In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Sleeping in boxcars and horse stalls

Dear Aunt Debbie, 

Your post about Up the Creek and Denise's follow-up question about books to encourage camping and hiking came at a moment when Eleanor and I are reading a series of books which contain a number of camping/hiking/pro-outdoor self-sufficiency scenes. I'm not sure how well they'll translate into increased love of camping -- we read all those Little House books, and Eleanor hasn't become quietly, gratefully industrious -- but we're having fun with this odd classic series. 

We picked up the first four books of The Boxcar Children mysteries in a boxed set while on vacation.  This is one of those series that started smallish and became a franchise: Gertrude Chandler Warner wrote the first 19 books (the first in 1924, the rest starting in the late 1940s and continuing into the 1970s) and other authors picked it up in the 1990s. There are over 100 books and counting. We're not aiming to be completists here.

The series focuses on four orphaned siblings: Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny, in descending order of age. Henry is 14 in the first book, very much the leader, and the one who goes out to work and get money for food. Jessie, 12, is the caretaker and cook. Violet is 10, artistic and delicate. Benny is 5, energetic and super-friendly, the kid who everybody loves. In the first book, which I mentioned briefly three years ago when we were talking about orphans having adventures, the children are running away after the death of their parents so that they won't be claimed by their grandfather, who they believe is cruel because he's never met them and didn't like their mother.  They make a home for themselves in an abandoned boxcar in the woods, and are really excited to play house there, though it's hard work.  Henry starts doing odd jobs for a local doctor, who becomes a friend to the children, and ultimately introduces them to their grandfather, John Henry Alden.  It turns out that their grandfather is super-nice, super-rich, and thrilled to have them come live with him.  And they get to keep the dog they found in the woods.  And grandfather has the boxcar moved into his enormous backyard, so they can still hang out there when they want to.  A happy ending for all!

On an emotional level, the books are fairly bizarre.  There's no discussion of how the children's parents died, and they're never mentioned or wished for again (at least, not in the first three books).  There's no explanation of why Mr. Alden didn't meet his grandchildren earlier, or what the rift was between him and his daughter-in-law.  It's totally unclear where the children were living before the beginning of the first book -- what exactly were they running away from?  In this way, the story feels almost like a fairy tale, starting with the children at their moment of entering a life of adventure, and ending by turning their rags to riches. Or perhaps it feels more like a story told by a child old enough to understand a compelling plot and think through the details of an experience, but not old enough to recognize how these circumstances would affect people on a deeper level.

There's a lot here to enjoy, however.  Warner provides pages of detail about the way the children keep  house: building shelves from cardboard, scavenging dishes from a dump and washing them, making beds of pine needles, cooking stew over a fire.  In the third book, The Yellow House Mystery, the children go camping on a trail with their cousin Joe and his wife Alice, and have to hang their food from trees to protect it from bears, catch fish to eat, and survive a storm that threatens to beach their canoes.

Perhaps the thing I like most about the Boxcar Children is their ridiculously positive can-do attitude in every circumstance.  "We like hard work!" says Henry, and it's true to a fault.  In the second book, Surprise Island, Mr. Alden brings the children to a small island he owns and asks if they'd like to live there for the summer, essentially on their own (there's an old boat captain on the island too, but he's pretty hands-off).  Oh, and by the way, they'll be living in the barn, not in a house.  Thrilling!  Even better!  They get to sleep in horse stalls!  Um, okay, kids.

I began reading the books to Eleanor, but realized quickly that the vocabulary Warner uses is accessible to fairly new readers. As she started to do with The Menagerie, Eleanor began to pick up the first book on her own and read ahead, though she still wanted me to do the reading aloud. In Surprise Island, she read sections of several chapters aloud to me. Now we're speeding through The Yellow House Mystery, with Eleanor reading the even chapters aloud, while I read the odd ones. The "mystery" aspect of the books is so far fairly tame -- no suspense that's making her want to hide under a blanket as she does with Nancy Drew.  I'll have no qualms if Eleanor continues to read the series on her own.

Love, Annie


  1. Wow! I was on the Child's Play website looking for storytime and happened to press the link to your blog. This is fabulous!! A moms listserve I'm on has just this week been providing each other with recommendations for the toddler/preschool set, and I've just sent your blog to everyone.

    What wonderful and expansive lists of ideas. I'm looking forward to reading more of your reviews and recommendations as my 3yr old continues to grow.

    Thank you!

  2. Thank you, Tamara! I'm so glad you like the blog!