The Boxcar Children
The Boxcar Children is a children's literary franchise originally created and written by American writer and first-grade school teacher, Gertrude Chandler Warner. Today, the series includes well over 100 titles. The series is aimed at readers in grades 2-6.
Originally published in 1924 by Rand McNally (as The Box-Car Children) and reissued in a shorter revised form in 1942 by Albert Whitman & Company, The Boxcar Children tells the story of four orphaned children, Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny. They create a home for themselves in an abandoned boxcar in the forest. They eventually meet their grandfather, who is a wealthy and kind man (although the children had believed him to be cruel). The children decide to live with the grandfather, who moves the beloved boxcar to his backyard so the children can use it as a playhouse. Based on a 2007 online poll, the National Education Association named the original book one of its "Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children." The original book was one of the "Top 100 Chapter Books" of all time in a 2012 poll by School Library Journal.
In the subsequent books, the children encounter many adventures and mysteries in their neighborhood or at the locations they visit with their grandfather. The majority of the books are set in locations the children are visiting over school holidays such as summer vacation or Christmas break. Only the first 19 stories were written by creator Warner. Other books in the series have been written by other writers, but always feature the byline "Created by Gertrude Chandler Warner". The recent books in the series are set in the present day, whereas most of the original books were set in the 1920s and 1930s.
Plot summary of the original novel
The Boxcar Children tells the story of four children, Henry, Jess (or Jessie), Violet, and Benny, who are orphans. One night, they take shelter in a bakery after buying some bread with the little cash they have. In exchange for allowing them to spend the night, they agree to help around the bakery. However, when they overhear the baker's plans for them, they flee. (In the original 1924 edition, they flee after overhearing that they will be sent to their grandfather, whom they believe would treat them cruelly. In the 1942 edition, they overhear the baker planning to keep the older three siblings but to take Benny to a children's home. Most recent printings of the book are based on the 1942 edition.)
Finding an abandoned boxcar, the children start a new life of independence. Henry ends up working various odd jobs in a nearby city for a young doctor (Dr. McAllister in the 1924 edition, Dr. Moore in later editions), in order to earn money for food. He also does gardening for the doctor's mother. In one case, she let him take home some parsnips and carrots he had picked because they were too small. The children's lives are pleasant and full of hard work until Violet becomes ill and they go to the doctor for assistance.
Earlier in the novel, the doctor read in the newspaper that a man named James Henry Alden (James Henry Cordyce in the 1924 edition) was offering a $5,000 reward for anyone who located his four lost grandchildren. They had run away because they thought he was cruel. After the doctor takes the sick Violet and the other children to his house, he finally contacts their grandfather. He arrives at the doctor's house. Not wanting to frighten the children into running away again, he does not reveal his full name. Not knowing that he was their "cruel" grandfather, the children warm to his kindness and are surprised but delighted when they eventually discovery he is their grandfather. After moving in with him, James moves the boxcar to his backyard for their enjoyment.
(The characters are named here as they are in the revised edition of the original book, and its sequels. The family name in the 1924 original edition is Cordyce rather than Alden.)
Henry James Alden: is the oldest of the Alden children; in most books of the series, Henry is 14 years old (13 in the 1924 edition). In Warner's original books Henry ages and eventually goes off to college in The Lighthouse Mystery. Henry is very intelligent, and his great abundance of knowledge becomes useful in many of the children's cases. He is the leader of the crew. In later books, Henry's age reverts to 14, the age he was in the first book.
Jessica "Jessie" Alden: (Jess in the 1924 original edition) is usually 12 years old and is the oldest sister. She often acts motherly towards Benny and Violet and even Henry. She is often responsible for cooking. Jessie is described as being very tidy and organized. She is sometimes called Jess but is mostly referred to as Jessie. She is not afraid of anything, adores the color blue, and is very strong.
Violet Alden: is 10 years old in most of the books. She is the most sensitive of the children and is skillful at painting and sewing. She can frequently win over grouchy characters and is good with animals. Violet is often very shy and loves playing the violin. Of course, her favorite color is violet or purple and she always wears one of those colors. She is the shyest of all the children. As well she sometimes helps with Jesse to take care of Benny.
