Monday, January 11, 2010

Classic Monday: Encyclopedia Brown

Remember Encyclopedia Brown? The boy detective from the little town of Idaville where his father is Chief of Police and there's almost no crime, thanks to the superior sleuthing skills of one 10 year old boy? These were a staple of my childhood and now I'm discovering them all over again with my 3rd grader. They have definitely withstood the test of time.

In spite of being mainly written in the 60s and 70s, the books aren't so dated that kids can't relate to the characters and situations. For comparison, consider something like the Little House on the Prairie books, which require a lot of explanation of things like butter churns, boot blacking, soddies, etc.

If the books are a little dated, it's in the wholesomeness of the town of Idaville and its pre-teen protagonists. Instead of hurling swear words at each other that would make a trucker blush, these kids say stuff like "Nuts to you!" And they mean it, dang it. In some ways, the books were ahead of their time. Encyclopedia's sidekick, Sally Kimball, is a strong, no-nonsense character who is a force to be reckoned with -- she's not just riding on Encyclopedia's coat tails or providing a cooing, admiring audience for his skills. Occasionally she, and not Encyclopedia, figures out the mystery.

The villains are bad, but not so bad -- no shopping mall shooters or child molesters here, just your garden-variety thieves and bullies. And of course, there's good old Bugs Meany, the teenaged would-be crime boss, were it not for Encyclopedia reining in his illegal (or morally questionable) activities. Encyclopedia himself is refreshingly modest, not wanting the general public to know that he assists his father in his investigations.

The books are compelling: each chapter is a mystery which Encyclopedia must solve. And he does, though to understand how he did it you must turn to the back of the book and read the solution. I remember quite clearly reading the answers when I was a kid and thinking "Oh, so that's how he knew!" Sometimes I could hardly wait to get through the mystery, I was so anxious to find out what Encyclopedia noticed that I didn't.

The language level of the books is good for 3rd or 4th grade. Accelerated Reader puts it at 4.1 or 4.2, which seems about right. Where their value lies, I think, is in their modelling of critical thinking and deductive reasoning. The books allow you to see what Encyclopedia Brown sees, then shows you how he deduced the solution from those clues.

Here's some interesting trivia: the author of the series, Donald J. Sobol, is still living (he's 85) and released a new Encyclopedia Brown book in 2007 (Encyclopedia Brown Cracks the Case). All of the books were re-released in paperback starting in 2007. Depending on which Wikipedia article you read, there are 25 or 26 volumes in the series, more than enough to keep your reader busy for a good, long while.

More trivia: when my 8-year old saw that I was posting about Enclyclopedia Brown, she did some spontaneous cartwheels in the family room and yelled "Yay! My favorite book series is on Bookivore!" So there's a ringing endorsement for you.

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