pages about the grass, the flowers, the fields, the trees, the wind, the snow … and it’s accurate, too. Spyri wasn’t making it up. OTOH God drops in seemingly at random points in the text, swooping in here and there to be given credit for this or that development.

The book is also, as you may expect, heavy on the dairy. Not for nothing is there a Heidi brand of milk.

Now for the famous wheelchair bit. Before I read the book, this was the only thing I vaguely knew about the plot. For the uninitiated (spoiler alert? although the book was published in 1881): Clara needs to use a wheelchair when Heidi meets her. When Clara goes to Switzerland to visit Heidi, she starts to get stronger and healthier from Nonstop Dairy. Grandfather starts giving her very light PT, holding her up while encouraging her to put some weight on her feet.

Then, Peter the goat boy gets really jealous of Clara spending all this time with Heidi and shoves the wheelchair down the mountain. Later on, Peter (IMO) totally gets what’s coming to him, but in the meanwhile, Heidi gets Peter to help her give Clara more PT, supporting her while having her try to walk, and over the course of months, Clara eventually does become able to walk, although at the end we still see that she needs to lean on Heidi.

If one were inclined to give a charitable explanation to this, one could say Clara was suffering from some kind of nutritional deficiency, which eating healthy food in the mountains was able to reverse. If one weren’t, then it’s a miraculous cure steeped in dairy-fueled ableism. I’m not in a position to make that judgement.

But there’s something I am in a position to say something about. I found myself unexpectedly thinking over and over about the character of Dete, Heidi’s aunt. She actually isn’t there very often but is responsible for kicking most of the plot into action. The text is on the side of Dete being a selfish person, first for leaving Heidi with Grandfather so that she can have a job, and then for dragging Heidi to Frankfurt as child labor. I don’t dispute that those weren’t kind actions. But I keep thinking, what choices did Dete feel like she had? She is a servant at the mercy of capricious rich employers. Her parents are dead and her only living relation is an uncle who is literally a hermit with two goats living in a mountain shack. And she can’t have a child with her while she works. Living in righteous poverty with a child is still living in poverty, and that’s not some kind of noble decision. Poverty is bad for kids! Trying to secure a financial future for Heidi as well as herself is not cruelty in and of itself. Dete is by no means a saint, but I feel a little uncomfortable that the text casts her in a bad light for wanting to make some freaking money to support herself and her sister’s child.

Of course, Dete ultimately succeeds, in that by the end of the story, Clara’s family loves Heidi so much that they consider her one of the family and will provide for her once Grandfather passes on. And the book makes an anvil out of the religious idea that God can turn bad things into good things, so you could consider that another instance of the same point. By that point Dete has pretty much vanished from the text so I guess we’ll never know. But I do know that I will always come down on the side of giving women more choice in their lives. Ende.

Friday Favorites: “Ribbons” by Laurence Yep

For today’s Friday Favorite, I’m going talk about “Ribbons” by Laurence Yep, a YA book. It’s not SFF, but it is ballet, so we’re still #onbrand!

“Ribbons” follows Robin, an eleven-year-old Chinese-American girl who is a promising and passionate ballet student. But, she has to give up those lessons so that her parents can afford to bring her aging grandmother to the US, which permanently alters the family dynamics as well as economics.

Once her grandmother arrives, Robin wants nothing more than to go back to her beloved ballet lessons, but when her grandmother sees her tying on a pair of pointe shoes with satin ribbons, all hell breaks loose for reasons that nobody will explain to Robin, who is feeling more and more pushed out of the family circle. Resentment, jealousy, and pain build until Robin and her grandmother accidentally come to a better understanding of each other’s inner world and the hurts they both hold.

Reader, this book was the first time that I really and truly saw myself in a story. I remember the utter shock of it: someone wrote a book–for me?

I desperately wanted ballet lessons as a child. I had my first ballet lesson when I was over 30. I did not have a cranky grandmother living with my Chinese-American immigrant family in the US, but I knew that the reason for my deprivation was in part because my parents were desperately saving all the money they could for my future and my younger brother’s future. (I say in part because they eventually did scrape up some money for entirely unwanted piano lessons.)

In hindsight of course I am sure there are many, many Chinese immigrant girls who wanted ballet lessons. But I didn’t know at the time because I didn’t live next to or talk with any of them, because my parents chose to bring us to white suburbia. That had its benefits for sure. Diversity was not one of them. I consumed and even enjoyed volumes upon volumes of white ballet girl books (I love Noel Streatfeild’s “Ballet Shoes” to pieces, so please don’t take this post to be a slam on those stories) but I knew those books weren’t for or about me. The same was broadly true of my reading, whether it was in literature or SFF. I did occasionally land on a book about being a Chinese immigrant, which was inevitably about Pain and Suffering and Abusive Family Dynamics. Thank you, publishers, for reducing my existence to those dimensions!

So it was incredible to read “Ribbons,” which seemed like it had been written just for me. If you looked at the readership of the extremely white town where I lived, from whose library shelves I plucked the volume, that might even have been true.

Although the book is not SFF, it was a fantasy for me: an AsAm girl immigrant who cannot have the ballet lessons that she so desperately wants–and even though she’s talented to boot. (I’m not talented. I did say this was a fantasy.) And as a child who thought she would never get the chance to dance, I made my peace with that and let Robin dance for me. I was a dramatic child, okay.

And then at age 30something, I hauled myself into a ballet studio and paid for my first lesson. I’ll never stop wishing I’d been able to dance as a child, but I am slowly learning that it is just as valid and beautiful to pick it up now as it would have been 25 years ago. Thanks for inspiring me, Laurence Yep.

(On a less self-centered note, I find it extremely regrettable that whole piles of talent and passion and drive in this world are lost. By the end of the book, Robin gets her chance. Many people never do, which is the part where the fantasy breaks down. This is why I donate to my dance studio.)

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to write fanfiction where Robin goes away to SAB and becomes an NYCB soloist.