Study Guide

The Boxcar Children

By Gertrude Chandler Warner

The Boxcar Children Introduction

Once upon a time, at the turn of the 20th century, there lived a young girl who wanted to live in a caboose. Forget a fancy house with a swimming pool or a frog prince or a big pile of adorable puppies—young Gertrude Chandler Warner had one dream, and that dream was to live in a dirty metal box.

Growing up near a railroad station, Warner was fascinated by trains. She spent a lot of her free time just watching them go by, thinking about what it would be like to have a boxcar of her very own. The girl's other dream was to become a famous writer. Since being a writer who lived in a boxcar wasn't altogether practical, she chose the next best thing: writing about living in a boxcar.

This, it turns out, was a winning combination. Warner's talents were such that she was able to delude generations of readers into thinking that sleeping in a boxcar sounds like a good idea. But, that wasn't her original intention: A first-grade teacher, Warner wrote The Boxcar Children to address some of the shortcomings she saw in children's literature. Her goal was to write something that was easy to read yet still exciting for her young students. When the book was published in 1924, it became an instant classic, and the story of how four orphan children lived off the land until they found their grandfather has occupied a special place in the hearts and imaginations of children and adults ever since.

As modern readers, it's hard to believe that polite, hardworking kids like Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny could have ever been at the center of any controversy. But, Warner lived in a simpler time, before uptight people had things like Grand Theft Auto to get mad about. An outspoken contingent of readers in Warner's day thought the Boxcar Children were having way too much fun without adult supervision—never mind that all the "fun" the children were having involved an almost unnatural love of good hygiene and chores.

Fortunately for everyone, those objections were largely ignored. In fact, the original book was so popular that it spawned a mystery series that's still in production today. Warner wrote the first 19 volumes of The Boxcar Children, but other authors eventually took over. After all, no one lives forever … well, except for Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny. Those guys are still going strong.

What is The Boxcar Children About and Why Should I Care?

While The Boxcar Children has heaps of charm, you may, at first glance, feel that it's not a book that has much to say about modern-day life. The characters drive horses and buggies, for Pete's sake, and sometimes the language feels a little dated. The Alden children are ever so cheerful—and their relentlessly positive attitudes may not exactly resonate with your own idea of what it's like to be a kid in the world (or what it would be like to live in a boxcar, for that matter). Around the time that Henry professes his undying love for cleaning garages, you may even start to feel a teeny bit, well, annoyed.

But that would be a mistake.

The thing is, the children are so dang well-adjusted that it's easy to forget that they have a lot of darkness in their lives. Think about it—on a fundamental level, they are four homeless orphans surviving on scraps from the garbage and the $1 a day that Henry earns at his backbreaking job. Their parents are dead, and they're hiding in the woods because they're afraid of what might happen to them in the hands of uncaring adults. They have nothing and nobody (except for each other), but somehow, they manage to stay happy.

When you look at it this way, the children's glass-half-full mentality and willingness to build an entire household out of empty bean cans start to seem really admirable. The lesson that the Boxcar Children have to offer is actually a really important one: Try to find pleasure in everything you do, and make the most of whatever you have. In the words of Tim Gunn, make it work.

The Boxcar Children Resources

Websites

The Book's Official Website
Info on the author and much more, maintained by the publisher. Consider this your one-stop Boxcar shop.

Movie or TV Productions

A Cheesy-Looking Cartoon
An animated film (starring Martin Sheen as the voice of Mr. Alden) was released in 2014.

IRL Boxcar Children
Get the scoop on real people who have lived in boxcar communities in this PBS documentary. Spoiler alert: It wasn't all pink cups and perfectly rigged ladles.

Articles and Interviews

A Snarky Take
The AV Club looks at The Boxcar Children series from a modern point of view.

The Boxcar Museum
Learn the story behind the opening of the Gertrude Chandler Warner Boxcar Museum. Road trip, anyone?

Video

All About the Author
Curious about Warner? Check out this short video about the author.

The Movie Trailer
Watch the trailer for the animated film that was released in 2014. What do you think?

Audio

Audiobook Excerpt
Feast your ears on this sample from the audiobook.

Images

Say Hello
Here she is, Shmoopers—the one and only Gertrude Chandler Warner.

Peep the Cover
Behold this dramatic rendering of the scene when the kids first find their new home. How did you picture their new casa?