Encyclopedia Brown: Did You Grow Up Reading About This Boy Genius, Too?
One of the best-loved children’s book series of the 1960s and 1970s was the Encyclopedia Brown series. Who didn’t love to read the exploits of this boy genius who solved petty crime in his town using his brains and his power of observation? As a kid, we appreciated the books because they were clever and showed that kids could do more than adults gave them credit for. But reflecting back on the Encyclopedia Brown books, we can see that the author, Donald J. Sobol was giving us important life lessons.
A Prolific Author
The Encyclopedia Brown book series was penned by Donald J. Sobol and the books were released between 1963 and 2011. In all, there were 30 books in the series and each one contained several mysteries that the boy detective needed to solve. After college, Sobol worked as a newspaper copy editor in New York. In 1959, he started writing a syndicated series called Two-Minute Mysteries. These ran in newspapers nationwide for more than ten years and were so popular that it encouraged Sobol to try his hand at a children’s mystery book. In his Two-Minute Mysteries, however, the detective was an adult and the crimes were all serious in nature, such as murder and kidnapping. In his children’s series, Sobol wanted his main character to be a child and the crimes to be far less severe.
A Boy Hero
For the main character of his book series, Sobol created Leroy Brown, who was nicknamed Encyclopedia by his friends because he was so smart. Sobol knew that young readers wanted a hero they could relate to, but he was rejected by more than two dozen publishers before he found a company that agreed with him.
Champion of the Underdogs
One of the appealing aspects of the Encyclopedia Brown character was that he was an unashamed nerd. He was smart, but not cocky about it. He was active, but not athletic. He was bookish and brainy and never tried to downplay his intelligence to fit in with the popular crowd. And like many nerds, he was bullied. The boy genius used his wits to one-up the brawny bullies and win the day.
You Can Be Smart, Too
Sobol cleverly structured his books in a way that the reader could play along. Using the clues Sobol wove through the story, the readers were invited to piece together their own theory about who committed the crime and how. They could then flip the page to see how their detective skills matched up to Encyclopedia’s. This approach was a great way to get his readers more involved in his books and test their own observation skills. In this way, Sobol was telling us that it was cool to be the smart kids.
A Dose of Girl Power
Encyclopedia didn’t work alone. Helping him was his older and stronger friend, Sally Kimball. Sally wasn’t just a pretty face. She served as Encyclopedia’s bodyguard when necessary and often stood up to the bullies that taunted her pal. This was also an unusual twist. Most side-kick/bodyguard characters in children’s stories were boys. Sobol showed that girls weren’t damsels in distress—they could be the muscle, too. Sally was a complex character. Even though she was the side-kick and the brawns, she was smart. Sometimes, she even bested Encyclopedia in the brain’s department.
Sobol was More than just Encyclopedia Brown
In all, Sobol authored more than 65 books. In addition to the Encyclopedia Brown series, he wrote a children’s action novel, Secret Agents Four. He also wrote a wide variety of non-fiction books on such topics as investing and finance to Civil War history. Sobol preferred to stay behind the scenes and let his books promote themselves. He rarely granted interviews with the press, and when he did, it was by telephone. He wrote his final Encyclopedia Brown book in 2011, about three months before he died.
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