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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.

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 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 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.
  • 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." (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.
  • Arkham's Razor: The real culprit of most of the later installments is invariably 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: 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.
  • 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.
  • 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, the first being 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 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.
  • Kid Detective: The titular children, at least from books 2 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 at least four times in the series:
    • In Caboose Mystery, the train conducter is named Mr. Carr.
    • In Houseboat Mystery, the owner of the houseboat the family rents is Mr. Rivers.
    • In Lighthouse Mystery, the main suspect of the mystery they discover that involves cooking is Larry Cook.
    • In 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.
  • Orphan's Ordeal: The whole plot of the first book.
  • 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: 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 (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 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, 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 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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