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The Boxcar Children
The Boxcar Children is a classic children's literary franchise originally created and written by the American first-grade school teacher Gertrude Chandler Warner. Today, the series includes well over 150 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. The book was adapted as the film The Boxcar Children in 2014 and the sequel novel Surprise Island was released as a film in 2018. Based on a 2007 online poll, the National Education Association named the original book one of its "Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children". In 2012 the original novel was ranked among the all-time "Top 100 Chapter Books", or children's novels, in a survey published 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 orphans: Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny. In the 1924 version of the tale, the children are orphaned in the first few pages; in the heavily revised and simplified 1942 revision, they have evidently been orphaned for some time.
When a baker and his wife learn that the children are orphans, they make plans the children don't like. In the 1924 edition, they plan to send the children, who live in a house next door to the bakery, to live with their grandfather, but the children have been brought up to fear their grandfather, whom they have never met, because he did not like their parents' marriage. In the 1942 version, the children are already homeless and wandering around at the start of the story. The baker and his wife plan to take the three elder children, who are old enough to be helpful in the bakery, but to send the youngest, Benny to an orphanage.
Finding an abandoned boxcar, the children start a new life of work. Henry ends up working in a nearby town called Silver City for a young doctor called Dr. Moore in order to earn money for food and other things they need. He also does gardening for the doctor's mother. The children's lives are nice and full of hard work until Violet becomes ill and they go to the doctor for help.
Unbeknownst to the children, by that time the doctor knows very well who they are and where they are living; indeed, he has been keeping a discreet eye on them for weeks. Their grandfather, who lives nearby, has been advertising in the papers, offering a reward for news of them, but the doctor hasn't wanted to spoil the children's fun by informing on them. When Violet becomes ill, however, he feels it is time to do so.
Their grandfather, James Henry Alden, is a steel baron who comes at once to see them. The doctor suggests that he get to know them first before telling them who he is, so he is simply introduced to them as a friend of the doctor's. The children warm to his kindness and are surprised but delighted when they eventually learn that he is their much-feared grandfather. They go to live with him after all, and he has the boxcar transferred 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). He's shown to be calm, hardworking, rational, humble and very protective of his younger siblings. Henry also shows a knack for repairing things and is a natural athlete. In Warner's original books, Henry ages and eventually goes off to college in The Lighthouse Mystery.
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. Her favorite color is violet or purple and she often wears one of those colors. She is the shyest of all the children. As well, she sometimes helps with Jessie 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 seventh birthday in Surprise Island but after that is always referred to as 6 years old. 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 ecstatic.
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 a Wire Fox Terrier, and the children found him while Henry was away 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 the 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".
In April 2014, the animated film The Boxcar Children was released. The voice of Grandfather Alden is played by Martin Sheen, and Dr. Moore is voiced by J. K. Simmons. Zachary Gordon, Joey King, Mackenzie Foy, and Jadon Sand voiced Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny respectively. The film is also available on DVD.
The film debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival / Kids (TiFF/Kids) in April 2014 and went on to play at 15 more festivals including Woods Hole International Film Festival, St. Louis International Film Festival and the Gijón International Film Festival in Spain. The film won Best Animated Feature Film at the 2015 St. Tropez International Film Festival.
The film was released by Entertainment One. It had a limited theatrical run in North America, came out on DVD and VOD on August 19, 2014. Streaming and TV rights were sold exclusively to Netflix on October 4, 2014. The film was directed and produced by Daniel Chuba and Mark A.Z. Dippe. The executive producer was Maureen Sargent Gorman.
A sequel film The Boxcar Children: Surprise Island was originally planned to be released in fall 2017. However, Fathom Events will release the film in select theaters starting May 8, 2018, followed by a DVD release on August 14, 2018.
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-worldly. Most of the mysteries involve thefts and usually involve the Alden children helping someone they know.
The series are divided into mysteries and specials; all of the specials were written after Warner's death. As of 2014, there are 145 mysteries and 21 specials in the series.
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.
In July 2004, a museum in Putnam, Connecticut, was opened in a red boxcar to honor Gertrude Warner and the Boxcar Children series. She is buried in Grove Street Cemetery, Putnam, Connecticut.
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!"