I am one of those people who finds comfort in reading about food. The first of these kinds of stories to appeal to me was Bread and Jam for Frances.
This picture book, by Russell Hoban with illustrations by Lillian Hoban, features an anthropomorphic badger named Frances. Russell Hoban wrote six Frances books between 1960 and 1970 that were based loosely on the antics of his four children and their friends. Bread and Jam was first published in 1964.
The story opens with the badger family sitting the breakfast table. Mother, father, and baby sister consume soft-boiled eggs, which they talk up in an effort to get the older daughter, Frances, to vary her diet.
Frances prefers her bread and jam, and she sings little songs about her favorite food rather than acknowledging her family. Later, she refuses the veal cutlets, string beans, and baked potatoes at dinner, and reveals that she traded her chicken salad at lunch for—well, you know.
The next day the entire family has poached eggs on toast—the entire family, except for Frances. Her mother serves Frances her preferred meal. At lunch, her friend Albert has a sandwich, a hard boiled eggs AND a cardboard salt shaker (handy!), fruit, and custard. Frances discovers that her mother has packed bread and jam again. She watches Albert eat. When she goes out to the playground, she sings and plays with little energy. After school, her mother serves her a snack of bread and jam.
It’s the spaghetti and meatballs, however, that really break our badger friend and make her decide to eat something other than bread and jam.
I find it funny that young me decided to settle into a seat at the library and read and reread Bread and Jam for Frances.
I did not like jam, or most sweet things, when I was a child. I didn’t enjoy soft-boiled eggs, grapes, or black olives—all foods that people (badgers) eat in this book. My mother mostly cooked variations of Chinese/Taiwanese dishes, so I didn’t know what a breaded veal cutlet was, nor had I tasted custard. Moreover, I was a picky eater who would gaze at a huge party table filled with fancy foods and then ask for a piece of toast.
But I did like to read about food. I went through the other Frances books, all of which contain bountiful feasts. I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy and still remember passages about popcorn, pound cake, and other delights.
Eventually, I got over my fussiness, tasted many of the things I’d previously only read about—and started to enjoy those that I’d hated as a kid. I still like to seek out books about food. In fact, recently, when the news got to be too much, I opened up the New York Public library website and searched under for fiction with the keyword “cake.” I needed something that would go down easy. I figured that a book that featured something beautiful and sweet would be just the thing.
But I wasn’t actually eating cake myself—I didn’t even particularly want any. I just wanted to read about other people making cake, or maybe eating it. And then, I began to wonder why.
Of course, Bread and Jam for Frances isn’t really about bread and jam.
We don’t even learn what flavor of jam Frances likes; Lillian Hoban’s illustrations depict a reddish-pinkish splotch in the middle of a slice of white. Maybe it’s raspberry, maybe it’s rhubarb, maybe it’s the blood of fairies. We just don’t know. What matters more is the fact that in eating it, Frances is flouting the rhythms of her family’s life by rejecting what is on offer at meal times.
By contrast, Frances’s post-bread and jam lunch is both rich and orderly:
“I have a thermos bottle with cream of tomato soup,” she said.And a lobster-salad sandwich on thin slices of white bread.I have celery, carrot sticks, and black olives,and a little cardboard shaker of salt for the celery.And two plums and a tiny basket of cherries.And vanilla pudding with chocolate sprinklesand a spoon to eat it with.”“That’s a good lunch,” said Albert.
This is a very sophisticated lunch, Albert! Frances goes from a white bread and sugary jam to black olives and lobster salad. She even sets out a doily and a small vase of violets.
What’s also interesting is that this is mostly a list; it tells us nothing about how the food tastes. We don’t learn that the lobster salad is tangy or crunchy, or that the cherries are ripe and juicy and their flavor dances on the tongue—because that is beside the point. The main description of eating is about how methodical Frances’s consumption of her food is; the last words of the book are “she made the lobster-salad sandwich, the celery, the carrot sticks, and the olives come out even.”
