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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 author of both versions is Gertrude Chandler Warner.

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.


An animated movie adaptation was released in 2014, with a sequel, Surprise Island, released in 2018.

As of 2020, the original edition of the first book is in the public domain in the United States.

Not to be confused with The Railway Children.

Contains examples of the following:

  • Adapted Out: Many characters from the original books, including Mrs. McGregor's husband, Aunt Jane's farmhands, Benny's friend Mike Wood, and 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 because they fear for their safety.
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    • Henry has to be the breadwinner because he's the only one who's old enough to 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 quietly visited their boxcar to make sure they had enough to eat and pays Henry well.
    • Violet's fever and illness. It's at this point that Henry asks the doctor for help.
  • Amateur Sleuth: Although being a series aimed at young children, the "crimes" they solve are rarely very serious.
  • 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." in book #8 (The Lighthouse Mystery).
    • Justified in book #6 (Blue Bay Mystery), since they're being tutored while on a trip to a South Sea island during the school year.
  • Arkham's Razor: The real culprit of most of the later installments is invariable whichever suspect is not actually suspected by the title heroes.
  • 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:
    • The Alden kids might have avoided living on the streets and the titular boxcar had they met their grandfather and cleared things up sooner. Henry and Jessie are very sheepish when they realize it since Violet probably wouldn't have gotten ill in the woods if they had lived with their grandfather in the first place. When the kids go to live with their grandfather, they find themselves missing the independence, so he arranges to have the boxcar moved in their yard.
    • In book #33 (The Pizza Mystery), the lady with the red hat reveals that she's been wanting to learn how to make pizzas and sending the kids on deliveries because her family restaurant is failing, and she is worried about her parents going bankrupt. The Piccolos bluntly ask why she didn't tell them, since they would have been happy to help without the subterfuge. They immediately start her on cooking lessons that she can pass on to her parents, for which she is eternally grateful.
  • 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.
  • Dismantled MacGuffin: Book #21 (The Deserted Library Mystery) has the Aldens working to clean up an old library in the town of Rock Falls so it can become a historical landmark, and in the process discover the hilt of an old Civil War sword, plus a letter explaining its origin. The rest of the book features them hunting for the other two pieces (the middle and point) so it can be reassembled and displayed as a historical treasure.
  • Don't Split Us Up: This is a concern for the title characters, who assume when their parents die that they'll either be adopted by the grandfather their parents hate and they believe is abusive (which proves not to be the case) or be taken into foster care and split up. The latter proves to be a reasonable concern, as when they stay at a bakery overnight, they hear the owner and his wife (who'd previously agreed to let them stay) talking about how they're going to send Benny to the Children's Home since the baker's wife can't take care of a child who's that young. This prompts the four to run away into the woods, where they find the boxcar that becomes their home.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: The first book had nothing to do with mysteries, and focused on how the children lived in the titular boxcar.
  • Evil Is Petty:
    • Mac Thatcher in book #26 (The Mystery of the Mixed Up Zoo) was fired because he wasn't good at taking care of the animals. So he uses a duplicate set of keys to break in, start sabotaging the place, and kidnap Amos the monkey to sell him at a pet shop for moving-away money. He quite seriously thinks his old boss and the kids will let him leave after they find the proof.
    • In book #33 (The Pizza Mystery), it's revealed that the perpetrator behind the sabotage at the pizza place is a middle-management business executive at the company next door. When the kids bring him a free pizza as a peace offering, he eats it while gloating he thinks the Piccolos are old enough to be retired and the restaurant would serve better as a work cafeteria. Fortunately, he left the intercom on long enough for his boss to overhear, and she fires him on the spot while apologizing to the kids.
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble: Benny is Sanguine, Violet is Phlegmatic, Jessie is Melancholic, and Henry is Choleric.
