Gertrude Chandler Warner’s novel about four orphaned siblings who run away and take up residence in an abandoned boxcar in the woods was first published in 1942, launching a series that would remain popular with young readers for decades and become a staple in library, classroom, and home collections. The “Boxcar Children Mysteries” oeuvre (Albert Whitman) now encompasses 130 titles, and the concept has been expanded into other formats, including an easy reader series and graphic novels. To mark the 70th anniversary, Albert Whitman is re-launching the series with a fresh new book design and is also publishing a prequel written by Newbery-Medalist Patricia MacLachlan.
According to senior editor Wendy McClure, who has overseen the series for the past 10 years, and marketing director Michelle Bayuk, this milestone “…seemed like a great opportunity to reaffirm the classic appeal of these books. We would hear many people say ‘I remember the Boxcar Children!’ even as each new generation of kids discovered the books on their own. But we also wanted to ensure that new generations would see that the books are appealing and meant for just for them. A new look does that.”
Standing the Test of Time
With more than 50 million copies sold, it’s clear that the mysteries remain popular with readers. In fact, Warner’s The Boxcar Children was recently included on SLJ’s “Top 100 Chapter Books” poll. McClure and Bayuk identify the novel as a trendsetter: “It was one of the first ‘high-lo’ books, combining adventure with a very accessible reading level. She wrote it for her students [Warner was a first-grade teacher in Putnam, CT]—with repetitive language, controlled vocabulary, and sentence length in mind.” Warner would go on to write 18 more installments, until her death in 1979 (though other writers have taken over, she is still acknowledged as the series’ creator).
McClure credits the series’ longevity to “a great set of core characters, Henry, Jessie, Violet and Benny Alden, who are relatable to both boys and girls, along with the mystery element, which has a timeless appeal.” The fact that the children embark on adventures and solve mysteries mostly without adult intervention also has special appeal to 21st-century readers: “Kids today live more structured, scheduled lives than in previous generations, so the Aldens’ unusual independence really speaks to them.” And, McClure adds, the characters “…have always kept up with the times in a way that allows them to stay the same smart, resourceful kids they’ve always been. Jessie has a laptop that she uses to keep track of clues; the kids have gone geocaching, made movies, and investigated zombies. What remains the same is their dedication to each other and their independence.”
The New Look
Illustrated by Tim Jessell, the jackets for the reissued volumes showcase realistic images of the young protagonists, set against atmospheric backdrops that depict each book’s setting. Deep hues, rich textures, and contrasts provided by splashes of light create a dramatic and tension-fraught ambiance.
According to art director Nick Tiemersma, “The new covers really put the action in the forefront, whereas the old covers were light and playful. We really wanted the Boxcar Children to look exciting, just like the stories.” The illustrator was asked to “re-imagine the Alden children (including [their dog] Watch), and add a fresh twist, yet keep the characters classic. The tone is definitely a bit darker. Each book has a sense of suspense, but without looking too scary.” Tiemersma states that the new masthead was chosen for its “vintage feel with a contemporary edge.” And indeed, the logo effectively blends old and new, incorporating the series’ familiar red lettering and boxcar image, but utilizing a more elegant, modern-looking font and eye-pleasing arrangement. Bright swaths of primary colors on the spine and back jackets also add to the books’ updated appearance.
All of the books feature the original interior artwork. The first four volumes in the series, as well as the most recent installment, are available in both hardcover and paperback. Numbers five and six have been published in paperback in the updated format. Bayuk adds, “We will keep working on new covers—definitely for the first 19 written by Gertrude herself—into 2014.All new titles in the series will also have the new treatment. Other backlist will be considered as they come up for reprint.”
Writing the Prequel
MacLachlan’s The Boxcar Children Beginning: The Aldens of Fair Meadow Farm (Gr 2-5), also featuring a cover painting by Jessell, will be released this month. According to McClure, “We have always gotten letters from readers wondering about the Aldens’ past. The more readers know the Aldens the more inquisitive they are. Patricia MacLachlan writes masterfully about families, especially families that come together under difficult circumstances, and we felt if anyone could find out the story of the Aldens, she could.”