What matters is not the food itself, but the system. Frances takes one measured bite of everything, one after another. Her lunch—the flowers, the doily, the arrangement and recitation of items—is meticulous and perfect, and so is her method of eating it.
Frances eating her lunch isn’t about food—it’s about the restoration of order. Something as unruly as appetite—as hunger and desire—can be sated, arranged, brought to heel.
Or maybe it is about the food, too. While I was writing this, my daughter nabbed Bread and Jam for Frances. Then, she wanted a soft-boiled egg for lunch—two, actually. She also asked for one for breakfast the next morning. Each time, it was my pleasure to remember the book, to be able to provide this small bit of comfort and satisfaction to her life.
At my first parent-teacher conference at my daughter’s kindergarten, one of the newer instructors asked me why my daughter would often re-read books that were “too easy” for her.
My daughter was already a strong reader by then. She’d taught herself, although we didn’t know about her new skill until sometime before her third birthday; she held up a cup at a restaurant, pointed to the words, and told us, “This says, Have fun.”
It did say, Have fun. We rushed through dinner and zipped home so that I could hold up magazines and novels and point to random (easy) words to ask her what they were. By the end of the evening, we had confirmed that she knew how to read.
There was no stopping her after tha—no.
That’s not true.
That makes it sound like it was never-ending progress: a rush toward fluency and proficiency when it was not like that at all.
Yes, every day, month, and year, she read harder, more complicated things. But as that teacher noted, she would also go back and re-read books—picture books, board books, books without words. She went forward. She went back. She re-read more than she read. We didn’t push her; she was in charge of her pace. The main thing that we did was to make sure there was always something for her to read. We took her to bookstores and libraries. We let her pick out and renew what interested her. We read to her when that was what she wanted. We left her alone when she needed that, too.
It didn’t occur to us to do anything different. So when the teacher asked us why—more out of curiosity than judgment—why my daughter re-read so often, I was surprised. I muttered something about familiar books being comforting, and the teacher seemed content with that. It never occurred to me to tell my daughter not to re-read. I had done the same as a child, too. And for me, yes, re-reading was a way to soothe myself. But re-reading was also a way of marking how much I had learned.
The text of a book doesn’t change—most of the time. A couple of authors have on occasion gone back to update details. (For example, Judy Blume altered a scene in later editions of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret so that the protagonist used stick-on maxi pads instead of the belt and fastener that was prevalent when her classic children’s novel was first published in 1970.)
But for the most part, what changes is not the book, but the reader.
There are the jokes written for adults (by adults) in stories meant for children that most kids aren’t likely to find funny until later. Or there are the scenes where there are emotional currents that children—the protagonists of the book and maybe the young reader—don’t necessarily understand.
For example, I was reading middle-grade writer Susan Tan’s latest book, Cilla Lee-Jenkins: This Book Is a Classic recently, and came across this passage:
Until right as I was about to put together the triceratops’s tail, I heard a conversation that made me stop and pay attention.
They were still talking about the wedding. And my mom said, “Just remember, this is your day. All that matters is you and Paul. Everyone else will deal.”
“Yeah,” my dad said. “Also the trick is knowing how to manage Mom. She can be a handful, but you just have to know how to keep her happy.”
“That’s easy for you to say, big brother,” Auntie Eva said. “You’re the son—you just have to show up and be yourself and you’ll make Mom and Dad happy. I have to be perfect…”
Cilla is an optimistic, aspiring writer. She’s in third grade and happens to be biracial. Her beloved aunt is about to get married, and the event brings out tensions in the family that Cilla doesn’t quite understand. Adults may be able to unpack all that’s going on, but Cilla’s confusion—her growing knowledge that the grown-ups see all of the events of life quite differently—mirrors the younger reader’s. In a way, the fact that this book may be understood on more than one level means that this book is meant to be remembered and re-read.
