Revisiting the Boxcar Children, one randy grandparent at a time

I love the Boxcar Children series.  I think I read every single book published until about 1995, including the specials.  I still enjoy the these books – there’s something so satisfying about four perky orphans with moderate adult supervision and unlimited funds going on expensive vacations and solving mysteries during some permanent school holiday.  Like most teachers, I enjoy the opportunity to introduce the kids to some of my favorite books from growing up which they may not be super familiar with (“Wayside School,” anyone?)  I have two sets of “Boxcar Children” books, which my second graders read as a class– the original 1942 version, as well as “The Midnight Mystery,” which ties into a science unit on inventions.  I keep several random “Boxcar Children” adventures on hand to use as read-alouds throughout the year.  The kids love them – they’re the perfect reading level for the second/third grade crowd, and they hit that sweet spot of the Disney-esque world where kids rule and the adults are incompetent and/or nonexistent.


The author, Gertrude Chandler Warner, first wrote “The Boxcar Children” in 1924, but her 1942 updated version is the one most people are familiar with.  From the late 1940s through the mid 1970s, she wrote an additional 18 books, where the children did gradually age.  Beginning in 1991 – twelve years after Warner’s death – the series continued under ghostwriters, freezing the Aldens at their original ages for the past two and a half decades as they continue to travel the country and foil the plots of sneaky adults.


Each individual “Boxcar Children” book is very much a product of its publishing year, which gives the series a distinctive charm, from making the best of Depression-era roughing it, to Kennedy-esque 60s-style summers, to clunky desktop computers of the early nineties.  As of 2016, “The Boxcar Children” are still going strong, with 139 regular series books, a prequel, graphic novels, special-editions, easy-reader companion books, as well as a low-budget, but very charming, cartoon feature film.  (As of April 2016, it’s available on Netflix.  I purchased it from iTunes as well.)


Twenty years after I read “The Boxcar Children” for the first time, I am enjoying revisiting the gentle series.  However, my cynical side keeps coming across details which went over my head as a child.  Join me as we ponder…


1#: Grandfather got laid - a lot.

James Henry Alden – aka Grandfather - presumably lost his wife at some point prior to the series.  What’s a wealthy philanthropist/businessman/legal guardian of four self-sufficient children to do during his secondary bachelorhood?  Why not fill your dance card with the company of many single, successful, fascinating women?

Don’t believe me?

…in “The Mystery Bookstore,” the Boxcar Children join Grandfather on a trip to New Orleans to visit his friend, notable mystery author Olivia Chase.  He buys her a bookstore in the French Quarter.

… in “The Midnight Mystery,” the Boxcar Children stay in the eclectic mansion of Isabel Putter, mastermind behind the Invention Convention while Grandfather crashes with Isabel in the little cottage out back (yes, it specifically says he’s staying with her.)

… in “The Pilgrim Village Mystery,” the kids stay at the full-emersion Colonial recreation town owned by Mr. Alden’s “old friend,” Linda Crawley.

…in “The Creature in Ogopogo Lake,” the gang visit Abby Harmon, owner of the lake’s namesake resort.

… and finally, we learn Grandfather is tight with legendary country singer/rodeo queen Judy Simon in “The Mystery at the Calgary Stampede.”

I could go on like this for quite some time.

Grandfather has good taste.  His lady friends are all accomplished, interesting women around his own age.  Yeah, there’s a lot of them, but why not ride out your golden years entertaining a comely, twice-divorced university professor on the deck of your yacht, during a twilight cruise around Cape Greenfield, toasting her most recent publication with a few glasses of a fine cabernet sauvignon before taking her to see your original Mondian hanging below deck? James Henry Alden is no fool.  We’re unlikely to see “The Mystery of Why Stepgrandma Brenda Won’t Date Guys Her Own Age” anytime soon.

 My local library's BCC section - nowhere large enough to contain Grandfather's sexual prowess.

My local library's BCC section - nowhere large enough to contain Grandfather's sexual prowess.


#2: Why was nobody ever suspicious of the Boxcar Children?

As the gang solves the mystery and saves the day in every book, nobody really ever questions their involvement.  Isn’t it weird the same four children continuously see something suspicious or come across some crucial piece of evidence?  All of these petty crimes seem to have four things in common, and their names are Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny.  Clever detectives, or a perfect cover?


#3: The Boxcar Children inherit a uranium mine at some point.

Courtesy of some cranky old aunt living out West. Because they weren't rich enough to begin with.  No wonder Violet was always sick.


#4: The original “Boxcar Children” book never addresses some essential bodily functions.

No one brushes their teeth, and there’s no explanation of where the bathroom was in their little setup.  Keep in mind they specifically mention hand washing, bathing, and keeping their clothes clean. Perhaps Gertrude Chandler Warner eliminated references to Henry digging a poop pit in an early draft.


#5: Time for school?

While there are the occasional references to school friends and school work, we never see the Aldens actually attend school.  Eh, they can afford experiences - getting GEDs before heading off to Grandfather's Ivy League alma mater in the future is no biggie.  Enjoy your permasummer and nontraditional education while it lasts, kids.


#6: The Boxcar Children are fairly nonchalant about the death of their parents, as is Grandfather.

In the beginning of the series, Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny are flung out onto the olde-timey streets of some nonspecific corner of New England due to the unexplained death of their parents.  Although it serves as the catalyst for a series of blissful adult-free adventures, in retrospect, it’s a little alarming that they shook off the shock of their parents’ sudden and untimely deaths with only a handful of references to them throughout the series.  (SPOILER ALERT: in Patricia MacLachlan’s “The Aldens of Fair Meadow Farm,” it’s revealed that the kindly Aldens were killed in a traffic accident.)  Post traumatic stress?  Fight-or-flight survival mode?  Hopefully Grandfather is dropping some of his significant fortune on a therapist for the grandkids.


Speaking of Grandfather, he harbors a long term grudge against his son and daughter-in-law, to the point where he has no relationship with his four grandchildren (and considering that Henry is fourteen throughout most of the books, that degree of silent treatment is impressive indeed.)  Of course, Mr. Alden turns out to be lovely (and stinking rich,) and the Boxcar Children live happily ever after, but Grandfather’s well-hidden vindictive streak is eyebrow-raising.  Is Mr. Alden capable of snapping in the future, unleashing a wave of passive-agressive fury upon the issues of his deceased son and his not-so-well healed wife?  Stay tuned, and keep reading!


Feeling nostalgic for the Boxcar Children?  Want to share their inoffensive adventures with your own class?  Check out these four free character posters on my Teachers Pay Teachers page!