Study Guide

The Boxcar Children Themes

  • Family

    "Family first" is the unofficial motto of The Boxcar Children—or, make that "most family first" since the Alden siblings are on the run from their evil grandfather. As the kids make their home in the boxcar, the siblings' love for one another is plain to see. They always work well as a team, supporting one another in everything they do. The older kids, Henry and Jessie, even act as parents to their little brother and sister by earning money, cooking, and caring for them. By the end of the book, the little family expands to include two more members: the children's grandfather (who isn't evil after all—yay) and Watch the dog.

    Questions About Family

    1. Why is sticking together so important to the Boxcar Children? Give evidence from the text, please.
    2. Does The Boxcar Children promote traditional family values? Or, does it have a positive message about unconventional families? Explain your reasoning.
    3. Do you think that Jessie and Henry, as the family leaders, make good decisions? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    In The Boxcar Children, family is a source of constant comfort to the Alden siblings. They're always there for each other no matter what.

    In The Boxcar Children, family is a source of serious distress to the Alden siblings. Their parents are dead, and their fear of living with their grandfather forces them to flee civilization and make a home in the woods.

  • Men and Masculinity

    When the Boxcar Children settle into their makeshift home in the woods, Henry becomes a father figure to his family. The children seem to look to him as their leader. He is the one who works and provides for the family, plus he's strong, fast, and knows how to build things. He pays for the food and brings it home (but never cooks it), and when he thinks his family is in danger, he tries to protect them.

    As Henry models these traditionally masculine qualities in The Boxcar Children, we see Benny begin to emulate them. He's just 5 years old, though, so he hasn't quite gotten the hang of this whole "being a man" thing yet.

    Questions About Men and Masculinity

    1. Who has the harder job: Henry or Jessie? Explain your answer.
    2. Why do you think Jessie and Henry never discuss how they will divide up the work? What assumptions does this reveal?
    3. Do you think that Henry and Jessie are equally brave? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The Boxcar Children emphasizes Henry's physicality—that is, the things he does with his body.

    In The Boxcar Children, Benny demonstrates both masculine and feminine qualities.

  • Women and Femininity

    In the world of The Boxcar Children, there's a clear line drawn between the types of work that women and men do. When the Alden children make an abandoned boxcar their home, Jessie settles into her role as housekeeper and mother figure. Though Henry often looks to her for advice, she plays a secondary role in decision-making—her main job is taking care of the family, which includes domestic duties like cooking and cleaning. She's also the family nurturer, looking after the younger children while Henry works during the day.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. What are Jessie's skills outside of taking care of her family? Name at least one.
    2. If you were trying to survive in the wilderness, who would you want as your companion, Jessie or Henry? Why?
    3. In what ways does Violet seem like a Jessie-in-training? Are there ways in which she resists the Jessie mold? If so, how? If not, why does this matter?

    Chew on This

    The Boxcar Children emphasizes Jessie's role as a nurturer over her other characteristics and skills.

    Jessie's role as housekeeper is reflective of society's values when the book was written in 1924.

  • The Home

    In The Boxcar Children, what makes a house a home isn't material things—it's the people who live there. Whether they're squatting in a metal box in the woods or living large in their grandfather's mansion, the Alden children are almost aggressively cheerful because they have each other.

    It's a lovely sentiment, but their boxcar-living situation is definitely idealized. For one thing, all of the "comforts" of their boxcar have been made out of actual garbage from the actual dump—presumably, the boxcar's charms would wear off if the kids remained homeless for years. Fortunately for everyone, Mr. Alden takes his grandchildren under his wing and gives them a real house, with modern conveniences like doors and furniture.

    Questions About The Home

    1. Why do you think the author chose to write a romanticized, rather than realistic, account of what it's like to live in a boxcar?
    2. If Violet hadn't become ill, do you think the Alden kids could have lived in the boxcar indefinitely? Why or why not?
    3. The book explores at least three downsides to living in a boxcar. Name one of them and explore its significance.

    Chew on This

    In The Boxcar Children, home is wherever your family is.

    The Boxcar Children idealizes what it's like to run away from home.

