Donald J. Sobol, ‘Encyclopedia Brown,’ and the Pleasures of Intelligence and Strength

I was sorry to read yesterday the news that Donald J. Sobol, the creator of the iconic children’s book character Encyclopedia Brown, had died at 87. Created in 1963, Encyclopedia and his best friend and detective agency business partner Sally Kimball were terrific models models of genre-busting characters — Encyclopedia is smart rather than a fighter, while Sally is effectively a ten-year-old action hero — and wonderful illustrations of the pleasures of exercising intellect and strength.

One of the things that the Encyclopedia Brown books do that’s somewhat rare in children’s stories is give us a hero who understands how the world reacts to his extraordinariness. The stories are always careful to point out that while Encyclopedia helps his father, the chief of police, solve mysteries, his assistance is a closely held family secret, on the grounds that Encyclopedia’s assistance might seem implausible or open him to resentment for ridicule. It’s not that Encyclopedia is pretending to be dumb, but he is aware that his intellect can be a way of alienating people rather than bring him closer. In one story, in which little old ladies ask him for help on their crossword puzzles, we learn that “He always waited a moment. He wanted to be helpful. But he was afraid that people might not like him if he answered their questions too quickly and sounded too smart.” And certainly bully Bugs Meany’s enmity for Encyclopedia is rooted in a dislike of his intelligence, the fact that Encyclopedia’s living a life governed not by the rules of kid-land, but by his ability to function in the adult world.

But even though the stories are cautionary, they’re full of feedback loops that emphasize the pleasure of using your brain. Every story ends with a teaser that encourages the reader to spot what Encyclopedia did, too, a mechanism that lets you feel the satisfaction of noticing what others don’t. Even if the book can’t fully immerse you in Encyclopedia’s victories, that setup gives the reader direct access to at least some of his emotions. In the text itself, Encyclopedia’s wins give him access to all sorts of status, whether it’s the ability to do good in his community, the respect of his family, and a relationship with the most attractive girl in town precisely at the time when such friendships between boys and girls are becoming fraught and complicated.

And oh to be Sally Kimball, whose looks are always mentioned in the context of her physical prowess, as in “Sally was the prettiest girl in the fifth grade and the best athlete.” She’s a constant combatant of Bugs Meany, who “would have liked to get even with Encyclopedia by punching him in the eye four or five times. But he didn’t dare — for two reasons. The first reason was the quick left fist of pretty, ten-year-old Sally Kimball. The second reason was Sally’s right. It was evenq uicker than her left. One day Sally had seen Bugs bullying a Cub Scout. ‘Stop it!’ she had creid, hopping off her bike. ‘Go powder your nose,’ Bugs had jeered. Zam went Sally’s right.” Watching Sally stand up not just to Bugs, who is a jerk, but to the idea that she should pack away her strength at a certain age and go be pretty instead, is a delight. And as much as Sally champions Encyclopedia, he gives back to her, too, as in stories where he realizes that a boy has been staging fake fights to impress Sally. Maybe their friendship will last into high school. Maybe it will falter, or turn into something else entirely. But I love the idea of a boy and girl who have each other’s backs against both immediate threats to their town and to more insidious threats to the idea that they should value their own best qualities.