20 July 2010


Reading Diary: Encyclopedia Brown series by Donald J. Sobol

EncyclopediaBrown BoyDetective5 Sobol EncyclopediaBrown SecretPitch Sobol EncyclopediaBrown FindsClues Sobol

During the summer, Encyclopedia ran a detective agency for children of the neighbourhood. He opened his office every morning after his father left for work.

Encyclopedia always waited till his father drove off. He had no choice. His office was in the garage.

The series has a simple premise: a fifth-grade boy is the best amateur sleuth in town and he will solve any case for a fee of twenty-five cents (plus expenses)--except those he solves for his father, the Chief of Police, for free. Each chapter (ten per book) is a "five minute mystery" that challenges the reader to try solving the case as well. The solutions are at the back of every book.

Promising, right? Indeed, I had really hoped my brothers would take to these stories. After all, Encyclopedia is about their age and is both exceptionally smart and completely generic. So even if they don't identify with him (at best), at least they won't hate him (at worst). Right? =P

Well, it took them some time to get the hang of picking up clues and solving cases--and they were initially resistant. But now that we're almost done with the first three books, I think that they are both happy they got to read them and happy that we can now move on.

Danny Landis hurried into the Brown Detective Agency. He laid a quarter on the can beside Encyclopedia.

"I want you to find my pillow," said Danny. "It's missing."

"I've seen a matchbox and a boardwalk, but I've never had to solve a pillowcase," said Encyclopedia thoughtfully.

This isn't the first time I've used this series for some educational purpose. About two years ago, when I was an ESL teacher, I introduced my more advanced students to Encyclopedia Brown and made them solve his cases as homework. I assigned those mysteries in which someone makes up a bogus story and is caught in the lie, to test comprehension rather than (or at least as much as) common sense. My students really seemed to like it (except for the fellow who was older than I was and wondered why he was wasting his time on stories for children--Sheesh!)--and I heard that some of their friends had started to look forward to helping them with their homework.

And that is the nicest thing about Encyclopedia Brown mysteries: they're fun to solve with others. I think my brothers got more from these stories because we read them together--because they got to race themselves to the solution, and got to beg me for clues when they were really stumped, instead of giving up and looking at the answers.

But as soon as the mystery is solved, well, that's it. All the characters, including the hero, are as two-dimensional as they come. Nobody ever changes: Encyclopedia is always perfect and his arch-nemesis Bugs Meany never learns. The setting is as static as it is idyllic: Idaville is an idealised American town straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting--except that Rockwell has more edge. The stories are like Looney Tunes shorts: lots of fun at first, but predictable and boring after you've seen enough.

Now, if you like "five minute mysteries," this isn't a problem. (In fact, it might even be a plus!) In that case, you'll get what you read for, so to speak. For although there isn't any point in rereading these stories when you're done, they are always a delight to read for the first time . . . especially with children. =)


Image Sources: a) Encyclopedia Brown Boy Detective, b) Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Secret Pitch, c) Encyclopedia Brown Finds the Clues


Sullivan McPig said...

Sounds like the game 'black stories' where you get a situation and have to ask yes/no questions to find the answer as to what happened.
And Encyclopedia Brown? Yet another book/series where the parents must have really hated their kid

Enbrethiliel said...


LOL! In fairness to Mr. and Mrs. Brown, they named him Leroy. He got the nickname Encyclopedia from his friends when they learned how much he read and could remember. =)

I've just googled Black Stories. It sounds very interesting, but I don't think it has made it over here yet.

Jenny N. said...

This sounds like something I would love to read if I was younger. I also like the retro looking covers.

Enbrethiliel said...


They're nice covers, indeed! Most of the ones I own actually have earlier covers with real models on them, but I prefer these ones, too. =)

Sullivan McPig said...

Ah, I'll blame his friends this time in that case

Suburbanbanshee said...

I loved those books. I admit that they are much of a muchness; but that's the whole charm of a series book, isn't it? It's best not to read more than two in a row, though, even though they're so very short.

Also, it was the only series at the time where the hero was a smart kid, and had a female friend who was the brawn of the two. That's not so strange now, but back in the seventies it was unheard of. Usually they didn't even have male and female characters doing stuff together unless they were siblings, or a bunch of kids including siblings. So I thought Encyclopedia Brown was much more realistic about neighborhood relations than other books.

Finally, without this series, I never would have had the happy day when somebody called me Encyclopedia. First time I'd ever had a positive nickname.

I never stopped to figure them out, though. Either I figured them out while reading, or I had to go on to the end of the story. (Ellery Queen's questions drive me up the wall. I'm just not that kind of mystery reader; I love the atmosphere more than anything.)

Suburbanbanshee said...

Oh, and I still remember a lot of the Sobol factoids.

Enbrethiliel said...


When I started them, I knew it was best not to read more than two stories in a row, much less two whole books! My brothers and I do no more than two or three a night together--and even then, not every night.

I got called "Walking Encyclopedia" myself (which was an improvement on "Walking Dictionary"), but as far as I can tell, none of my classmates ever heard of these books or the TV series. (D.J. McHale's Ghostwriter got syndicated over here, but his Encyclopedia Brown never did.)

Rob (Books Are Like Candy Corn) said...

I'm stopping by from Cym Lowell's Book Review Wednesday.

It's been years since I thought of Encyclopedia Brown. I grew up with the series in the 1960's.

Thanks for the memory!

Aloha from Rob

Enbrethiliel said...


You're welcome, Rob. =)

I'm reading them with my brothers now so that they, too, can have some book-related nostalgia in the years to come.

Thanks for visiting!