  • Industriousness

    In The Boxcar Children, the, er, Boxcar Children have a lot of admirable qualities. This isn't an accident, either—the author wanted them to be good role models for young people. One of the kids' foremost traits is their industriousness, or commitment to hard work. Whether they're scavenging for household supplies, building a swimming pool, or cooking dinner, all four Aldens are busy little bees. Seriously, they love chores so much they might as well marry them.

    One thing to watch for is the different kinds of work that boys and girls tend to do. (See our thoughts on "Men and Masculinity" and "Women and Femininity" elsewhere in this section.) Still, hard work is an important value in the novel.

    Questions About Industriousness

    1. Who is the hardest worker in the Alden family? Explain your answer.
    2. How does Jessie turn scavenging for dishes into a fun game for Benny?
    3. The narrator tells us that the baker's wife "did not like to wash dishes very well." What sort of light does that information put the character in?

    Chew on This

    In the world of The Boxcar Children, hard work is valued above all else.

    In the world of The Boxcar Children, working isn't considered a difficulty or a hardship. It's just a normal way of life.

  • Resourcefulness

    Speaking of values, a big one in The Boxcar Children is resourcefulness. The Alden children go to live in the woods with the most meager supplies in the history of camping, but somehow, they manage to outfit an entire household with "treasures" from the dump, build a fireplace, and engineer a dam so they can have their own swimming pool. Over and over again, The Boxcar Children demonstrates that necessity is the mother of invention. These kids are the picture of self-reliance.

    Questions About Resourcefulness

    1. Who do you think is the most resourceful of the Alden children? Why? Give evidence from the text to support your answer.
    2. Which of the children's "inventions" is your favorite? Why? How does it show their resourcefulness?
    3. What obstacles do the kids have to overcome as they set up house in the boxcar? Do you notice any patterns?

    Chew on This

    While being resourceful is an important value in The Boxcar Children, the book's message is that children can't be 100 percent independent.

    For the Alden children, living in the boxcar is just a sophisticated version of playing house—so imagination is the key to their success.

  • Secrecy

    Though nearly everyone in The Boxcar Children comes across as super wholesome, the characters have more secrets than a telenovela. The Alden children basically put themselves in the witness-protection program to avoid detection by their grandfather (and never tell anyone how their parents died or where they lived before they went on the run). Plus, Dr. Moore is engaged in a spy-level surveillance program of their home in the woods, and Mr. Alden totally lies about his identity to earn the kids' trust. By the end of the book, pretty much everyone is implicated as a lying liar, but hey—it all works out fine.

    Questions About Secrecy

    1. Do you think all of the secret-keeping in The Boxcar Children is justified? Should the characters be more honest with one another? Why or why not?
    2. Do you think Dr. Moore should have told Mr. Alden about his grandchildren straight away? Why or why not?
    3. Think about the secrets that the characters keep and the outcomes of those secrets. Do you think the results are good or bad? Explain your answer.

    Chew on This

    The Boxcar Children promotes many values, but honesty isn't one of them.

    The Boxcar Children demonstrates that honesty is the best policy by suggesting that there was never any real need for the Alden children to go into hiding.

  • Morality and Ethics

    Often (but not always) in literature, a novel will reflect the morals of its time. That's definitely the case in The Boxcar Children, which draws the line between right and wrong in the same way many Americans would have in the 1920s. On the "good" list: going to bed on time, not being competitive, and helping others. On the "bad" list: greediness, working on Sundays, and lying. We see the good behaviors modeled by most of the characters in the story. All of the Alden children and their friends are selfless, putting the welfare and happiness of others before their own personal gain.

    Questions About Morality and Ethics

    1. Does anyone in the book commit an immoral act? Explain your answer and give evidence from the text.
    2. Name a time when Henry worries about the moral implications of his actions. What does this tell you about his morals?
    3. What is unimportant in the world of The Boxcar Children? What does this reveal about morality at the time?

    Chew on This

    Jessie is the moral center of the Alden family. She's always sure of what to do.

    Henry sometimes struggles with the difference between right and wrong.