Four adventurous orphans take up residence in a boxcar and begin to solve mysteries -- this is the premise of the beloved Boxcar Children series, begun in 1942 by Gertrude Chandler Warner and still going strong. Warner enjoyed pointing out that her first book, The Boxcar Children (Whitman, $3.95, grades 3-8), "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!"
Today's young readers continue to seek out Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny Alden and their dog, Watch, whose exciting exploits are described in easy-to-read chapters. Their creator was born in 1890 and lived across the street from a train station in Putnam, Connecticut, as Mary Ellen Ellsworth explains in a new biography, Gertrude Chandler Warner and the Boxcar Children. The resulting soot and cinders meant that the family had to dust the windowsills twice each day.
Although Warner was spirited and full of fun, poor health prevented her from finishing high school. During World War I, a shortage of teachers prompted the local school board to hire her to teach first grade, a position she held for over 30 years. She wrote the first Boxcar book while home recuperating from an illness, thinking back to her childhood glimpses inside a caboose, where the sight of a small stove, table, and dishes led her to imagine what it would be like to live on a train.
By the end of the first book, the four children are reunited with their wealthy grandfather, who moves their boxcar from the woods to his yard. From this beginning, the independent Alden children became so popular that Warner wrote 19 adventures about them with titles such as Surprise Island, Mystery Ranch, and Snowbound Mystery. Warner died at age 89 in 1979, but the Boxcar Children live on with new titles such as The Pizza Mystery, The Canoe Trip Mystery, and The Dinosaur Mystery, written by new writers faithful to Warner's vision. There are now 59 books in the series and eight special mysteries with additional activities in the back.
The clan even has their own cookbook, The Boxcar Children Cookbook, by Diane Blain, featuring such treats as secret code buns, hobo stew, and tree house chocolate pudding, all inspired by passages from the books. Certainly the volume is in keeping with the spirit of the series—Warner's very first description of the children has them standing in front of a bakery, hungrily looking inside.
When young Gertrude Chandler Warner gazed into a caboose and started dreaming, little did she realize what it would lead to. Kids, trains, and mysteries make for an all-aboard formula that remains hard to beat!
Alice Cary reviews books in the railroad town of Groton, Mass.