RIP, Donald J. Sobol, creator of Encyclopedia Brown

Donald J. Sobol, the author who created the great Encyclopedia Brown series, died last week. Encyclopedia Brown were kids' mystery stories about a boy detective, whose solution required careful reading and imaginative reasoning. When I started working on Little Brother, I told people it would be "Encyclopedia Brown meets Wargames" -- and I've often noodled with the idea of a set of contemporary, Internet-based mystery stories called "Wikipedia Brown."

I'm always running into die-hard Encyclopedia Brown fans in the happy mutants set. GeekDad's Ethan Gilsdorf is another megafan, and he's written a very good, informative obit for Sobol:

I lived vicariously through Encyclopedia Brown. And I came up with a hundred schemes a summer to make money, trick the bully, or otherwise engineer a scenario to be the smart one who would sweep in to save the day.

But Encyclopedia’s success wasn’t only due to his problem-solving prowess. Credit his best pal (and girl Friday) Sally Kimball: older, stronger and sometimes smarter. She also could stand up to Bugs, and was Encyclopedia’s bodyguard. That was a novel premise, to give that role of “the muscle” to a girl.

Update: There's one more Encyclopedia Brown book coming out in the fall (Thanks, Craig Pittman!)

R.I.P. Donald J. Sobol, Encyclopedia Brown Author, 1924-2012

See also: Donald J. Sobol, Encyclopedia Brown author, RIP


    1. PS: I see people are mentioning similar books that they enjoyed: My recommendation is to read the Danny Dunn series by Raymond Abrashkin and Jay Williams, one of my favorite series.

  1. I have a 4 year old godson who recently told me he wants to be a detective when he grows up.  Well, I said, pretty soon you and I are going to start reading Encyclopedia Brown and we’ll do some detective work together.

    Loved these books when I was young…though more than once I gave in to my impatience, looking at the answers before I solved the mysteries.  As I got older, the solving became the important thing, making me the happy mutant I am today.

    RIP Mr. Sobol.  You will be well missed.

    1.  I also recommend Harriet the Spy for your godson.  It’s another book that got me out sleuthing as a kid.

  2. There are moments when I think that my adolescent reading library was made up entirely of Encyclopedia Brown mysteries and Chose Your Own Adventure books.

    Sobol never gets the credit he deserves as an author. He created this fantastic form – detective procedurals for the grade school crowd. He was like a Dick Wolf for kids who used this great familiar formula to engage kids with his mysteries. Even the simple act of having to turn to page 84 for the solution made me feel like a more active participant in the story.

    I started reading some EB mysteries to my 5-year-old a few months ago and I went online to look for more information on Sobol. I was SHOCKED at how little there is online about the guy. A few scant articles, a so-so wiki page, a Contemporary Authors interview, no video (that I could find), and only one audio interview –

    Sobol was just such a literary rock-star to my 9-year-old self that I kind of can’t believe that there aren’t more online tributes, fan sites, or Idaville Mystery Solver Conventions. Hope the man rests in peace.

  3. “They should’ve called themselves the Tea Bags. They were always getting into hot water.” – Possibly my favorite Donald Sobol line EVER from “Encyclopedia Brown Keeps the Peace”

  4. I read sooooo many of these books in the 3rd and 4th grades. I  loved them. Thank you, Mr. Sobol.

  5. Aw, damn. Wikipedia Brown is taken? Serves me right for saving it.

    Also, this is from the Onion, a few years back. Sounds like it was written by a fellow fan of the series.

  6. Encyclopedia Brown may well be the reason I became a nerd.

    I can’t wait for the inevitable mashup art that follows this news.

    1.  I really need to order the other three books in the Mad Scientists Club series. Left unpublished at Brinley’s death, they’ve been brought into print by his son, and they’re for sale online. I’ve read the one I have so many times! It’s like a gateway to fandom.

      1. Finding a needle in a haystack is like finding a needle in a haystack, unless you go about it methodically.

        Or something like that.

      2.  There are FOUR books in the series?! My copy of The Mad Scientists Club has been siting on my bookshelf ALONE for 50 years? This will not stand!

  7. [comment moved up to where I intended it to go]

    [also, there were two Mad Scientists’ Club books – the second came out in ’68; maybe three…]

  8. If only there were a “Encyclopedia Brown Dispels Specious Tea Party Tropes.”  Something you could hand out at rallies that’s on their level that would help them with their critical reasoning skillz.

  9. I had a love/hate relationship with some of the books. I absolutely loved the ones that required creative thinking and logic. I absolutely hated the ones that relied entirely on knowing some weird fact that you really had no business knowing.

    [spoiler alert]

    The one that sticks out in my mind, though it certainly wasn’t the only example, was one where some girl was filing her nails right after she supposedly got out of the shower. Apparently it was obvious to him that she would never do that because the nails would be too soft for filing so soon after the shower. I was a sports playing, pigtail pulling, dirt covered little boy who had never filed a nail in his life. How the f**k was I supposed to know that? (okay, I was actually a nintendo playing, girl avoiding, Cheetos dust covered little boy who had never filed a nail in his life, but you get the idea).

    Looking back in later years, though, I began to appreciate those stories a bit more. Not only did they TEACH me some obscure bits of knowledge, but on those rare occasions when I actually knew that weird fact that I really had no business knowing, it made me feel AWESOME. Even the story in my example most likely thrilled some young girls, and probably some young boys, because they knew that weird little fact that others like me probably didn’t.

    1. The most horribly contrived one by far that I can recall involved a young’un hauling around a wheelbarrow of socks full of pennies, and he was worried a bully was going to take them from him, so Brown’s solution was for him to carry the smallest possible amount of money that could not be used to make change, thus causing the bully to abandon his pursuits in frustration..?

      Sometimes you learn a lot more from not-so-good writing than you learn from great writing.

    2. Sobol torsioned up my brain for years with the one about reaching around behind you while running to put something in your back pocket with your opposite hand. For years I thought that might not be impossible! Of course, I wasn’t familiar with real flat-out kid running, just minimalist gym class running theater. And maybe he wrote the story during the Jordache jeans era?

  10. From the UK Amazon site:

    Product Description
    From the AuthorThis book is so exciting and interesting .
    1)The book is so short. 2)U have too keep more picks on it. 3)The mystery is so short u have to keep it taller so we can be more excited while reading it. –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

    Wot? From the Author?

  11. I just want to go on record as saying that I really enjoyed these books as a kid, but my memory of them is very bad  ):

    Mr. Sobol, you did a good thing.  May you rest in peace.

  12. I loved the Encyclopedia Brown books, getting them at the library again and again. I also read Sobol’s Two-Minute Mysteries books. Some of the story hooks were repeated between the two series, but they were a great read.

  13. Read every EB book I could get from the library as a kid. There’s even an EB movie–my grandma got it from Avon I believe. Changed my perception of geeks (they can save the day!) and girls (they can be tough!).

    1. My friend who tried to find read-out-loudable books for kids that weren’t awful about girls and weren’t written by Donald Sobol only found, to my knowledge, Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind Crockett; and I think my friend quit too early.

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