Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Encyclopedia Brown Creator Donald Sobel - A Tribute

LONG BEFORE STEVE JOBS, Encyclopedia Brown proved that being smart and working out of your garage could be very cool.

Donald Sobel, who died on July 16, was most famous for the Encyclopedia Brown mystery series. He never got rich but his works were translated into 12 languages, read by millions. Though stricken with cancer, he continued to write until the very last weeks of his life.

Like Jobs’ vision for apple, the premise of the Encyclopedia Brown books was simple but successful. In each chapter, boy genius Leroy Brown, known for his encyclopedic knowledge would be faced with a puzzle which he would inevitably solve. The clues to the solution came from clues embedded in the story and readers were invited to try their hand and see if they too could figure it out. The answers followed.

Sobol’s simple paradigm set up a vision of a world that was not often seen in the 1960s when he started writing or in the 1970s when I was reading them as a child. In popular culture, the athletes and beautiful girls ruled the roost; adults were in charge and underestimated children. But the world of Encyclopedia Brown invited children into an alternative universe.

Far from hiding his intelligence, Leroy Brown embraced it, gladly answering to the moniker that others had given him as a tribute to his capabilities. Encyclopedia not only embraced his smarts, he modeled how to know it all without ever being a know it all. Far from showing off or creating mischief, he used what he knew and observed to create a better world, one where being bad did not pay off.

Whereas much of the interest in children’s culture came from the battles between adults and children, or if the children were empowered, the adults were nowhere to be seen, Sobol showed us a world where parents and children respected each other and worked together against evil that existed beyond the dynamics of their relationship. Leroy’s father, Police Chief Brown, could often be found consulting with his son on unsolved crimes which were inevitably figured out by the end of the meal. Respectful interactions all round.

And then there was Sally. Like all good strong leads, Encyclopedia had a sidekick. But instead of creating a foil, Sobol gave him an equal in the form of Sally Kimball. Athletic and fearless, theirs was a partnership at a time when girls rarely got to play a central role. In a time when chivalry still ruled and before Title Nine, Encyclopedia relied on Sally’s brawn. Encyclopedia and Sally modeled the way relationships could be if everyone was allowed to be celebrated for his or her abilities and not threatened to share power.

Finally, in the fictional Idaville, the neither the crooks nor the bullies got away with bad behavior.

I have not seen anything to confirm that Sobol was Jewish or had a traditional Jewish background (though his personal history suggest he might have) but in many ways the world of Idaville lives up to a Jewish vision of a better world. Sobol’s world was hopeful and redemptive in its own way. He provided us with a model for being better than what we often saw, for celebrating our smarts and strength but only if we used them for good. And the interactive format, now so familiar, then so novel, invited us to become honorary citizens.

Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder is a dynamic Reform rabbi in the Bay Area. She's an alum of Clal's Rabbis Without Borders fellowship and you can follow her on Twitter at @RabbiRuth.