  • Free-Range Children: In 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. The children's independence is not only allowed, but encouraged, by their grandfather — Henry and Jessie, the two oldest, are only 14 and 12, but they usually seem more like high schoolers and act basically as parent figures to Violet and Benny, the two youngest—who are 10 and 6, but also act older. Throughout the series, they've done such varied things as camping out, exploring the Arizona desert, and even caving, all without a lick of supervision. This makes sense, since the premise of the series is that they lived just fine in an abandoned boxcar for several months before learning their grandpa wasn't a jerk.
  • Gamebooks: The spinoff series The Boxcar Children Interactive Mysteries, introduced in 2018 with Midnight at the Haunted Hotel.
  • Gender-Equal Ensemble: The siblings, with Henry and Benny (the oldest and youngest) as the two boys and Jessie and Violet as the two girls.
  • George Lucas Altered Version: Warner rewrote the original book in 1942, changing several details from the 1924 version. Among other things:
    • The original version has the father and four children move into town, with one of them stopping at a bakery for bread; during this time, it's established that their mother is already dead and the father a drunk. The next day, he's dead and the two elder children ask the baker's wife to come to their house, which she does, and meets all four children. She later talks to her husband through a window, and they agree the children must go to their grandfather. The siblings wait until the baker is gone, then flee from the house. The 1942 version greatly reduces this to start with the children in front of the bakery, and they stay with the owner and his wife that night until they hear them talking about splitting up the four by sending Benny to a children's home.
    • The family's name is originally "Cordyce", and the eldest daughter goes by "Jess". These were changed to "Alden" and "Jessie" in the revised version.
    • Henry and Benny are thirteen and five, respectively, in the original. The revised version ages them up to fourteen and six. (Jessie and Violet retain their original ages of twelve and ten.)
  • Green Aesop: The focus of book #18 (Bus Station Mystery), 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.
  • Heroic Bystander: In book #34 (The Mystery Horse), the kids learn that the horse that the family is boarding is a race star called Wind Dancer. Benny and the kids find thieves trying to steal Wind Dancer, and Benny uses his pouch full of thumbtacks to stop them with a flat tire.
  • I Have Many Names: In book #12 (Houseboat Mystery), Mr. Rivers tells the family that the houseboat he rents out is set up so renters can give it any name they want, by swapping out letters on a special rack. Past names have included Rock and Roll, Moon Rocket, The All Inn, and The Blue Heron; the Aldens swap out names on it every day, naming it after all the members of the family (including Mrs. McGregor) in turn, ultimately catching the attention of the police who've heard about "the houseboat with many names". (Thankfully, they're understanding when they find out why it keeps changing.) The last name they give the boat is Captain Kid, for Benny, prompting an amused reaction from Mr. Rivers when he sees it.
  • Ill Girl: Violet, more than once.
    • Near the end of the first book, she 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.
    • Book #8 (The Lighthouse Mystery) sees her, alone among the four children, plagued by mosquito bites.
  • I Love Nuclear Power: In book #4 (Mystery Ranch), 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.
  • Kid Detective: The titular children, at least from book #2 (Surprise Island) on.
  • Kindly Housekeeper: Mrs. McGregor, the Alden family caretaker.
  • Linked List Clue Methodology: Book #17 (Mystery Behind the Wall) has the children discovering a treasure hunt of this type that was set up decades before by a now-deceased girl, and setting out to solve it.
  • Long-Running Book Series: The first book came out in 1924. A shorter, revised version was released in 1942, and the first eighteen sequels came out from 1949 to 1976. Ghostwriters took over in 1991, and multiple books have been released every year since (the only year to not release a book in the original series was 2017, but that's because the five-book spinoff series The Boxcar Children Great Adventures was being released instead).
  • Meaningful Name: Warner was apparently fond of these, as she used them multiple times in the series:
    • Violet's name is one, since she's a Shrinking Violet.
    • In book #8 (The Lighthouse Mystery), the mystery they find involves cooking, and their main suspect's name is Larry Cook.
    • In book #11 (Caboose Mystery), the train conductor is named Mr. Carr.
    • In book #12 (Houseboat Mystery), the owner of the houseboat the family rents is Mr. Rivers.
    • In book #14 (Tree House Mystery), the Aldens' new neighbors who live in a house near the beach are the Beaches.
  • Mystery Magnet: The titular group trip over mysteries on all of the vacations that they take during their apparently endless summer vacation.
