RIP, Encyclopedia Brown

The author Donald J. Sobol died last week at 87, and with him one of the all-time most-loved fictional characters: the original bad, bad Leroy Brown, better known as Encyclopedia.

The first book of Encyclopedia Brown mysteries came out in 1963, and in the 49 years since, the series has never gone out of print.

The news of Sobol’s death prompted me to pull my kids’ own Encyclopedia Brown collection off the bookshelf. Over the last few nights I’ve been reading them a few mysteries a night, watching them chew their lips with deep concentration as they attempt to solve the Case of the Lace Doily.  I love that my kids love these books as much as I once did. I love their enchantment with Idaville, a erstwhile utopia of marbles and checkers and butterscotch pudding and washing the back of your neck before dinner (named after Sobol’s mother, by the way). I love the enpowerment they feel hearing about a 10-year-old keeping bad guys at bay– even if the bad guys aren’t all THAT bad. Bugs Meany (could Sobol name a character, or what?) is the lord of misrule in Idaville, and you can tell because wears that weird crowny Jughead hat.


Apparently that’s a man’s fedora cut in a zigzag shape and turned up? (thanks Wikipedia) and by the 1950s it was already not exactly cutting edge, but it did allow one to self-identify as a rascal. Anyway, Bugs Meany wears that sort of hat and runs a gang called the Tigers, but fear not: three or four pages is all Encyclopedia ever needs to send those Tigers back to their clubhouse, stripped of the marbles they purloined, grumbling at how they’ve been foiled again.

This is not to say that there is not a sinister undercurrent in the stories of Encyclopedia Brown for the adult reader. Should you choose to read some of the earlier books in the series, say the ones from 1966, I thought I’d warn you about a few of the more, shall we say, dated details that await you:

  • an apron-clad mother scolding a father for getting home late for dinner at 6 pm (corned beef and cabbage)
  • Nevin, a “gentle boy of twelve who wanted to be a florist when he grew up.”
  • Miguel, whose father “tosses Spanish omelets at the cafeteria”
  • this same Miguel throwing a mock bullfight in his backyard in which his dog plays the part of a bull, with KNIVES TAPED TO HIS HEAD
  • “Indian trials” to find the bravest boy in Idaville (water boiling, tent pitching, drinking something disgusting) (and by the way, no girls allowed)
  • Roscoe Kerr, a young man who smokes dried coffee grounds and has to hire Encyclopedia to help him find the blackmailer threatening to tell his mother. (Seriously, is this a thing one can do?)
  • Said Roscoe’s friend Harry “smokes a pipe with real tobacco anywhere he likes” after his mother GAVE HIM THE PIPE for his seventeenth birthday.
  • Chester, a boy sure to win a pie-eating contest, for he was so fat that “only the hippopotamus at the zoo could eat more.”
  • feeding an unfriendly dog a handful of “chocolate drops” (Hershey’s Kisses? Sno-Caps?) to keep him quiet.
This is where my seven-year-old son drew the line. “Chocolate for dogs is DANGEROUS,” Seamus pointed out. “Encylopedia should KNOW that.” I took this opportunity to discuss how there were a lot of things in this particular book that people might not say or think or do fifty years later. Still, there was something so charming about it all, wasn’t there?
The next story was about a sunglass-wearing, kiss-throwing movie star who said “darling” a lot and who was caught red-handed staging a grand theft. The moral?

“Actors aren’t like other people,” said Chief Brown. ‘They don’t care about what is right or wrong as long as they get attention.”

OK, that is where I draw the line, Chief Brown. You take that back right now. Just @ me on Twitter.

Have you ever come across some unexpectedly dated ideas in your children’s books?


{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeff Scanlon July 25, 2012 at 8:28 am

I have smoked a lot of things including tea leaves but never coffee grounds! I feel I’ve said too much. There is something so comforting in remembering these old stories and villains.


Steph at The Healthy Mom July 25, 2012 at 10:57 am

Ha ha. What a great post! I need to get my kids reading these books! I forgot all about them. But how funny the dated subject matter of some of those books. It’s slightly apalling, isn’t it?


Mollie July 27, 2012 at 3:08 pm

My copy of “Peter Pan” (The original James M. Barrie story) is on the nursery bookshelf, waiting for my son to be old enough to enjoy it. I reread it myself a few months ago (during one of those “he’ll only stay asleep if I keep holding him” phases), and it’s every bit as terrific as I remembered. Well worth hearing in its original form rather than in a charmeless retelling. But I went from thinking, “Oh, we can just discuss the Victorian sexism/racism as we go” — thinking I could explain it just as I’d explain the concept of gas lamps and kitchen maids — to mentally deciding what I’d edit out while reading aloud. There are some descriptions of Indians and African pirates — and, somewhat surprisingly, mermaids — that I think it would be much easier to just skip than to try to work through with a small child. When he’s old enough to read it for himself he’ll be old enough to think critically about, say, the characteristically insensitive British attitude toward “red Indians,” and their role as characters in a fantasy story vs. their reality as a culture… but that’s later.

Also, I recently found myself reading “A Bargain for Frances” to three 4-year-olds. I got to a page where Frances calls someone on the phone, and one of the boys pointed to the drawing of a rotary telephone and said, “What’s that?” Eep. The book, though, didn’t feel out-of-date at all (except in a charming, buying-toys-at-the-dime-store sort of way). It’s actually startlingly perceptive about manipulative friendships and the way girls in particular can mess with each others’ heads.


Sobol fan July 30, 2012 at 11:32 am

Also, I remember a mystery in which one of Bugs Meany’s Tigers (I think his name was Carl) would leave bird-feeders full of fermented berries, in order to get birds drunk as lords. Of course, Leroy and Sally eventually taught him that that wasn’t right.


Rachel August 1, 2012 at 1:27 pm

I have been reading the Berverly Cleary ‘Henry’ series to my 6-year old. These also have some dated ideas in them, but the best is when Henry grabs horsemeat from the refigerator to feed to his dog Ribsy! Actual horsemeat that he has to cut into chunks to feed his dog. I was slightly shocked (and amused I admit), but my son didn’t even seem to notice.


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