But of course, sometimes, re-reading doesn’t make a book seem better.
This column, of course, is all about re-reading. It’s about looking at how books shaped me, and also at how my perception of those books has changed now that I’m an adult. At times it has been a delight and a comfort to greet my old friends. Sometimes it has been painful but rewarding. Sometimes it’s been shit.
Recently, my husband was flipping through the channels when he happened upon an episode of The Golden Girls, a classic NBC sitcom that ran from 1985 to 1992. As soon as I saw it, I said something about how often I’d watched the show in re-runs after school. I remembered watching TV in the basement, eating peanut butter sandwiches. I was a latchkey kid and spent hours alone except for books and the television. I knew even then that the show wasn’t perfect, but in a lot of ways it didn’t matter. It was a comforting place where I could settle.
Of course—of course—as soon as I said something about this to my husband, the following happened onscreen:
Teacher Dorothy, played by the great Bea Arthur, is doing roll call for her adult education class. She says, “Jim Shu.” No one answers. She says, “Oh, very funny. Gym shoe.”
Then an Asian man, played by Ralph Ahn, stands up and says, “I am Jim Shu.”
Dorothy apologizes profusely. She explains, “I thought someone was pulling my leg.”
Jim Shu looks at her up at down and says, “I don’t think I could drink that much sake.”
The live studio audience laughs wildly, even though the line doesn’t really make any sense. Also, sake is Japanese, Jim Shu is probably Chinese, but who can tell the difference? LOL ASIANS AND THEIR FUNNY-SOUNDING NAMES FOR THEMSELVES AND THINGS.
It was like a kick in the stomach. But at the time I first saw it, I probably thought I should laugh along. Even while sitting alone in the basement.
I guess it’s a measure of what a person I’ve become—Oh, look how I’ve grown—when the space for comfort is no longer comfortable.
And I don’t wish that the children’s books I’ve re-read as an adult were different, nor do I wish to unlearn what I know now in order to feel soothed by old, familiar fictional people and places.
But if I did have to do it over again, I might answer my daughter’s teacher a different way. If she asked why my daughter returned to books that were too easy for her, I would tell her that in re-reading, my child was exploring the spaces she’d been in, furnishing them with new knowledge. And in doing so, she was asking if she needed more.
The Calvin and Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book by Bill Watterson is one of the few books I’ve kept from my childhood.
The book was a compilation of full-color, multi-panel Sunday strips from Watterson’s iconic cartoon, which ran from 1985 to 1995. At one point I had all of the Calvin and Hobbes collections. I don’t know how or where I lost them. My copy of the Lazy Sunday Book is now falling apart.
The strip is about a boy, Calvin, and his stuffed/real tiger, Hobbes. Hobbes is inquisitive, often hungry, more cerebral than his companion, more inclined to inject a note of caution. He’s also very much a cat. Calvin is an intelligent, reckless, and not unfocused boy; but it’s clear that he prefers to keep his attention to his own imaginative world, which puts him at odds with the one his parents live in. Only Calvin sees Hobbes as a real tiger—his parents and most of the people around him see Hobbes as a stuffed animal; the strip plays off the tension between Calvin’s elaborate fantasies and the “real” things happening behind it. When Calvin plays Spaceman Spiff, he soaks his neighbor/classmate/enemy Susie Derkins (who is at first drawn as a huge bug-eyed alien) with a ray gun that turns out to be a water pistol. In another strip, we’re shown a dinosaur chomping through his meal—until Calvin’s mother yells at him to use better table manners; then we see a Tyrannosaurus Rex shamefacedly eating with a fork and knife, knobby elbows tucked in.
I loved Calvin and Hobbes from the day the first black-and-white strip appeared in my childhood local newspaper, The Winnipeg Free Press. (Wikipedia tells me this day was November 18, 1985.)
