Monday, July 16, 2012

'Encyclopedia Brown' author Donald J. Sobol Dies at 87

"RIP Donald J. Sobol Encyclopedia Brown was my Harry Potter."

Just read this twitter post above (via @biorhythmist) a few minutes ago as I was reading about Sobol's death.  It pretty much sums it up for many of us 30, 40, and 50ish types.

I remember scouring my elementary school library and waiting eagerly for the RIF (Reading Is Fun - actually I believe it's 'Fundamental' now...but I swear it was just 'Fun' back in the day) program each year so I could order more Encyclopedia Brown books for virtually pennies.  I probably read at least a dozen of the E.B. books as a kid...and arguably the kid mysteries based on factual and often scientific solutions lead me to many, many more books.

For the uninitiated, Leroy 'Encyclopedia Brown' was a boy detective (who had his own detective agency in the garage) that would solve mysteries for kids in the  neighborhood for '25 cents plus expenses.'  Often these cases involved some sort of wrongdoing or nefarious action by the local bully Bugs Meany and his gang the Tigers.  Typically, one or two of the stories in each book involved Encyclopedia helping his father, the local chief of police, solve an actual crime over the dinner table...even occasionally visiting a crime scene with his father.  Another regular character was Sally, Encyclopedia's friend and interestingly the only kid in the neighborhood who would actually stand up to Bugs and his gang of bullies and often acted as bodyguard to Encyclopedia.  Sally's pretty smart too, and often solves a few cases herself that Encyclopedia doesn't, often because 'You are a boy' and Sally sees things that a boy may not. 

The beauty of Encyclopedia Brown was that the reader got the chance to solve each mystery (usually about 10 mysteries per book...each just a few pages long) on their own.  Typically there was some bit of factual evidence or logical puzzle to solve (such as lobsters are blue rather than red before they are cooked, and a person typically falls forward when they faint rather than backward) , and the answers to each were in the back of the book.  Aside from the fun of trying to figure out each mystery, the E.B. books also gave out quite a bit of facts and logical puzzle solutions, which was in many ways the beginning of all the useless piles of trivial knowledge that I seem to have stored away over the years.  As an adult, I actually used many of the mysteries I remembered from Encyclopedia Brown in a daily trivia game I called 'Dragon Mystery Theater' for contests I set up for some of my employees when I was still in the restaurant biz.

According to Wikipedia, there were some 28 books in the original series, some 10 other books of facts and trivia based on Encyclopedia Brown, a comic strip that ran from 1978 to 1980, and an live action HBO Series that ran in 1989 with 30 minute episodes.  Sobol was awarded a special Edgar award by the Mystery Writers of America for his work in Encyclopedia Brown books.  The books are now reprinted by Penguin with updated illustrations.

Encyclopedia Brown books remain some of my fondest memories of reading as a child, and Donald J. Sobol left a legacy of great children's writing for us all to remember and share with today's kids.  While we wish Sobol to rest in peace, we hope Encyclopedia doesn't...



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