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Posted at 11:59 AM ET, 07/17/2012

My ‘Encyclopedia Brown’ secret

I snuck into the school library when I was supposed to be ducking out of class for a bathroom break. That’s when I knew I could be alone, or at least less visible.

The librarian barely flinched when I walked by. At the time, I thought I was being devious, but looking back, I suppose she must have seen this kind of behavior before.

I headed for the back wall, to the section for authors whose last name began with “S”. If I had been blindfolded, I would have known the way.

There they were, just below eye-level, a row of beat-up, dog-eared paperbacks the exact same height with widths slim enough to hide in my waistband until I could transfer the contraband to my school bag. The Encyclopedia Brown series.
Donald J. Sobol (Family Photo - FAMILY PHOTO)

I pulled down an unfamiliar volume, my heart racing with heady success. I turned and, in what I thought was a nonchalant gait, walked to the librarian, muttering that I needed to check out a book.

I expected a look of disgust: Not only had I ditched class but I was also borrowing a book that I assumed was not for my gender and was embarrassingly below my reading level. A fifth-grade girl reading Encyclopedia Brown? It was a shameful secret I kept from my friends, even my parents.

I read all them undercover, the way I would sometimes secretly play with wooden blocks at home.

The librarian was my only obstacle, someone I didn’t realize was actually my co-conspirator when she, each time, silently stamped my book with a three-weeks-later return date. She pretended not to notice me tuck it under my shirt before I walked into the hall.

There are many mentors I’ve had in school who I’ve silently (and sometimes overtly) thanked. That librarian was one. Today, I remembered, when I read the obituaries, that the list should include Donald J. Sobol.

Sobol died last Wednesday at 87. He wrote the “Encyclopedia Brown” series, from 1963 to 2012. His last book is due to be published in October.

His were the indelible characters of Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown himself, a brilliant amateur detective, his tough best friend Sally Kimball and their frequently foiled nemesis Bugs Meany.

Sobol credited a teacher, in his case a college professor, with inspiring him to write creative fiction. He took that gift and turned it loose.

He gave kids like me a life-long addiction. His simply written mysteries were just tangled enough to keep us guessing, never too easy or too hard to follow. Admittedly, I was not the cleverest kid, so I expect — and certainly thought at the time — many others found the books a childish bore.

But, for me, the series led to the realization that I might read purely for pleasure. His books are the force behind my constant quest for a good story that will, after I’ve met my daily deadlines, fed and put the kids to bed, and my husband and I have our reading lamps on, act as nothing more than a delicious reward.

Many have written that the key to the books’ enduring success was that Sobol would dissect each mystery on the back page, walking a reader through every clue.

To me, the draw also came from the series’ absence of clubbiness. There were disagreements, but no cliques. The central character was motivated by a straightforward decency. No character, that I remember, wore trendy clothes, exhibited snobbery or even referred to pop culture.

Sally was athletic and solid, so unlike the popular girls in the Sweet Valley High series or Judy Blume’s dark and questioning protagonists.

It said everything that each book was written as a stand-alone mystery, there was no need to read them in order or come to a book with knowledge of the character history.

I didn’t realize it then, but I now think I clung to such an inclusive style and the what-you-see-is-what-you-get characterizations at a time in my childhood when those qualities were slipping away from real life. I was passing into that age when relationships and social standing were becoming more complicated and dictated by unspoken rules and understandings.

Oh, but Sobol and his characters would have had no time for such analytical nonsense. They had work to do what with all the crime that needed solving in Idaville.

What was your favorite book growing up? Why?

Is it something you have or will share with your kids?

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By  |  11:59 AM ET, 07/17/2012

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