My parents subscribed to the Free Press, which had a full-page black-and-white comics spread on weekdays and a color funny paper on Sundays. Along with Calvin and Hobbes, I read Peanuts, Cathy, Bloom County, and many others; I was so devoted to the funnies that when I went away to university, my parents saved great piles of them, and even though I told them they didn’t need to do so, I’d go through those when I came back home, too.
I loved Watterson’s illustrations, which, depending on the bent of Calvin’s imagination, looked like lush watercolors or saturated, eye-popping 1950s superhero comics. He plays with perspective in some panels, and in others he tries styles of art from different periods. And always, the dialog is smart, funny—sometimes heartbreaking.
I didn’t always identify with Calvin. (As a child, I was more of a Susie Derkins.) I enjoyed Calvin—his creativity and his intelligence. But despite that, Watterson never hides how difficult Calvin is. He’s hard on babysitters (and his babysitter is also hard on him). He’s greedy, mischievous. He isn’t a kid who gets As on his report card. Sometimes, he sits at his desk dreaming. Often, he gets in trouble with his teacher, Miss Wormwood.
Maybe at the time, I gave a thought to why such a smart kid had so much trouble at school, why he had no non-tiger friends. Only now do I begin also to think about Calvin’s frustration—all the characters’ frustrations, really.
Calvin’s dad is a enthusiast of the outdoors and cold weather; he bikes to work at his corporate job—and comes homes to chaos and disappointment. In one strip, he goes out early on his boat during vacation. “This is the life! A brisk swim at dawn, a morning out on the boat.” But when he returns with a freshly caught fish, Calvin’s mother sits bleary-eyed at the table and says, “You eat your dead animals. All I want is some coffee.” Calvin complains that there is no TV on this holiday. The dad’s balloon is punctured.
Calvin’s mom is a sharp woman who is clearly not willing to be an acquiescent, smiling spouse. She’s often exasperated by her difficult kid. And Calvin’s neighbor/enemy Susie Derkins is a rule-following, at times anxious perfectionist who has big ambitions. One time, when Calvin does ask Susie to play, she takes over: “OK, we’ll play house now. I’ll be the high-powered executive wife. The tiger here can be my unemployed housekeeping husband…” Calvin immediately regrets inviting Susie, but oblivious, she takes off, saying, “I’m off to Wall Street. Don’t wait up.”
At other times, Susie’s annoyance with Calvin often ironically results in her abandoning decorum and rules as she explodes over his antics.
In all of the human characters in the strip, there is a mismatch between their ideals and what they have right now: the dad would like a more outdoorsy, enthusiastic family; the mom would like a more sedate life; Susie has a clear vision of what she will do in the future and worries about how she can put herself on the right path now. And Calvin—well, the whole strip is really about how in real life a six-year-old is pretty powerless—forced to take baths when adults make them, told to sit in school instead of being allowed to have space adventures.
I find myself more in sympathy with Calvin now.
Childhood can be lonely and frustrating. Kids are stuck in an adult reality learning rules that don’t seem to make sense, conventions that people already seem to know—or assume one should know. I don’t blame Calvin for taking to his own worlds, despite the havoc that he wreaks on the adults and other people in his life. At this point, I probably have more in common with Calvin’s parents than with the kids. But paging through Bill Watterson’s Lazy Sunday Book, I laugh out loud at Calvin and Hobbes’s quips, I marvel at the illustrations, and I find myself remembering and holding onto my enjoyment for just a minute longer—just another minute—before Monday morning comes.
As a child, I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books.
I began them when I started third grade. When people ask about formative books, I think first of this series: of these books that I read when I walked around the house, that I carried to the dinner table, that I pored over during recess, and that I bugged my teacher to put on her curriculum even as the school year was ending. But I put off writing about them for a long time as it seems that I can’t bring myself to re-read them.
I still can’t.
