"His smile disappeared as quickly as pancakes at Sunday breakfast."
This simile rocked my world. Really. It's written by Donald J. Sobol and appears in one of his Encyclopedia Brown mysteries. I don't remember which one. I do remember reading it though--that line, I mean. I was probably ten years old and that sentence stopped me cold. I thought about a smiling boy, about a stack of pancakes, and about the absolutely unexpected connection that had just been made between them. That line has been swimming through my head, probably surfacing once a fortnight or so, for over 30 years. It's an amazing combination of poetry, truth and corniness--corniness that defines the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries and has contributed to their present-day status as relics.
It's an unfortunate status, but the truth is that much of Encyclopedia's world is out of date. Let's start with his name: "What's an encyclopedia?" one of my kids asked. Then there's the bully, Bugs Meany, who has one of the most perfect--and most dated bully names of all time. Bullies today aren't considered bugs or meanies: they're considered little psychopaths at worst and troubled souls at best. Then there's the very strict gender divide: consider, for example, "The Case of the Girl Shortstop," about a girl named Edwina who enlists Encyclopedia to find out which jealous player on her team "ratted her out" to the coaches, who promptly dropped her upon learning she was actually a girl (she went by "Ed" when she played).
That's just a short list of the strikes against Donald J. Sobol's detective stories, in which kids call each other "meatballs" and refer to parents as "snoopy grown-ups." But there are compelling arguments to be made in support of the Encyclopedia Brown books' continuing relevance and value. In fact, these books use simple structure to create the very same type of fantasy world that sells out faster than pancakes at Sunday breakfast among young readers today.
Consider the kids' world in little Idaville. It's as mundane as mundane can be, with no magic at all--no wands or talking animals or shape-shifters or aliens. Yet, there is a kid with superpowers: Leroy Brown, who's so smart he's known by one and all as Encyclopedia. Encyclopedia is the son of Idaville's Chief of Police, and he's so smart that he's his father's "secret weapon." Sobol tells the reader over and over that crooks steer clear of Idaville because they can never get away with anything. Encyclopedia's hapless dad regularly comes home with head-scratching crimes, from embezzlement to art theft to murder, and summarizes them to his son over dinner. In every case, the solution is contained in the clueless cop's own words--it was there all along, but no single trained law enforcement officer in all of Idaville was able to catch it.
In the neighborhood, Encyclopedia is the enforcer; the superhero of the little guy. The kids who come to him for help are the youngest, the least powerful, and yes, that includes the girls. Encyclopedia outsmarts the bullies and gets the victims their proverbial lunch money back. In fact, in a couple cases I think actual lunch money was involved. He's Clark Kent solving the crimes that Clark himself would need to depend on Superman to tackle, and this young Encyclopedia Clark is a superhero precisely because he is compassionate and almost other-worldly smart.
As for the girls in the fictional world of Idaville, they aren't very prominent, to be sure. But their second-class status is an accurate reflection of a middle-class group of kids in mid-sixties middle America, where these stories are set. The girls don't have a lot of social power, and it's Encyclopedia who does the solving, but the girls face an uneasy tension between their place in the neighborhood and their desires.
A few books into the series, Encyclopedia takes on a junior detective, Sally Kimball, "The prettiest girl in the fifth grade--and the best fighter." The cases Sally's involved in are usually ones that center around a gender issue: Bugs Meany trying to get his cousin Bearcat to fight a girl, the aforementioned girl shortstop, a case that hinges on the number of layers in a chocolate cake served by a group of volunteer ladies.
Sally is a confident girl who is pretty, strong, and smart. She's also very aware of where she stands, gender-wise and power-wise. In the shortstop story, Edwina announces "Boys are rat-finks," to which Sally retorts, "Nonsense. Some boys are very nice." A few pages later, when discussing the fact that the adult coach won't tell Edwina who ratted her out, Sally takes on the topic of rat-fink men with this: "Men are all the same. They protect each other. They're afraid of what women can do if they get a chance." Remember, this is a fifth-grade girl talking about the cover-up of what the kids perceive as a crime committed against Edwina.
For his part, Encyclopedia is a little unsure about the whole gender issue. "When Sally was out to defend her sex," he muses in another story, "arguing was useless."
These are boys and girls who are aware of the gender divides in their everyday lives and deal with them as they come. Sobol is clearly sympathetic to the smart and capable girls like Sally, who want to (and can) do more.
Another Sobol creation that has stuck with me indelibly for decades is a girl who appears in a story about some kids who are startled by someone in a gorilla costume. I can't remember the details of the scene, but it's really the gorilla character that's important.
A girl in the story is carrying a cello case and tells the kids she can't have been dressed as the gorilla because she was busy playing the cello, but Encyclopedia immediately identifies her as the gorilla. Why? Because she is wearing a skirt so tight she can hardly walk. I even remember a drawing of her struggling to walk, knees together, one foot wildly out to the side. Encyclopedia deduces that her cello case must contain the gorilla costume, since she cannot possibly have just been playing the cello. Her skirt is far too tight for her to put the instrument between her legs.
As a young girl reading this, I loved it. This hapless girl is wearing a skirt so impractical that she can barely walk. She can't be a serious musician, clearly. Serious musicians don't wear skirts that tight. Serious musicians and, it turns out, criminals, need to be able to move freely and not be hampered by ridiculously girly clothing. Fantastic.
So. If you've got a kid in your life around 9 or 10, give him or her an Encyclopedia Brown book. Just try it. These short stories make perfect read-alouds while waiting in line somewhere or just before bedtime. Then you can figure out the mysteries together. On the surface, these tales seem quaint and out-of-date. But give them a try. They're actually canny stories--about powerful kids who outsmart the adults around them while navigating their own relationships and positions in the town of Idaville.
And I guarantee you'll find a line or an image that's just vivid enough to stick in your head for days, if not years.