Friday, March 23, 2012

The Boxcar Children and Me

Everyone has a story about how he or she was hooked on reading. Looking back at my youth, I believe most writers concur that there is a certain memorable time in our lives when our interest in reading was inordinately piqued with a book or series of books. I believe that many adult writers were curious children who were fascinated with reading at an early age.

For me, it was when my second grade teacher, Mrs. Bernice Robbins, introduced our class to the Boxcar Children series. Religiously, every afternoon, Mrs. Robbins made it a point to read aloud a chapter or two of the series, by Gertrude Chandler Warner, author and a first grade teacher as well. The original work was published in 1926, then reissued in 1942. Gertrude Warner wrote the first nineteen stories while other authors continued the series, updating them with present day settings.

What is so special about this particular series? It’s an adventurous story of four orphaned children who create a home in an abandoned boxcar in the forest. They are forced into this situation after they seek permission to stay overnight in a bakery, but overhear the baker’s wife say she'll keep the oldest three, but will send Benny, the youngest, to an orphanage. The children are afraid of their grandfather and legal guardian, James Alden, erroneously thinking him to be cruel old man.

The Alden children, ranging in ages from fourteen to six years old, furnish their boxcar with items retrieved from a local dump. They also befriend an injured dog with a thorn in his paw who Benny names Watch. Henry Alden, the oldest, is able to keep the children together and fed by working at odd jobs in a nearby town. The girls, Violet and Jessie, are skilled in cooking and sewing.

Ironically, many librarians of this time felt that the children in the series were having too good a time without parental control, but Gertrude Warner believed that this was the reason children were attracted to the stories, many of which were written as mysteries and many of which the Alden children, as amateur sleuths, were instrumental in helping to solve. I tend to agree with the author. As a seven year old, I felt it was both exciting and scary to be on your own, hidden away in a rail car that’s furnished only by your own ingenuity. My personal fear that the children would somehow be discovered and sent back to an orphanage kept me intrigued and hanging on to every word in every sentence. Later, the mysterious plots and antics of the (unsupervised) children were the invisible threads that kept me engaged in their lives and in reading.

If you have not read any books from the Boxcar Children series, I encourage you to pick up a copy and do so. Find a young person and share the story with him or her. If you have read any of these glorious tales, drop me a note and tell me your favorite title or your favorite character. Or tell me the moment you were hooked on reading!