Wilder’s semi-autobiographical children’s novels follow the pioneering Ingalls family as they move from Wisconsin (Little House in the Big Woods) to territory that was in reality an Osage Indian reservation in Kansas (Little House on the Prairie). The family then departs for Walnut Grove, Minnesota (On the Banks of Plum Creek), where they live in a house made of sod, then to De Smet, South Dakota, the setting of By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years. One book, Farmer Boy, follows the childhood adventures of Almanzo, Wilder’s husband, as he tends to livestock, does chores, eats cake, and tries to get along with siblings in upstate New York. The Ingalls family (and the Wilders) sew their own clothes, endure blizzards, illness, and locusts, and still manage to find love, and joy, and adventure with family.
I say that the books are semi-autobiographical because despite the fact that the main character has Wilder’s name and the family travels roughly along the same paths that Wilder’s family did, the novels are very much fiction. Liberties were taken with Wilder’s real life story. And to a certain extent, this is acknowledged. Little House in the Big Woods, after all, opens like this:
Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.
The book has the opening for a fairy tale, with one solid fact thrown in—sixty years. Reception of the series—and certainly my feelings about it when I was young—concentrated on the harsh pioneer life, on details about playing ball with a pig’s bladder or making a doll out of a corn cob. I know I also identified with the setting of the story because I lived in the flat, cold middle of Canada (albeit in a city, in a house with indoor plumbing and heating). I know I also wanted to be resourceful and plucky, like the Ingalls family. I wanted to make my own bread, sew my own clothes, churn butter, and plant things.
(Basically, I wanted to do crafts and ride in horse-drawn buggies—but to have other modern conveniences.)
More recently, however, writers and scholars have turned their attention to the fictive-ness of the books—and to the mythmaking. Some memorable characters, the handsome Cap Garland, for example, are made up. More important, Pa Ingalls’s reasons for dragging his family across large swathes of Kansas and the Dakotas are elided. Pa Ingalls and his family weren’t benign settlers pitting their ingenuity against the dangerous wild; they were invading Native American territories. They had to do it on their own because they weren’t supposed to be there.
Indeed, Caroline’s Fraser’s 2017 book, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, looks at the ways that Wilder’s books not only diverged from the realities of her life but made that life into one of the shaping narratives of American identity. The book also examines how Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, a follower of Ayn Rand, extensively rewrote her mother’s books, often twisting facts to reflect Obectivist values.
But Fraser’s is only the latest in a series of sources that made me re-examine my feelings about the series. Among those:
Louis Erdrich’s books Birchbark House books, written from the perspective of Native Americans and set at around the same time as Wilder’s books;
Scholar Debbie Reese’s blog, “American Indians in Children’s Literature,” in which she talks about the depiction of Native Americans in the Little House series and in other books. This is just one example.
It was a conversation about Wilder’s books that Dr. Reese shared on Twitter that initially made me question what kinds of books from my childhood I wanted to give to my own child (which I talked about here) and, more important, why exactly I wanted to share them.
Does reading the Little House books lead to a greater understanding of history? Not on their own. Would it lead to my daughter understanding me or my life better?
Would it bring us closer?
If that were true, would this I want this particular story connecting us?
I am at a loss. I don’t know how to reconcile my memories, my newer knowledge, and my feelings about what is best to do right now. I have been told I should talk these issues out with kids, but so far I haven’t mentioned Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series to my daughter. I’m not actively hiding them. But I’ve chosen to put different books in front of her and to have her explore what she likes on her own. In any case, it’s likely that she’ll encounter them without my interference. She’ll be older.
By then, I hope I’ll be better prepared to talk about them.
In fourth grade, I read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel The Secret Garden. I owned a mint-green Dell Yearling paperback copy that I must have bought with my allowance money. It was a book that likely inspired my childish love of the idea of England, of the idea of gardens and nature.
In The Secret Garden, ten-year-old Mary Crawford is sent to England after her parents die in a cholera epidemic in India. She finds herself at the Yorkshire estate of her uncle Archibald, a widower with a tragic past.
