Allison's Book Bag

Author of the Encyclopedia Brown Series

Posted on: May 7, 2015

Over the course of Donald J. Sobol’s career, he has written a number of different kinds of books for young audiences, but he is best known for his Encyclopedia Brown detective series which began in 1963. Over the years, Encyclopedia Brown became one of the most famous young detectives created in fiction. According to NY Times, the series made bookworms of many a reluctant young reader. In 1976, Sobol won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for the Encyclopedia Brown series.

Sobol also wrote at least 65 books on a variety of topics from history and biography to long fiction and fun facts. Other famous series of Sobol’s included a Two–Minute mystery syndicated column. Sobol’s books have been translated into 12 languages and have sold millions of copies worldwide. NY Times reports that Sobol continued to write every day until a month or so before his death. Notable Biographies quotes Sobol as once saying, “I took on writing as a lifetime career on the supposition that I would write until I fell over at the typewriter.”

PERSONAL BACKGROUND

Born in 1924, Sobol and his siblings had a happy childhood growing up in New York City. NY Times notes that the middle initial of J. apparently didn’t stand for anything. His father owned gas stations, which he later sold to Standard Oil.

Growing up, Sobol attended the Ethical Culture Schools and graduated from the Fieldston School. He spent his youth being interested in baseball. Notable Biographies quotes Sobol as declaring himself not being as smart as his creation, Encyclopedia Brown.

Soon after Sobol graduated in 1942, he joined the U.S. Army and fought in World War II. A member of the Army’s Corp of Engineers, he served in the Pacific Theater and in Europe.

After his discharge from the Army in 1946, Sobol returned to the United States and entered Oberlin College in Ohio. While a student at the small college, Sobol became interested in writing when he took a short story writing class.

His professor encouraged Sobol in his writing, but Sobol still harbored dreams of playing professional baseball. It took several years before Sobol made fiction writing the focus of his career.

After graduation, Sobol returned to New York City where he landed his first job, that of being a copy boy for New York Sun. He was soon promoted and became a writer for the paper. Thus, began a stretch where Sobol worked as a writer, sometimes for newspapers and other times for magazines. He also continued his education at New York City’s New School for Social Research.

In 1955, Sobol married Rose Tiplitz, an engineer and writer. The couple had four children.

According to Publisher’s Weekly, the lure of becoming a book author was strong. At age thirty, Sobol quit newspaper work and began writing full-time. The result was more than 80 books for children and young adults, including several works of nonfiction. Sobol died 2010 in South Miami, in his late eighties.

WRITING BACKGROUND

Sobol’s first books were historical in nature. He also had a syndicated column that was published internationally between 1959 and 1968. Called Two–Minute Mysteries, it was Sobol’s first mystery series. Sometimes Sobol employed the help of his wife.
In 1963, Sobol turned from these primarily non–fictional topics to mysteries, and published his first Encyclopedia Brown book. Notable Biographies states that the book was rejected by 26 publishers before it was accepted by T. Nelson who only insisted on a few changes. Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective received praise from the first.

One of the appealing features of the titles is that they each contain 10 mysteries that readers are encouraged to solve; the answers are located at the back of the book. Publisher’s Weekly says this formatting idea came to Sobol when he was doing research at the New York Public Library. A desk clerk mistakenly handed him a puzzle book—featuring puzzles on one side of a page, and solutions on the other—instead of the title he had requested.

Encyclopedia Brown never ages and never charges more than 25 cents an hour for his detective services. Publisher’s Weekly  reports that Sobol once said that his famous character was not inspired by any real boy, but  “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 ten.”

Apparently, Sobol wanted each book to stand alone, so that children could start with any book in the series and read the series in any order. NY Times shares the books included characters named for Mr. Sobol’s children and their friends. In addition, the town of Idaville was named for Sobel’s mother and another town, Glennville, was named for a son who died in a car accident in 1983 at the age of 23.

Sobol later used the Encyclopedia Brown name on a number of nonfiction books featuring facts for young readers. Among the first was 1981’s Encyclopedia Brown’s Second Record Book of Weird and Wonderful Facts. Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown books were also adapted for television in 1989. Later, Encyclopedia Brown: The Boy Detective aired as a television movie on HBO. The series was also adapted by others for film strips and comic strips.

Notable Biographies shares the interesting trivia that soon after the television movie aired, Sobol’s readers caught a mistake he made in his first Encyclopedia Brown book. In 1990, first and second grade readers at a Philadelphia elementary school asked Sobol to explain how in one mystery, the villain was able to slip a boiled egg into a carton of fresh eggs that were purchased at a grocery store by the contestants of an egg–spinning contest before they were used. Sobol admitted the oversight and added a correction in subsequent editions of the book.

Though Sobol continued to produce Encyclopedia Brown books regularly over the years, he continued to create other series as well. In 1967, he began the book series that shared the same title as his earlier syndicated column, Two–Minute Mysteries, featuring a character named Dr. Haledijian who solved crimes. Other mystery books that Sobol wrote included 1981’s Angie’s First Case, which featured a young female detective.

Sobol continued to work late in his life on the Encyclopedia Brown series and other works. He still wrote 40 hours a week while in his late 70s. He had files of clues and solutions for future mysteries yet to be written. Sobol also read a lot for himself, to find further ideas for clues. Notable Biographies quotes Sobol as stating the aim of his books as: “Outwitting you, the reader, is hard, but harder still is making you laugh. I try above all else to entertain. Yes, it is nice to have a message, too. And I have one. It is that all men are brothers….”

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