The kid’s book series involving boy detective Encyclopedia Brown includes this description of the town of Idaville, the setting for the stories and home to Leroy Brown and his family:
Idaville was like most seaside towns. It had lovely beaches, three movie theaters, and two delicatessens. It had churches, a synagogue, and four banks
But, read enough of these cases and it all adds up to something: Idaville is not like most seaside towns as it has a lot of crime. Enough crime to fill 29 books with numerous cases in each. Crimes ranging from small violations to larger issues. Lots of different kinds of criminals.
This is not an unusual perspective on crime. Television shows often have a similar message, particularly if they are long-running: crime is happening all of the time. This has the potential to change how viewers understand crime and locations. If you see a particular place associated with criminal activity over and over, how much of an impact does this have?
Some of the other phrases in the intro to the cases provide further clues at how crime is perceived in Idaville and in these cases: “the forces of law and order were in control” and “the town’s war on crime.” Is this the normal experience of small towns or just how we often present mysteries and the work of police?
It is relatively easy to focus on the big-picture issues with COVID-19 without thinking too much about how so many daily routines have changed. Kids tend to like routine and children’s books help explain what kids and everyone else do.
Additionally, Richard Scarry’s original connected daily activities to a number of larger schemes including how people make money, various modes of travel, the construction of roads and houses, and the production of food, water, energy, and wood.
Maybe this is part of why I am a sociologist: these quotidian activities all add to something as well as reflect larger social forces at work. If culture is “patterns of meaning-making” as sociologists of culture argue, then even the mundane things are worth something. When these daily patterns change, they might signal something momentous, whether it is through personal maturation or changed life circumstances or global pandemics. Similarly, a big question coming out of COVID-19 is how much the disruptions from several months of shelter-in-place stick with people. For example, will people want to commute as much? Return to an office for work? Consume as much? And children who have new routines may carry these changes through many years and subsequent experiences.
From my point of view, the book performs multiple important tasks:
Shows a range of jobs and how they intersect. A community needs farmers, plumbers, train operators, people running paper mills, and so on in addition to the typical tales of police, firefighters, and medical personnel.
Shows all sorts of infrastructure including the production of electricity and water as well as building roads, using fire to put out fires, and how to build a house.
Introduces economic principles. For example, the first story traces the path of money as producers sell goods to retailers and then how those producers might use the money they received.
The book has a good balance of instruction and whimsy. There is much for kids to learn here as well as wacky situations such as Huckle ending up in the cockpit for landing an airplane and the various adventures of Lowly Worm.
Children prominently feature in the stories, even if they are not the main characters, which helps give them a sense of contributing to the work going on around them.
Admittedly, the book has its quirks. The architecture is unusual – I usually think it matches French Canadian architecture (and I have little exposure to this outside of a few trips to Montreal). The characters can conform to stereotype. I’m thinking of Mommy Cat who receives a new dress because she works so hard at home. Some of the characters are simply strange – what does Wild Bill Hiccup do outside of serving as town eccentric? There must be some important community roles that are left out – no mention of religious groups? Leisure activities? Garbage collection? Truck drivers?
Yet, the informative stories, depictions of community life, and recurring characters mean that I keep enjoying this book.