Mary is described as an unpleasant child: sallow, thin, spoiled, unsmiling. She is used to ordering people about and having no other children to play with. But once she’s in Yorkshire, the maid Martha begins telling her tales of her family, especially her mother and Martha’s animal-loving brother, Dickon. Mary soon finds herself shunted outside to play, where she befriends a robin and grumpy gardener Ben Weatherstaff, and learns about a secret enclosed flower garden on the estate. Being outdoors improves Mary’s physical stamina and mental outlook: she starts running around and jumping rope. And once she finds the key and the door to the secret garden, she begins poking around in the earth.
She also meets Dickon and, later, her ten-year-old cousin, Colin, an invalid whose cries echo through the manor. She soon gets Colin out of the house and into the garden. Being outdoors enacts a transformation of Colin’s health and gives him a channel for his autocratic tendencies. Soon the children are running around singing, chanting, and speaking odes to the healing magic—sorry, capital M Magic—of “plain” English food, English weather, and English gardens.
Frances Hodgson Burnett was born in England in 1849 but spent a large portion of her adult life in the United States—moving first with her family to Knoxville, Tennessee, then Washington, DC, and ending her days in Plandome Manor on Long Island in 1924.
In addition to The Secret Garden, she was best known for her children’s novels Little Lord Fauntleroy and A Little Princess. Burnett was also a prolific author of plays, serials, and novels for adults. Her work was successful enough that she was able to spend time in Paris, across Europe, and at a home in Bermuda where she wintered. She also became interested in Christian Science, Spiritualism, and Theosophy, and the effects of those beliefs can be seen especially in the last quarter of The Secret Garden.
As a kid, I remember skipping over those “spiritual” sections a lot, although I can’t say it affected my enjoyment of the book. Our Language Arts teacher, Mrs. Stephenson, had similar feelings when showed us what I think was probably the 1975 BBC miniseries adaptation. She said she liked it, although she mentioned the magical-spiritual garden stuff being very hokey.
Hokey is perhaps not the word I’d use today.
I’d love to say that tiny Mindy read The Secret Garden and was able to identify the shitty colonial ideology of the book.
But no, the opposite happened: the book helped make me an Anglophile in my stupid, stupid youth. I loved this idealized version of England with chatty robins and wild animals tamely following Dickon around the moors. I tried to speak with a Yorkshire accent. I wanted to like things described in the book, such as good thick porridge (even though in reality I didn’t like porridge, unless it was Taiwanese rice porridge), currant buns (I disliked currants), the chilly outdoor air (we were in Canada and it was often more than chilly), and running around in it (no). I even wanted to like gardening, though in my personal experience my parents’ and grandparents’ suburban Canadian vegetable patch was pretty terrible and certainly didn’t involve sweet-smelling flowers or fresh healthy air. Clearly I was willing and able to endure a lot of cognitive dissonance around the realities of what I liked and wanted in life versus the ideals described in The Secret Garden.
One thing I could not love even as a child, however, was Colin. And on re-reading the book, well … if anything, he’s worse.
It is very clear to me as an adult how much love and attention the narrator lavishes on Colin. He is often described as “beautiful.” He has a “beautiful smile.” He’s “quite beautiful in spite of his thinness.” His eyes are “beautiful” and strange, and he has long, thick lashes.
Despite not being introduced until the second half of the story, he takes over most of it; Mary—remember Mary? The girl we start off following and the one who finds the whole damn secret garden?—has no more than a few lines of dialogue in the last quarter of the story. Colin, by contrast, talks for pages and pages.
“The Magic in this garden has made me stand up and know I am going to live to be a man,” Colin says at one point.
After spouting off in kind for a few more paragraphs, he has Ben Weatherstaff, Mary, and Dickon sitting cross-legged in a circle with him:
“Now we will begin,” he said. “Shall we sway backward and forward, Mary, as if we were dervishes?”
