Updated: Nov 27, 2019
The second installment of our Young Readers Guide is dedicated to The Boxcar Children. Published in 1924, Gertrude Chandler Warner’s children’s series tells the tale of four orphans who fight to stay together, even if that means living in an old, beat up boxcar to avoid being separated.
There are two early versions of the story. One published in 1924 and the other published in 1942. The one I am reviewing is the 1942 version.
I first read this book when I was in second grade and I remember thoroughly enjoying the language and the way the children expressed themselves. The book is obviously written many decades ago. The style in which the characters speak is very proper and reads like an older English.
The story follows four siblings; Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Bennie, who have been orphaned and bouncing around from place-to-place in search of a more permanent home. When we first meet them, they find a couple who own a bakery, and they beg them for shelter. That night; however, the oldest children, Henry and Jessie, hear the wife telling her husband that the three oldest will be helpful since they can work at the bakery, but that the youngest, Bennie, is too dependent and will be sent to a children’s home. Upon hearing this, the four siblings escape in the middle of the night as soon as the baker and his wife fall asleep.
Henry leads his family, and readers are immediately engrossed by how clever he is. He urges his siblings to never give any information about who they are or where they come from. This mystery is what allows them to escape without the risk of getting caught. Without any information, the baker’s wife has little means of finding them. She tries to track them down by foot, but gives up once she grows too tired.
Hearts break as we experience the children living as homeless vagabonds, but things start to look up when Jessie stumbles upon an abandoned boxcar. They don’t have much, but readers are left in awe of how resourceful these children are. I remember as a child feeling inspired to make a ladle out of a tiny bowl and stick after reading the chapter where Jessie cleverly made one.
These children somehow turn the boxcar into a home, and although they don’t have everything they wish for, they always remain positive and thankful for what they do have, most importantly, for being together.
Throughout the story, you feel the nerves as you anxiously wait for someone to catch the children or for something bad to happen, but fortunately their worst days are behind them.
One of my favorite moments in the entire book is when Jessie finds a stray dog with a thorn stuck in his paw. She kindly and gently takes it out and then brings him to live with their family. The children name him Watch and he turns out to be the best dog, chasing away hens so the kids can get the eggs, and keeping a look out for intruders.
Another thing I love is the description of the food. The children salivate over the thought of dense, brown bread smothered with butter, but the butter has to sit out all day in order to be soft enough to smear. The food they eat reminds me that the story is set in a different time, a time before the influx of highly processed foods. The bread they describe sounds exactly like the bread I ate everyday in Vienna. If it's anywhere close to that, then I understand why they were satisfied with eating just those two items for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I, too would be thrilled.
You will find yourself impressed with how hard Henry works for his family. He is just a kid, but he goes into town every day and does odd jobs for the local doctor. He even builds the children a pool so that they can keep clean and play. The narrator tells us:
"It was hard work building the dam,
but the children liked hard work."
As an adult reading this book, I am amazed at how well the children keep it together. They manage to make a life out of nothing, and readers are reminded that so much of your circumstance is based on your perspective. For many of us, living in a boxcar seems like the worst-case scenario, but for these children, being separated would be much worse.
The book has a happy ending; however, and they do eventually leave the boxcar. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that when the children finally do move out of the boxcar, they end up missing it very much.
The Boxcar Children was a book I enjoyed when I first read it, but I never got drawn in enough to read the entire series. The book is very simple. Everything is explained and laid out for you. Nothing is really shown, but everything I need to know is told to me. This is great for the age group it’s targeting, and because it’s a longer book, the length makes it challenging for the second-grade age range. This isn’t a book that I would say parents will love, but you will enjoy it enough to read through it once and discuss with your child. If your young reader likes some adventure and is around 7-8, then this book should definitely be on their reading list.
The series has been re-adapted, so there are newer versions of the story available, as well as an animated movie that came out a few years ago. I haven't watched the movie, but I have it on my watch list, as I am interested to see how it compares to the book.