Donald J. Sobol dies: Author wrote popular ‘Encylopedia Brown’ series

Donald J. Sobol, a prolific author of children’s books, including the vastly popular mystery series starring Encyclopedia Brown — the crime-solving savant in high-tops, died July 11 at a hospital in South Miami. He was 87.

He had lymphoma, said a son, John Sobol.

Mr. Sobol was a newspaper reporter in New York before embarking on a literary career in the late 1950s. He wrote more than 60 children’s books on topics as varied as Medieval knights, the American Revolutionary War and the Wright Brothers.

None were more popular than the series he created in 1963 featuring the bookish protagonist Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown, the fifth-grade detective.

There was no case too small for Encyclopedia Brown, who earned his moniker for his superior intellect. From his office — a dinner table, actually — at 13 Rover Avenue in Idaville, Fla., Brown solved mysteries through his keen sense of observation and knowledge of obscure facts. (Brown knew, for instance, that a three letter word for a river in Switzerland beginning with “A” was “Aar.”)


Donald J. Sobol, a prolific author of children’s books, including the vastly popular mystery series starring Encylopedia Brown — the crime-solving savant in high-tops, died July 11 at a hospital in South Miami. He was 87. (Family Photo )

There were cases involving stolen marbles and missing violins, ghosts and masked robbers, and the 10-year-old hero solved them all in a fashion not unlike a famous British sleuth who smoked a pipe.

Encyclopedia Brown was, Mr. Sobol wrote, “America’s Sherlock Holmes in sneakers.”

Beginning with “Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective,” the series of more than two dozen books reportedly sold tens of millions of copies worldwide. In many of the stories, Encyclopedia Brown assists his father, the chief of police, in catching criminals.

“Although the stories are simply written, they are clever and fresh, and seldom obvious or easy to solve,” critic Christine McDonnell wrote in the reference work “Twentieth-century Children’s Writers.”

Mr. Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown series has been credited with helping attract young readers to the world of books. Even the most reluctant children have become enthralled with the stories. Those who pay careful attention to detail are rewarded by figuring out the mystery before its solution is revealed by Mr. Sobol at the back of the book.

Donald J. Sobol — the J was just an initial — was born Oct. 4, 1924, in New York, where his father owned gasoline stations. He was an Army veteran of World War II and a 1948 graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio.

“I am totally unqualified to be a writer,” Mr. Sobol once wrote. “My childhood was unimpoverished and joyful. Even worse, I loved and admired my parents.”

He worked as a copy boy for the New York Sun and as a reporter for the old Long Island Daily Press during the 1940s and 1950s. He later wrote a syndicated column, “Two Minute Mysteries,” which led to the Encyclopedia Brown series.

Survivors include his wife of 56 years, Rose Tiplitz Sobol of South Miami; three children, Diane Sobol of Coral Gables, Fla., Eric Sobol of Sarasota, Fla., and John Sobol of Berkeley Heights, N.J.; a sister; and four grandchildren. A son, Glenn Sobol, died in 1983.

Mr. Sobol’s innovative technique of explaining the mystery in the back of his books came as a result of a misfiled library book.

In an interview, John Sobol said his father was researching at a branch of the New York Public Library when the writer asked a librarian to bring him four books. Three of them were the correct ones but a fourth was the wrong title. The fourth happened to be a puzzle book with solutions in the back pages. The writer realized he could apply the same concept to his mysteries, his son said.

Mr. Sobol received a special “Edgar” award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1976 for his Encyclopedia Brown books.

“Readers constantly ask me if Encyclopedia Brown is a real boy. The answer is no,” Mr. 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.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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