“I canna’ do no swayin’ back’ard and for’ard,” said Ben Weatherstaff. “I’ve got the ’rheumatics.”
“The Magic will take them away,” said Colin in a High Priest tone, “but we won’t sway until it has done it. We will only chant.”
Colin becomes the expert on Magic—even though he’s not the one who came up with the idea. But Dickon and Mary and Ben Weatherstaff accept his leadership. He’s a budding cult leader, complete with questionable medical ideas, “beautiful”/hypnotic eyes, and an imperious manner.
In Colin the most annoying parts of Burnett’s spiritual-colonial enterprise are personified. The boy is often also described as a “the young Rajah.” Mary says:
Once in India I saw a boy who was a Rajah. He had rubies and emeralds and diamonds stuck all over him. He spoke to his people just as you spoke to Martha. Everybody had to do everything he told them—in a minute. I think they would have been killed if they hadn’t.
The “Rajah” epithet sticks because Colin is bossy as fuck. He is the master of the house while his father is away—and never stops reminding people of the fact. But what does it mean that Colin is continually compared to a young, spoiled non-Englishtyrant, when in fact, being cooped up in England on his own estate has made him the dictator that he is?
In the characterization of Colin, we run up against the fact that so much of the book depends on comparing India unfavorably with England, even as the book exploits Indian things that it finds convenient. The children cobble together a spiritual practice by referring to animal charmers, “fakirs,” transplanting Mary’s childish colonial cultural observations and bits from Colin’s books, mixing in the idea of the pastoral, and trying to mash all of these things into a kind of magical—sorry, capital M Magical—English-ness.
I live in Manhattan now, in an apartment.
My upstairs neighbors are renovating, so all morning I’ve been trying to write some sort of conclusion to this piece between the whines of drilling and the thump of a sledgehammer being taken to the walls. My life is the opposite of bucolic, and at times like these, I find myself wanting to agree with Frances Hodgson Burnett—an Anglo-American, city-loving socialite writer—that there is no location more magical and desirable than a great, green garden in England.
But that place is largely a myth—a nation-building tale from another time—and I don’t think the the rulers of that place would particularly welcome me.
I used to think of Encyclopedia Brown mystery stories as logical, serious, and solveable. I probably also believed in a tidy universe. On re-reading, I realize that I was completely and utterly wrong. I missed the humor, I didn’t see the absurdity, and I completely mistook the tone. And, as it turns out, I was probably also wrong about the universe.
The long-running series by Donald J. Sobol followed a set formula: the reader would be introduced to an eccentric citizen of Idaville who would bring a case to our boy sleuth, Encyclopedia Brown. The victim would give a summary of what had happened, or confront a suspected villain who would protest and counter with a story of their own.
Encyclopedia might ask a question or two, and then he’d announce that he had solved the case. The reader could try to logic it out or choose to flip to the back of the book and learn about the one telling detail that had tipped Encyclopedia off.
Encyclopedia Brown stories could always be solved; that was the promise.
In Sobol’s volume Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Treasure Hunt (1988), the young sleuth helps his dad, the chief of the Idaville police, determine whether a thief has made off with some antique screens. He helps a boy recover a pizza (or at least the money for it) from bully Bugs Meany. With the aid of his henchwoman, Sally Kimball, he finds a treasure hunt cheater, gets a stolen camera back, and helps a junior artist friend win a contest. He discovers a tree thief, a toilet paper thief, a tent saboteur, and a worm-wrangling huckster.
What I liked about the books as a fifth grader was that they contained the possibility of solving the cases oneself. They were a refreshing change from the Nancy Drew books (which I now see are adventure/suspense stories that are insistently framed as mysteries).