Benjamin "Benny" Alden: is the youngest child at 6 years old (5 in the original 1924 edition). He celebrates his birthday in Surprise Island. Benny is known for his love of all food and the cracked pink cup he found in the dump. His endearingly childish qualities and comments make him a favorite amongst young readers. He is very talkative.
Watch: is the dog of the Boxcar children. He acted as a "watchdog" when they lived in the boxcar and protected them. Watch was originally owned by a wealthy lady but ran away and was adopted by the Alden children. The lady was so charmed by the children that she permitted them to keep him. Watch is an Airedale Terrier, and the children found him while Henry was away one day at work. He had a thorn in his paw, and Jessie removed it. Because of this, he became known as her dog. In subsequent books, Watch's bed is in Jessie's bedroom.
James Henry Alden: is the wealthy and kind grandfather of the Alden children, allowing them a lot of freedom and always offering them advice. He takes care of the kids after the death of their parents.
Dr. Moore: (Dr. McAllister in the original 1924 edition) is the man who gave Henry a job and checked Violet when she was ill.
Soo Lee: She is the cousin of the boxcar children.
Mrs. McGregor: The Aldens' housekeeper. Her husband was first seen in the third book of the series.
Mike: Mike is Benny's best friend and appeared on Surprise Island.
Joe and Alice: The children's cousins/aunt and uncle. (Called both, but mostly cousins) Joe was first seen in the second book of the series, Surprise Island. Alice was first introduced in The Yellow House Mystery; she also married Joe in same book. They moved to a new house in the Mystery of the Singing Ghost. They adopted Soo Lee from Korea.
Aunt Jane and Uncle Andy: The children's great aunt (Grandfather Alden's sister) and her husband. Aunt Jane was once unkind, but was changed in Mystery Ranch, the fourth book of the series.
John Carter: An employee of the children's grandfather. Does investigation and carries out the children's grandfather's wishes "off camera".
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In April of 2014 the animated film The Boxcar Children was released. The voice of Grandfather Alden is played by Martin Sheen, Dr. Moore is voiced by J. K. Simmons and Zachary Gordon, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy, and Jadon Sand play Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny, respectively. The film is also available on DVD.
After the first novel, the children become amateur sleuths, and the subsequent series involves the children solving various mysteries and occasionally traveling to other locations as they do so. They stumble across a mystery no matter where they are, whether on vacation or in their own backyard. They usually solve the mystery with very little adult intervention, although adults are present in the novel (the author said she wrote about mostly-unsupervised children because that would appeal to children). Some of the mysteries border on the supernatural, although the practical Henry and Jessie always find the practical reason for anything that appears other-worldy. Most of the mysteries involve thefts and usually involve the Alden children helping someone they know.
Also see the full article on Gertrude Chandler Warner.
Warner's life was chronicled in the biography "Gertrude Chandler Warner and the Boxcar Children" by Mary Ellen Ellsworth, illustrated by Marie DeJohn, which tells the story of Warner's childhood living across the street from the railroad tracks, her bouts with poor health, her teaching career, her earliest attempts at writing, and her inspiration for The Boxcar Children.
As she wrote the story, Warner read it to her classes and rewrote it many times so the words were easy to understand. Some of her pupils spoke other languages at home and were just learning English, so The Boxcar Children gave them a fun story that was easy to read. Warner once wrote that the original book "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!"
List of Boxcar Children novels
- "About Gertrude Chandler Warner". Retrieved 2008-03-06.
- Boxcar Reading Levels
- National Education Association (2007). "Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children". Retrieved August 19, 2012.
- Bird, Elizabeth (July 7, 2012). "Top 100 Chapter Book Poll Results". School Library Journal "A Fuse #8 Production" blog. Retrieved August 19, 2012.
- "Gertrude Chandler Warner and the Boxcar Children at Albert Whitman & Company". Retrieved 2009-07-01.
- "Children's Notes, Boxcar Children Redux". Retrieved 2008-03-06.[dead link]