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Literature / The Boxcar Children

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The Boxcar Children was initially written in 1924, but the version that everyone now knows was published in 1942, and was specifically aimed at young readers.

The book chronicles the adventures of a family of runaway orphans, Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny Alden, fleeing their grandfather, who they believe to be a cruel man. They eventually find shelter in an abandoned boxcar and make it their home for several months, having various adventures, before eventually being found out and returned to their grandfather's custody. He turns out to be very nice, as well as filthy rich.

After many requests, Warner followed up the book with eighteen sequels, mostly mysteries, over which the characters gradually aged. Benny, 5 in the initial book, was 11 and working as a stock boy in a department store in book #19.

Then in 1991, the Albert Whitman & Co. publishing company decided to cash in on their continuing popularity. There are now over 100 books in the series, and counting. And a cookbook, that somehow takes recipes mentioned in passing in the books and... turns them over to children.


Contains examples of the following:

  • Adaptational Dye Job: Jessie is shown as being brunette like her siblings in the books cover art, but in the animated movie she's a redhead.
  • Adapted Out: Many characters from the original books, including Mrs. McGregor's husband, Aunt Jane's farmhands, Benny's friend Mike Wood, and the grandfather's pilot/former spy friend John Carter nearly or completely disappear in the post-Warner books.
  • Adult Fear: All of book one:
    • You have four orphan kids wandering around the countryside, because they don't want their grandfather, their legal guardian, to find them. At first they think they can spend a few days at a bakery, working there, until the owners plan to take Benny to the orphanage, because he's too young to work, and interrogate the others about their grandfather. The kids hightail it out of there, and the bakers look for them, searching the streets frantically.
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    • Henry has to be the breadwinner because he's the only one who can work. He also isn't even eighteen.
    • One of Henry's employers, the doctor, reveals at the end of the book that he had figured out the kids lived in the woods. Sensing they would run if he busted them, however, he only visited their box car to make sure they had enough to eat and pays Henry well.
    • Violet's fever and illness.
  • And Knowing Is Half the Battle: Every mystery book contained some minor science lesson, such as about plankton, or Captain Cook's voyages, or similar. A noteworthy one: Henry's sage observation that "Mashed potatoes don't smell." (The Lighthouse Mystery.)
    • Justified in Blue Bay Mystery, since they're being tutored while on a trip to a South Sea island during the school year.
  • Animated Adaptation: One was released in 2014, and is a straight up adaptation of the first book. It was reasonably well received, currently having a user-rating of 7.5 on IMDB. A sequel, Surprise Island, was released in May 2018.
  • Artifact Title: The Boxcar Kids live in the boxcar in only one book yet the title sticks throughout the series. They do hang onto the boxcar, and use it as a clubhouse.
  • Big Brother Instinct: In the first book Henry wastes no time looking for work to support his younger siblings.
  • Big Eater: Benny, whose catchphrase was practically "I'm hungry!"
  • Comic-Book Time: Initially set in the depression era, more recent books have included passenger jets, tropical cruises, and the internet (yet the boxcar remains a wood-sided boxcar that would have been retired by the 1950s). They have a different summer adventure in every book, and they're all still young somehow...
  • Continuity Nod: Book #3, The Yellow House Mystery, establishes that Mrs. McGregor's first name is Margaret and Alice's maiden name is Wells. Both of these names are mentioned again in subsequent books much, much later in the series.
  • "Could Have Avoided This!" Plot: Arguably, the Alden kids might have avoided living on the streets and the titular boxcar had they met their grandfather and cleared things up sooner.
  • December–December Romance: Aunt Jane and Andy Bean, who marry in their 70s after decades apart. Also a case of The One That Got Away, as Andy had proposed to her unsuccessfully in their youth.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: If the culprit of whatever mystery they're solving has any decency in him/her at all, he'll be reconciled to the Aldens right away. Averted in books where the culprit is arrested.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: The first book had nothing to do with mysteries, and focused on how the children lived in the titular boxcar.
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble: Benny is Sanguine, Violet is Phlegmatic, Jessie is Melancholic, and Henry is Choleric.
  • Free-Range Children: The first book they live quite alone in the woods. Though they go to live with their grandfather in later books, they continue to move around extremely independently, if to a slightly lesser extent.
  • Green Aesop: The 18th book, where the grandfather educates a paint factory owner on ways to cut down on water and air pollution and helps reconcile him with his environmentalist sons.
  • Ill Girl: Near the end of the first book, Violet becomes sick with a fever. The other children eventually have no choice but to take her to a friend who's a doctor, even though they know that giving their names means the likelihood that their grandfather will find them. He does, but it turns out for the better.
    • Lighthouse Mystery sees her, alone among the four children, plagued by mosquito bites.
  • I Love Nuclear Power: In book 4, it's discovered that the black and yellow rocks in the fireplace at Aunt Jane's ranch are uranium. By the next visit to Aunt Jane, the sleepy ranch town is now home to a massive uranium mine.
  • Kindly Housekeeper: Mrs. McGregor, the Alden family caretaker.
  • Mythology Gag: In the first animated movie, the bakery they visit is called "Chandler's". In the sequel, Violet mentions her teacher Miss Warner.
  • No Flow in CGI: Neither animated movie shows a lot of movement in the final results, as evidenced by the lack of movement in longer hair.
  • Non-Residential Residence: The boxcar children start the series living in, well, a boxcar.
  • Orphan's Ordeal: The whole plot of the first book.
  • Raised by Grandparents: They move out of the boxcar to live with their grandfather. At first they were afraid he wouldn't like them, but he's not so bad after all.
  • Retcon: Plenty in the post-Warner books.
    • One book features them going on a train for the first time, ignoring two train trips they took in the Warner books
    • Mr. McGregor, who the kids reunite with Mrs. McGregor in the third book, disappears after the original books.
    • The kids' grown cousin Joe and his wife Alice are later retconned to be their aunt and uncle (inadvertently raising the question of why the kids don't live with them).
    • Even within the post-Warner books, the family goes from living in Massachusetts to Connecticut.
  • Robinsonade: They spend part of Blue Bay Mystery staying on a tropical island with their grandfather and one of his friends, who had himself been shipwrecked for a time on the same island. They also rescue a marooned teenage boy from the same situation.
  • Shrinking Violet: Violet. Hey...
  • Snap Back: Between the last book written by Warner, and the first by the publishing company, the Alden children's ages were reset to 14, 12, 10, and 6.
  • Status Quo Is God: Have you picked up what the most memorable feature of this series is yet? You can read any book past #19 in any order you like.
  • Strong Family Resemblance: In the movie, Henry specifically looks a lot like his dad based on an old photograph. It's also easy to tell that the Boxcar kids are related when all four of them are in a group.
  • Team Pet: Watch the dog, who technically belongs to Jessie.
  • Twofer Token Minority: The Boxcar Kids' new cousin is an adopted Korean girl.
  • Wealthy Ever After: The first book ends this way, with the children moving in with their grandfather, who is described as being very rich and living in a huge house with many servants. The rest of the books by Warner downplay his wealth, with the maids being replaced by a single housekeeper, Mrs. McGregor. In the post-Warner series, the Aldens are an upper middle class family (with a housekeeper), albeit one with enough room in their back yard for a boxcar.
  • You Don't Look Like You: In the sequel, Surprise Island, Henry, Violet, and Benny were redesigned. Jessie is the only one of the four Alden kids to look the same in both movies, though her eye color is changed from brown in the first movie to green in the sequel.

Alternative Title(s): Boxcar Children