Reading & Literacy

Eight Things We Love About Donald Sobol

By Ellen Wexler — July 24, 2012 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Donald J. Sobol, who died on July 11 at the age of 87, is best known for his mystery series, Encyclopedia Brown. The books center around 10-year-old detective Leroy Brown, who helps his police chief father solve difficult cases around the dinner table.

“Encyclopedia usually would solve the case with just one question,” wrote Sobol in Encyclopedia Brown Cracks the Case. “Usually before dessert.”

In honor of the enduring mystery writer and Encyclopedia Brown, here are some of our favorite things about Donald Sobol.

1. The Encyclopedia Brown books turned scores of children into reading enthusiasts.
When the mystery series became a widespread success, countless children got hooked. Sobol would hear frequently from parents and librarians about children who had been averse to reading until they discovered Encyclopedia Brown, his son told the Associated Press.

2. Sobol didn’t change with the times.
Instead, he tried to write books that children would enjoy no matter what the time period. His protagonist is always 10 years old and never charges more than 25 cents an hour for his detective services. “I was very careful not to put into any book anything that would be out of date in a few years,” Sobol told the his alma mater’s Oberlin Alumni Magazine. He wrote Encyclopedia Brown books for nearly 50 years.

3. When the book he wanted to read didn’t exist, he wrote it.
“Readers constantly ask me if Encyclopedia Brown is a real boy. The answer is no,” Sobol once said. “He is, perhaps, the boy I wanted to be—doing the things I wanted to read about but could not find in any book when I was 10.”

4. When the class he wanted to take didn’t exist, he created it.
According to his 2011 interview with the Oberlin Alumni Magazine, Sobol became hooked on fiction writing during an Oberlin writing course—the only Oberlin writing course. At the end of the year, Sobol asked his creative writing teacher if he would consider teaching an advanced creative writing course. The professor eventually agreed to teach the course. Sobol was his only student.

5. He encouraged aspiring writers.
The first Encyclopedia Brown book was initially rejected by two dozen publishers, a fact he liked to share with those trying to break into publishing, according to The New York Times. Forty-nine years and more than 80 books later, Penguin announced that his books are now available in 12 languages and have sold millions of copies worldwide.

He also liked to joke about his talent, explaining how he wasn’t qualified to be a writer in the first place. “My childhood was unimpoverished and joyful,” Sobol once wrote, according to The Washington Post. “Even worse, I loved and admired my parents.”

6. Encyclopedia, Sobol’s protagonist, served as a role model for many young readers.
Sobol portrays Encyclopedia as a careful mixture of intelligence and humility, a quiet, helpful child who outwits the shrewdest of troublemakers and never brags about his work. “Hardened criminals had passed the word: ‘Stay clear of Idaville,’” wrote Sobol in the series’ third book, Encyclopedia Brown Finds the Clues.

He wrote the books so readers could solve the mysteries alongside Encyclopedia. Sometimes, they even succeeded. “There’s a certain feeling of satisfaction in solving Brown’s mystery ahead of him,” writes Adam Martin of the Atlantic Wire. “Sobol had a knack for making them just hard enough that young readers had to give them lots of thought, but not so hard that you couldn’t often solve them, eventually.”

7. He created Encyclopedia’s best friend, Sally Kimball, as a strong female character.
“That was groundbreaking back in 1963, when the series was first published,” Sobol’s son, John, told the Associated Press.

8. Until he died, Sobol never stopped writing.
After getting out of the army and graduating from Oberlin, his publisher Penguin noted, he was a copy boy, a reporter, a columnist—and then came Encyclopedia Brown.

“I don’t want it to end,” he told the Oberlin Alumni Magazine, when asked if he would ever stop writing. “I know how it will end—everybody knows that because we all end up in the same place.”

According to the Associated Press, he wrote every day until he died.

The last Encyclopedia Brown book is scheduled to be released in October.

Related Tags:

A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.