Instead of a presenting a capricious, dangerous universe where solving a case involved being in the right place at the right time, the world of Encyclopedia Brown seemed to posit some sort of order—an order that I could control. I was a child (just like Encyclopedia!), and I could solve a mystery by reading carefully and critically! I even had a degree of power over the narrative itself. I could turn to the end of the book and find out the solution—I could choose to see the conclusion—or I could read the next story. Because of the physical act of flipping to the end for the solution and then shuffling back for another story, it was a little bit like a choose-your-own-adventure, a kind of book that was popular when I was young. But in spirit, Sobol’s stories were the complete opposite. In choose-your-own-adventure, the narrator often ended up dead. In Encyclopedia Brown, everything turned out fine:
In police stations across the United States, the same question was asked again and again.
Why did every grown-up or child who broke the law in Idaville get caught?
Every case in Idaville was solved. Encyclopedia Brown books were not perilous, they were not fraught. No one died. Encyclopedia didn’t even get a bloody nose, thanks to his muscled henchwoman, Sally. The universe of those books seemed orderly, and thus reassuring both in subject and in tone. For years, long after I’d stopped reading the Encyclopedia Brown books, I held them in my mind as straightforward, maybe even utilitarian. My young self wasn’t there for the prose; I was there to solve some problems.
Encyclopedia’s real name is Leroy, my husband likes to note. He enjoys imagining a world where Encyclopedia grows up to become Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.
After re-reading as an adult, I find it increasingly plausible that Encyclopedia would hie off to Chicago and become a surly brawler. Because, contrary to my impression, Encyclopedia Brown books are not completely logical or straightforward. Law, order, and logic do not reign at the end of the day. They never did. Here are some of the citizens we encounter in Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Treasure Hunt:
“The last customer Monday was Farnsworth Grant. Farnsworth, who was ten, had founded the Idaville Flat Earth Association”
“Orson Merriweather had always wanted to be a tree…he put out The Social Directory of Big Trees.”
“Wilford Wiggins was a high-school dropout and too lazy to walk in his sleep.”
“When he felt up to it Encyclopedia dropped in on Lathrop McPhee. Lathrop had the largest collection of toilet paper in Idaville.”
That last quotation in particular highlights Encyclopedia’s subtle-but-insistent exasperation with his eccentric fellow citizens—“When he felt up to it”—and shows some of the absurdity that the young sleuth is dealing with. (Idaville is said to be in Florida, and this set of characters reminds me of Florida Man joke headlines.)
In another story, Encyclopedia barely keeps it together around the person he’s helping, Pablo Pizzaro, “Idaville’s greatest child artist.” Pablo’s work Bumps on a Log aapparently took fifth grade by storm:
Encyclopedia thought Bumps on a Log was small potatoes. He dared not say so, however, in front of Sally. She became fluttery whenever she was near Pablo.
While watching Pablo’s rival paint, Encyclopedia thinks, “Sailboat in Motion might be instant art, but it was the worst picture he had ever seen.” And later, “His eyes hurt from watching Sailboat in Motion take shape. He staggered off in search of relief.”
In this re-reading Encyclopedia is less kid genius, more a person striving to be levelheaded while being surrounded by illogical, somewhat ridiculous (but often lovable) people; judging by the way he behaves in Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Treasure Hunt, the pressure is starting to get to him. The title for this volume could have been Encyclopedia Brown and Life’s Rich Tapestry, or possibly, Encyclopedia Brown Is Somewhat Tired of This Shit.
I mean, he is a child solving the cases that his dad, the friggin’ Chief of Police, can’t crack. If that isn’t topsy-turvy, I don’t know what is.
Then again, remembering back to how I felt about Encyclopedia when I was myself a kid, I know that I forgave this lapse in plausibility. The idea of a young person solving mysteries was delightful.
So I go back and forth. When I was a child, I needed Encyclopedia Brown to be comforting, solid. I wanted to think that problems could be solved—and that’s what I got. As an adult, I don’t have that certainty; I’ve become someone else. But it seems on re-reading that the books have been something else all along.