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.
“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?