Tuesday, February 18, 2014
February 18, 2014: YA Lit: Encyclopedia Brown
[Recently the boys and I have moved into chapter books, including the wonderful John Bellairs series. So in honor of that next stage of reading, a series on AmericanStudying chapter books and Young Adult lit. Please add your favorites, memories, and ideas for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On youthful fun and the mysteries of adulthood.
I don’t think it’s any mystery—nor does it require any complex AmericanStudies analysis to figure out—why Donald Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown books have remained so popular for the fifty years since their 1963 debut (the most recent appeared just after Sobol’s 2012 death, but I’m quite sure the series will be continued by other authors). I’m not sure I can think of a youthful intellectual pleasure to match trying to solve the case alongside Encylopedia (Leroy, but no one ever called him that) and then getting to flip to the back to read the solution and see if you had gotten it right. Sobol’s unique structure boiled the appeal of the mystery story into both a bite-sized and an interactive form, and the only painful challenges were a) not reading them all in one sitting; and b) not flipping to the back out of frustration before giving your more average brain a chance to catch up to Encyclopedia’s boy genius one.
As I’ve returned to the series with my boys, however, I’ve noticed another prominent aspect with which I didn’t much engage as a young reader: the back and forth between mysteries featuring Encyclopedia’s youthful nemesis Bugs Meany and those featuring adult criminals (sometimes brought to Encylopedia at the dinner table by his father, the town’s police chief and apparently a substantially less impressive crime-solver than his son). The different kinds of cases certainly help keep each book from feeling too repetitive or one-note (although the basic arc and balance are very similar from book-to-book), but they also introduce significantly varying themes and tones: Bugs is certainly a bad kid and a neighborhood bully, but his transgressions don’t generally rise above the level of Tom Sawyer-like tricks; whereas the adult cases tend to involve far more serious crimes, including bank robberies and fraudalent scams.
Encylopedia solves them all in pretty similar ways, so maybe I’m making too much of the distinction. But I can’t help but feel that this thematic and tonal variety positions Encyclopedia, his books, and thus his youthful readers on the border between childhood and adulthood, between a world where the biggest threat is a guy named Bugs trying to pass off a fake autographed baseball bat and a world where complex people commit serious crimes that profoundly impact a city and society. If so, it would be worth noting that the series’ most prominent adult and authority figure, Encylopedia’s father, can’t seem to solve those serious crimes—which either means that we need to keep looking at the world through the eyes of a (super-smart) kid or that, perhaps, the adult world is full of mysteries that require a lot more than flipping to the back of the book. Both lessons would be important ones for young readers to learn, I’d say.
Next YA favorite tomorrow,
PS. What YA lit favorites and memories would you share?