  • Non-Residential Residence: The boxcar children start the series living in, well, a boxcar.
  • Not Allowed to Grow Up: In the post-Warner books, the kids' ages are slammed back to and frozen at 14, 12, 10, and 6 — the same ages they were in the first book.
  • Not So Different: One gymnast that befriends the Aldens is quite enamored with their boxcar. She spends time in it, thinking. Later she reveals that her family back home is poor, with barely enough room in their apartment, so she understood what they were going through after thinking they were rich.
  • Orphan's Ordeal: The whole plot of the first book, where four orphaned children work to survive on their own until their last known relative finds them.
    • Book #21 (The Deserted Library Mystery) introduces the Aldens to a boy named Miguel, who's terrified that he's become an orphan after his father is lost in a storm, and will have to deal with this, especially after the news comes in that his father's boat was confirmed wrecked and only two of the three men in it were rescued. Very happily for Miguel, his father is one of the two.
  • Promotion to Parent: Henry and Jessie, the two oldest, take on the role of mother and father for their younger siblings Violet and Benny. This is most noticeable in the first book, before the Aldens realize their grandfather is kind and go to live with him.
  • Raised by Grandparents: The Alden siblings move out of the boxcar and in with their grandfather from the end of book #1 on after discovering he's a good man and not mean like they thought.
  • Real Name as an Alias: In the first book, when James Henry Alden meets his grandchildren for the first time (after having found out why they were avoiding him), he uses the name "Mr. Henry" to avoid scaring them off.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: The doctor who hires Henry for work in the first book. He figured out that Henry and his siblings were living in the woods and had their reasons for not wanting to reveal that; instead of asking about them, he gives Henry fair wages and as many cherries as he and the others can eat, while checking on them discreetly. When Henry revealed that Violet was ill, however, the doctor dropped the act and drove directly to the boxcar, taking the kids in while treating Violet.
  • 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 book #3 (The Yellow House Mystery), disappears after the original books.
    • The kids' grown cousin Joe (the son of Grandfather Alden's brother) 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 book #6 (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.
  • Runaway Hideaway: Type 2 (no place to go) — the Boxcar Children run away with no place in mind and eventually discover their boxcar by chance.
  • Shrinking Violet: Violet. Hey...
  • Snap Back: Over the course of the first nineteen books, the children aged at least five years. In book #20 (The Haunted Cabin Mystery), they're suddenly back to their original ages of 14, 12, 10, and 6.
  • Social Services Does Not Exist: Truth in Television at the time the first book was released — social services as we know it really didn't exist, with the exception of orphanages that focused on caring for the children they had, not tracking down runaways. The children are figured out and united with their grandfather in a matter of a few months, though.
  • 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.
  • Supreme Chef: The kids are this as a whole, owing to their experience making food in the boxcar.
    • In book #26 (The Mystery of the Mixed Up Zoo), they insist on cooking for their grandfather's friend who owns the zoo in question, and he finds it delicious.
    • In book #33 (The Pizza Mystery), they save a pizzeria by adapting the pizza recipes to the smaller oven when the bigger one is broken.
  • Team Pet: Watch the dog, who technically belongs to Jessie.
  • Twofer Token Minority: The Boxcar Kids' new cousin, introduced in special #1 (The Mystery on the Ice) 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.
  • Whammy Bid: In book #48 (The Mystery Bookstore), bidding on an old bookstore and its contents starts at 50,000 dollars and, in just seven bids, quickly hits 80,000. Then a final bidder outdoes everyone and wins by jumping the price to 100,000 dollars. It's Grandfather Alden, who bought the bookstore as an investment and hires one of the earlier bidders, who happens to be a friend of his, to run the place.
  • Worthless Treasure Twist: Played straight in book #70 (The Mystery of the Pirate's Map). The children find the last piece of a famous treasure map and try to get to the treasure before a greedy millionaire, who's spent his whole life trying to find it and stepped on a lot of people in the process. As they're digging for the treasure, they tell him that he can have whatever they find. The treasure chest contains a single coin, and a note from the pirate about "real treasure."

The films include 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • You Don't Look Like You: In the animated version of 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


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