12 April 2011


Reading Diary: The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner

They were just in time. . . They rolled the door shut and then it really began to rain . . . The children could hear it on the top of the boxcar, but no rain came in.

"What a good place this is!" said Violet. "It is just like a warm little house with one room."

After awhile the rain and lightning and thunder stopped, and the wind did not blow so hard. Then Henry opened the door and looked out. All the children looked out into the woods. The sun was shining, but some water still fell from the trees. In front of the boxcar a pretty little brook ran over the rocks, with a waterfall in it.

"What a beautiful place!" said Violet.

"Henry!" cried Jessie. "Let's live here!"

That "updated" 70s cover always makes me cringe. It's the main reason I passed this book over for years. I don't know how I overlooked it two weeks ago, while helping one of my ESL tutees find a summer read that was both appropriate for her level and not challenging in the wrong way. (Too many "easy" MG and YA novels have too much slang or too many references to the pop culture of a country she has never visited.) And it turns out that one mustn't judge a book by you-know-what, inasmuch the story of the four Alden orphans, who must work and set up housekeeping for themselves, has proven to be just the thing.

And did you know that Gertrude Chandler Warner was also a teacher, with a similar problem finding books for her students? She actually rewrote every chapter of this book as often as it took to make sure it was both exciting and easy.

Now, isn't that much better? =)

Say all you like about Juvenile Series books being formulaic: that's precisely what I like about them. (It's also what I like about sonnets. Form is fabulous.)

While The Boxcar Children turned out to be the first of a whole franchise--the book that set the formula rather than one of the books challenged to come up with a unique variation of the same--many of its elements were already familiar tropes in children's literature. Orphans and other children in peril have always been popular, of course. Warner just takes the traditional "babes in the wood" and puts them in an abandoned train car. And when I was reading, I kept thinking back to Little Women (which I once loved) and The Story of the Treasure Seekers (which I once tried to love).

Apparently, it takes a nineteenth century publication date
to be safe from "updated" cover art!

The hardy, resourceful Alden siblings certainly call to mind Louisa May Alcott's poor but hardworking March sisters. It has partly to do with superficial connections (e.g., there being four of each), but I suspect the real resemblance comes from something ineffably New England. This makes Edith Nesbit's fanciful Bastable children of Victorian England very distant cousins to the Aldens, who are happy enough with a day's fair wages and wouldn't waste time on treasure hunting that could be spent on good housekeeping. (LOL!)

I thought this book was charming and cute; and if I had read it as a child, it would have influenced a great deal of my play. The only thing I didn't care for was the neglect of Violet as a character. When they set up housekeeping, Henry becomes the responsible breadwinner, Jessie becomes the efficient domestic manager, and Benny plays at being the baby to the hilt. Violet? She falls ill.

It's a major plot point, yes: in fact, it forces the climax. As all minimally supervised children know, it's all fun and games until someone gets sick. And then you have to call an adult. =P

But one wishes for a bit more balance, you know? Alcott gives shy and frail Beth March a real character arc--and Baby-sitters Club author Ann M. Martin lets even "cry baby" Mary Anne Spier have some bright moments on the job. It seems that Warner could have been a bit more generous to Violet. But this is a minor quibble about an otherwise decently structured story.

I have the second book in this series, Surprise Island, all lined up to review . . . but if you're feeling even half as Boxcar-ed out as I am, then you'll be pleased to know I won't be putting it up until next month!

Image Source: a) The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner, b) Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, c) The Story of the Treasure Seekers by Edith Nesbit


Salome Ellen said...

Just beware -- in the franchise there are a few books by Gertrude Chandler Warner, and MANY books by hacks. My kids could tell the difference. The ones by hacks have "Gertrude Chandler Warner"S Boxcar Children" on them somewhere.

Enbrethiliel said...


I figured that over 100 Boxcar Children books (plus a few "Special" editions) meant that several ghostwriters had entered the process at some point. ;-)

So I did a bit of research and learned that she wrote at least nineteen books before she died; and I think it's safe to assume they were the first nineteen. I'm not going to buy or read any Boxcar Children book over that number.

Dauvit Balfour said...

I remember listening to audiobooks of these as a kid and liking them well enough. They weren't The Hardy Boys or The Bobsy Twins or Jim Kjelgaard's dog-centric stories, but they were good stories. Maybe I would have liked them better if I'd actually read them as I did the others, but who knows. I adored the Black Stallion, and I never read it.

I never had a problem with the updated cover, because I never knew the older one. I do like the original better, though.

Enbrethiliel said...


I had to look up both the original cover and the commemorative cover myself. But the "updated" cover bothered me long before I articulated my opposition to the rewriting of "dated" texts. I'm fairly sure an artist could add that the picture is also badly drawn. =P

By the way, I know some people who'd say that audiobooks are books, and therefore, you can say that you've "read" The Boxcar Children and The Black Stallion. =)

Kate said...

I remember devouring some of the early Boxcar Children books when I was a kid, and remember having a particular affinity for Violet, though for the life of me I don't know what. I'm guess that subconsciously, either 1. she wasn't given enough of a character so I could Mary Sue myself into her shoes, 2. the dramatic possibility of Big Illness was enough for me, or 3. I just knew that the efficient Jessie just was not my style. Hm. I wish I could remember why I zeroed in on Violet as my favourite.

Enbrethiliel said...


Hi, Kate! =D It's so great to see you again!

I think I know what you mean because your experience with Violet sounds vaguely familiar--as if I did something of the sort with other stories full of child characters, too. No example actually comes to mind, although I'd "write in" new Sues for myself when I couldn't easily project myself onto anyone. I made it into Heidi, The Swiss Family Robinson and even A Wrinkle in Time very neatly that way! =P

Kate said...

Oh my gosh, I did that with every *tv show* that I loved but not so much with the books. My listing of beloved 90s tv shows is shamefully filled with extra characters I created for myself. I was writing fan fic before it existed...before there was an interwebs! :)

Enbrethiliel said...


I must be you in reverse, then, because it was always books I did it with. =P I never quite got to writing my FF, though. Wish I had!