Half a century before beat writer Jack Kerouac touted the appeal of freight hopping, Gertrude Chandler Warner dreamed up The Boxcar Children while sick at home with bronchitis. The American first-grade teacher wrote a book series about four orphaned siblings—Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny Alden—who made their home in an abandoned railroad car. Warner fed my imagination and sense of self as a ’90s kid building forts among the sagebrush. I am grateful.
Looking back, The Boxcar Children was my gateway to chapter books as a six-year-old reader simply because Warner’s young protagonists charmed me with their self-sufficiency. They solve mysteries in unusual places including a lighthouse, a mountain top, and a uranium mine. They grow food, cook meals, invent tools, and explore their world, echoing the independence of countless other children’s characters. Yet Warner’s portrayal resembles less the reckless whimsy of Peter Pan and more the practicality of the Scooby-Doo gang.
That unsupervised freedom provoked criticism from her contemporaries. Warner once wrote to a fan, “Perhaps you know that the original Boxcar Children raised a storm of protest from librarians who thought the children were having too good a time without any parental control! That is exactly why children like it! Most of my own childhood exploits, such as living in a freight car, received very little cooperation from my parents.”
Both Warner and I spent our childhoods outdoors collecting bugs and wildflowers in between scribbling short stories on paper. Evidence of her confidence in a child’s capacity for rational thought may stem from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which she cited as her favorite book growing up. Just as Alice juxtaposes her common sense with her mad environment, so too do the Alden siblings when sleuthing for the truth or using their wilderness skills. Children like me relished their respected independence.
Born in 1890 in Putnam, Connecticut, Warner knew she wanted to be an author at age five. Although she didn’t finish high school due to frequent illnesses, she started her thirty-two-year teaching career during World War I. During this time, she trained in education at Yale and wrote stories for her grandfather, gifting a new one each Christmas. Warner first published The Boxcar Children in 1924. Once she retired from teaching, she revised the first manuscript to republish it twenty years later and wrote eighteen subsequent titles in the series.
As a part of the generation that formed the Boy Scouts (1910) and Girl Scouts (1912), Warner created characters who choose goodness and teamwork. Her stories, simply told, continue to embolden generations of new readers. After her death in 1979, kids across the United States wrote fan letters to publisher Albert Whitman & Company requesting more adventures that eventually made their way to my elementary school’s book fair where I picked up that first title.
Today, The Boxcar Children Mysteries include more than 140 titles contributed by other authors in addition to spin-offs, movies, and graphic novel editions.
– Jennifer Draper
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Image Source: http://bit.ly/2lSjlal
Caption: The cover of the original 1924 edition of The Boxcar Children published by Rand, McNally & Co.