Like most people my age, I loved the Encyclopedia Brown books when I was young. I also adored the Two-Minute Mysteries, even if most of the clues were well above my experience (did you know that men and women have different etiquette when telling a taxi driver their destinations? I sure didn’t.). Donald J. Sobol passed away yesterday, apparently continuing to write daily until the very end. In fond remembrance, here’s a review of the Encyclopedia Brown series based on memories and three books reread—Encyclopedia Brown Finds the Clues, Encyclopedia Brown Gets His Man, and Encyclopedia Brown Takes the Case.
I was surprised by how well the books hold up, considering that they’re even older than I am. I remember them being somewhat dated when I was a kid, so I expected them to be really outdated for my kids—this is a big reason I haven’t strongly encouraged my kids to read them, although my daughter had read a few. As of today, she’s working through the pile left over from her parents’ childhoods!
The wordplay is still corny and only occasionally unfamiliar. The vast majority of the mysteries are as solvable as they ever were—the clues aren’t too dated and the information you need is presented. Or, even 40 years ago I’ll bet most kids didn’t know the difference between the American and the Canadian gallon. My daughter admitted that she reads them like we used to—maybe she tries to solve them, but mostly she just likes to see how it all fits together. I find that they’re a lot easier to solve once you’ve read a lot of them. The clues start to stand out in the story once you’re familiar with the format.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Brains vs. Everything
Encyclopedia is a 10 year old 5th grader, and he’s smarter than pretty much everyone else. Part of this is because he reads everything he can get his hands on. In addition, though, he’s observant and logical. He’s much more than just book smart. He’s conscious of not showing off, especially when he’s helping adults—he’d let his mom yell at him for being late for dinner rather than admit that he was delayed because he was fixing his teacher’s car. He’s also not anti-social or particularly unathletic. He’s just a normal kid in most ways, except that he solves mysteries around the dinner table.
It’s pretty clear that most of the moms are stay-at-home housewives, although this isn’t a major point, especially since all of the adults are plot devices anyway. Sally is pretty cool. She’s described as the prettiest girl and the best athlete in the 5th grade—note that there’s no gender-qualification on that second one. She’s also the toughest kid in the neighborhood, beating up all the bullies when they deserve it. She starts out as a junior partner, mostly brought on as a bodyguard. By Encyclopedia Brown Takes the Case, she’s a full partner and Encyclopedia’s best friend. She even solves some of the mysteries—she’s not just in awe of his brains.
Out of Date
In Encyclopedia Brown Finds the Clues, Encyclopedia gives a dog chocolate (major no-no) and the case hinges on dogs being color blind (which has been disproven). There’s also mention of a “Children’s Farm” which is apparently where the juvenile delinquents get sent. Idaville holds “Indian Trials” which are tests of endurance, etc. that were supposedly used to see if a boy was ready to become a brave.
In Encyclopedia Brown Gets His Man, a lot of the kids smoke. It’s obviously not something they’re supposed to do, but lots of them do it. One even smokes coffee in a corn cob pipe? I had no idea that was even a thing. A new car is worth a whopping SIX THOUSAND DOLLARS! That’s a LOT of money.
Bullying is a major theme—it seems like someone is always on the verge of getting beaten up. In Encyclopedia Brown Takes the Case, Sally beats up a 7th grader who’s taken karate classes. Her friends are worried for her, but she can handle herself pretty well. She does have a tendency to assume that violence solves things, though. In a later case in the same book, someone poisons a pet skunk and kills it.
The Browns say grace before dinner. Encyclopedia writes a mystery play that’s performed at Children’s Interfaith Night at First Church. Idaville has several churches and a synagogue. Religion is never a major point, but it’s part of the backdrop.
Random Other Stuff
In Encyclopedia Brown Takes the Case, there’s an illustration of a naked boy who has been swimming—there’s a strategically placed bush. Elsewhere in that book, Sally has a throw away comment about housewives that seems…not derogatory, exactly, but it stood out to me. In Encyclopedia Brown Finds the Clues, Encyclopedia’s dad mentions that actors will do anything for attention. Encyclopedia is kind of annoyed by this generalization, but it turns out that in this case his dad is right.
I still wish someone was writing the equivalent of Encyclopedia Brown for today’s kids, but I’m surprised by how well these hold up. My daughter is working her way through our pile of brown-paged, dog-eared paperbacks and thoroughly enjoying them. They’re short, but reward close and critical reading—even if you can’t actually solve the mystery, you can probably identify where the clues are. None of the mysteries are more than a few pages long and the illustrations often provide hints as to what you should pay attention to. I’d recommend them for ages 9 and up, and I think they’re good for both precocious and reluctant readers, especially if your kids won’t get too hung up on not being able to solve the mysteries before reading the solution.
I haven’t read any of the newer versions of the original books. Does anyone know if and how they’re updated? Any suggestions of more current books that fill a similar niche?
All the books I read are our old copies, published by Bantam Skylark.
Encyclopedia Brown Finds the Clues
Originally published in 1966
Third in the series
Encyclopedia Brown Gets His Man
Originally published in 1967
Fourth in the series
Encyclopedia Brown Takes the Case
Originally published in 1973
Tenth in the series