Set in the year before the children became orphans, the book introduces the young characters and paints a portrait of the members of a loving and generous family who are willing to open their hearts to others despite the stresses caused by hard times. The novel conveys a charming sampling of homespun adventures, while also foreshadowing events to come, introducing each youngster’s unique interests and strengths, and eloquently establishing the special bond that will help the siblings weather the tragedy that marks the story’s climax. Written in straightforward yet lyrical language, the book sets the scene for the series, and will appeal to newcomers as well as veteran readers curious about what happened “before.”
What was MacLachlan’s reaction when she was asked to write the prequel? The author explains: “I always feel that when some doors open I should walk through them. I really liked the children in the Boxcar books, and I felt confident just what sort of parents they might have—parents who taught them kindness.” MacLachlan believes that young readers continue to love these stories “…because they are essentially about children on their own. They show great strengths in protecting each other, and in making a new family situation work. They are also inventive and resourceful—models for all children in any situation.”
She prepared for writing the book by reading many of the Boxcar stories and listening to her son read them to one of her granddaughters at bedtime: “This way I could listen to the story from both an adult and a young child’s ear and heart.” Commenting on re-creating these familiar protagonists, she says, “I felt protective of Gertrude Chandler Warner’s characters…I wrote them as I felt she might have written them. We were a sort of team, and though I have my own sense of family I thought she might have approved.”
In terms of themes, MacLachlan states, “…there was always the initial theme of the loss of the children’s parents and how they dealt with that. All children know of loss in many ways, but in this story the children had to move together quickly and each find a role. Henry moved into the ‘father’ role, Jesse the ‘mothering’ one. Violet was the ‘mender and fixer,’ and the one who saw possibilities. And they all cared for the sweet Benny.” In addition, the novel powerfully depicts the Depression-era setting, and the way in which the characters pull together to help each other out. The author explains, “My philosopher father used to say children had the same concerns no matter the decade or century. In my prequel I used much of my own grandparents’ lives during the Depression—how they helped others, gave them food and a place to stay. The sense of community was very strong, and I think children love hearing about this.”
The Aldens Go Multimedia
Young readers and educators can visit the “Boxcar Children” website for kid-friendly bios of Warner, the Alden children, and their dog Watch (including a list of what the characters are reading); a link to the Gertrude Chandler Warner Museum in Putnam, CT; and a downloadable activity guide. All 130 “Boxcar Children Mysteries” are available in eBook format from Open Road Integrated Media, and, according to Bayuk, Oasis Audio, which has already published numerous installments of the series as audio books, will publish the remaining titles in 2012 and 2013 (the first three titles are available from Random House Audio). And be on the lookout for a cartoon version. A direct-to-video animated series of The Boxcar Children is in the works and scheduled to release in spring of 2013. Maureen Gorman is the executive producer, and the series is being developed by Hammerhead Productions.
WARNER, Gertrude Chandler. The Boxcar Children. illus. by L. Kate Deal. ISBN 978-0-8075-0851-0; ISBN 978-0-8075-0852-7.
_____. Surprise Island: The Boxcar Children Mysteries. Bk. 2. illus. by Mary Gehr. ISBN 978-0-8075-7673-1; ISBN 978-0-8075-7674-8.
_____. The Yellow House Mystery: Boxcar Children Mysteries. Bk. 3. illus. by Mary Gehr. ISBN 978-0-8075-9365-3; ISBN 978-0-8075-9366-0.
_____. Mystery Ranch: Boxcar Children Mysteries Bk. 4. illus. by Dirk Gringhuis. ISBN 978-0-8075-5390-9; ISBN 978-0-8075-5391-6.
_____. Mike’s Mystery: Boxcar Children Mysteries. Bk. 5. illus. by Dirk Gringhuis. ISBN 978-0-8075-5141-7.
_____. Blue Bay Mystery: Boxcar Children Mysteries. Bk. 6. illus. by Dirk Gringhuis. ISBN 978-0-8075-0794-0.
The Garden Thief: Boxcar Children Mysteries. Bk. 130. ISBN 978-0-8075-2751-1; ISBN 978-0-8075-2752-8.
ea vol: Albert Whitman. 2012. Tr $15.99; pap. $5.99.
MACLACHLAN, Patricia. The Boxcar Children Beginning: The Aldens of Fair Meadow Farm. Whitman. 2012. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-8075-6616-9.
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