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". . .