One warm night four children stood in front of a bakery. No one knew them. No one knew where they had come from.
Originally published by Gertrude Chandler Warner in 1924, The Boxcar Children is 90 years old this year! A significantly edited version of the book, with new illustrations, was re-published in 1942, and this is the version of the book that most people know and that I originally read, probably before I was 10 years old.
My sister Aimee had a copy and I was bored in her room one day and read it cover-to-cover in one sitting. I was strong reader from a very early age and the book is known for its simple language and is often used to teach reading and English to young students. Thereafter, I often wanted to incorporate the idea of being independent children creating civilized lives in the wildness as part of our playtime fantasies. The fact that the four children in the book are independent of parents and make their own way is probably a big factor in its continued success.
The version I read now, as an adult in 2014, was a 60th anniversary edition (of the 1942 publication), published in 2002,with a short essay by Mary Ellen Ellsworth, who wrote a biography of Warner, pictures of Warner, and an open letter from Warner to children about what inspired the book.
Warner wrote 19 books in the Boxcar Children series. After the first one, they became mysteries, with the four children something like the Scooby Doo gang (they even have a dog named Watch), or younger versions of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. There are more than 150 titles now, the newest ones taking place in more recent years and the children somehow reverting back in age (though Warner wrote the oldest, Henry, going off to college). I don’t think I read any of the later books, just the first one.
It remained large in my imagination, though I don’t think I ever re-read it until now. I think the aspects that I liked about The Boxcar Children were probably very close to what I later liked about The Swiss Family Robinson (I loved the movie and had a Disney compendium with an abridged version, but didn’t read the full version of Swiss Family Robinson till 2004, when I was 22). The book was a quick read, taking only about an hour. While I found it a bit sanctimonious and dated in tone, I still found it charming and appealing. I can see what struck me about it as a young child and why children still read and love the series.
One last note of possible interest – Gertrude Chandler Warner’s sister Frances was also a writer and was on the staff of The Atlantic Monthly. Like Aimee and I, they wrote stories together as girls and later in their lives, they published two joint collections of their essays.