Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Why I Still Love Encyclopedia Brown


I've just reread the first of Donald J. Sobol's Encylopedia Brown books, Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective, and it is readily apparent to me why I loved these books as a kid, and why kids today continue to embrace them. Here are some of the reasons:

1. Ten-year-old Encyclopedia Brown is an irresistible character. Sobol introduces him thus: "Leroy Brown's head was like an encyclopedia. It was filled with facts he had learned from books. He was like a complete library walking around in sneakers." People are always asking him questions. For example, old ladies stop him in the street to ask his assistance with crossword clues. He always knows the answer, but he pauses a moment before offering it up because he's afraid people won't like him if he comes off as too smart. When Encyclopedia uses logic to help his Police Chief father to solve a case for the first time, his mother suggests that he could be a detective when he grows up. But Encyclopedia figures there's no time like the present and he puts out his shingle immediately. He sets up the Brown Detective Agency in his family’s garage, offering his services for 25 cents a day "plus expenses." Just like that, he transforms what could be a social liability⎯his intelligence and his bookishness⎯into a source of power, not just for himself, but also in service of other kids who are the targets of local bullies Bugs Meaney and his gang.

2. I don't like Bugs Meaney⎯he's a nasty piece of work⎯but I do like his name, and I like that Encyclopedia has an archenemy with whom he does battle.

3. When you make a habit of besting the biggest bully in town, you need protection, so Encyclopedia acquires as a bodyguard the strongest person in Idaville below the age of twelve. That person? Sally Kimball. But brawny though she is, she's no bully. She too uses her powers for good, protecting younger, smaller kids from Bugs Meaney, and also, together with a team of fifth-grade girls, devastating Bugs and his gang in a girls-against-the-boys game of softball. And besides her physical toughness and athletic prowess, Sally is also pretty and smart (almost, but not quite smart enough to stump Encyclopedia with a logical puzzle of her own devising). So she becomes not just Encyclopedia's bodyguard, but also his partner in the detective agency. That's a lot of stereotypes about girls and their capabilities sent tumbling via the character of Sally Kimball, particularly in 1963 when the book was first published.

4. But the greatest pleasure of the book is, just as I recalled in my previous post, the opportunity to follow the clues and solve the cases (10 contained in each book) alongside Encyclopedia. When his mother asks him, after his first success, how he went about it, he explains: "I got it from a book I read about a great detective and his methods of observation." This is a nod to Sherlock Holmes, I think. In any event, a combination of close observation and deductive reasoning is certainly the secret of Encyclopedia's success, and the key to the same for the reader who aspires to solve the cases him or herself before flipping to the back of the book where the solutions are revealed. Some of you know that I'm a lawyer and a law professor. Much is made of the mystical process by which students learn in first year law school how to "think like a lawyer." On reflection it occurs to me, with apologies to my first year law professors, that I may in fact have received my earliest lessons in how to think like a lawyer from Encyclopedia Brown. At the time I couldn't have connected Encyclopedia's brand of logic with the work that lawyers do (I think I may have to credit Nancy Drew with making that connection explicit for me⎯another current reread). But in all likelihood it would have been in the solving of those puzzles that I first developed the taste and talent for logical reasoning that ultimately led me to pursue a legal career.

I'll stop there, but stay tuned for a follow up post on Nancy Drew, and possibly a forthcoming law review article: "Learning to Think Like a Lawyer from Encyclopedia Brown and Nancy Drew". . .

12 comments:

A Bookshelf Monstrosity said...

Great post. Loved the walk down Nostalgia Lane :)

sassymonkey said...

I keep a lookout for these books in thrift stores, etc. I haven't come across any of them yet. I know I used to own a bunch of them but they lost along the way somewhere.

Suko said...

Encyclopedia Brown is an irresistible character, very smart and humble. Because your early lessons on how to think like a lawyer stemmed from Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective, I now wish to reread this series.

Very engaging post!

Dorte H said...

I think the most appealing name is Encyclopedia Brown :)
One of those names you wish you had invented yourself.

Kerry said...

I was volunteering at The Children's Book Bank in Toronto earlier this year, and was so pleased to find that these book are indeed still popular.

Wonderful post!

Kailana said...

Wonderful idea for a post! I read some of these when I was younger, but I don't think I read the whole series.

The romantic query letter and the happy-ever-after said...

Brilliant fun. Thanks for sharing. I enjoyed my visit to your blog and will call again.
All the very best.

Dorothy W. said...

I loved Encyclopedia Brown too -- and I like that article sounds fabulous!

Belle said...

I loved Encyclopedia Brown as a child, and when my own kids were younger, we loved reading the series together. He was just so smart! The story I remember best is the frozen tongue one.

Steve said...

My only beef with Encyclopedia Brown is that you had to throw up your hands to not see a word of the solution on the facing page. It was just soo o o o oo hard to not look "by accident" and feel your eyes burning because of a name you read in the Knife in the Watermelon.

Mindy Withrow said...

I was just telling someone about Encyclopedia Brown the other day! LOVED those books and probably still have them somewhere...and still remember many of the clues that led him to solve his cases!

Henry Lawson Books said...

Brings back some very fond memories, thank you.