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The Boxcar Children is a children's literary franchise originally created and written by American writer and first-grade school teacher, Gertrude Chandler Warner. Today, the series includes well over 100 titles. The series is aimed at readers in grades 2-6.
Originally published in 1924 by Rand McNally and reissued in 1942 by Albert Whitman & Company, the novel The Boxcar Children tells the story of four orphaned children, Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny. They create a home for themselves in an abandoned boxcar in the forest. They eventually meet their grandfather, who is a wealthy and kind man (although the children had believed him to be cruel). The children decide to live with the grandfather, who moves the beloved boxcar to his backyard so the children can use it as a playhouse. Based on a 2007 online poll, the National Education Association named the original book one of its "Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children." The original book was one of the "Top 100 Chapter Books" of all time in a 2012 poll by School Library Journal.
In the subsequent books, the children encounter many adventures and mysteries in their neighborhood or at the locations they visit with their grandfather. The majority of the books are set in locations the children are visiting over school holidays such as summer vacation or Christmas break. Only the first 19 stories were written by creator Warner. Other books in the series have been written by other writers, but always feature the byline "Created by Gertrude Chandler Warner". The recent books in the series are set in the present day, whereas most of the original books were set in the 1920s and 1930s.
The 1942 version of the original Boxcar Children (upon which current printings are based) tells the story of the four Alden children: Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny, who are orphans. One night, they take shelter in a bakery after buying some bread with the little cash they have. In exchange for allowing them to spend the night, they agree to help around the bakery. However, when they overhear the baker's plans to keep the older three siblings but to take Benny to a children's home because he is too young, they flee.
Finding an abandoned boxcar, they start a new life of independence. Henry ends up working various odd jobs in a nearby city for a young doctor, Dr. Moore, in order to earn money for food. He also does gardening for Dr. Moore's mother, Mrs. Moore. In one case, she let him take home some parsnips and carrots he had picked because they were too small. The children's lives are pleasant and full of hard work until Violet becomes ill and they go to Dr. Moore for assistance.
Earlier in the novel, Dr. Moore read in the newspaper that a man named James Henry Alden was offering a $5,000 reward for anyone who located his four lost grandchildren. They had run away because they thought he was cruel. After Dr. Moore takes the sick Violet and the other children to his house, he finally contacts James. He arrives at Dr. Moore's house. Not wanting to frighten the children into running away again, he referred to himself as Mr. Henry. Not knowing that he was their "cruel" grandfather, the children warm to his kindness and are surprised but delighted when Dr. Moore reveals to them that he is their grandfather. After moving in with him, James moves the boxcar to his backyard for their enjoyment.
Henry James Alden: is the oldest of the Alden children; in most books of the series, Henry is 14 years old. In Warner's original books Henry ages and eventually goes off to college in The Lighthouse Mystery. Henry is very intelligent, and his great abundance of knowledge becomes useful in many of the children's cases. He is the leader of the crew. In later books, Henry's age reverts to 14, the age he was in the first book.
Jessica "Jessie" Alden: is usually 12 years old and is the oldest sister. She often acts motherly towards Benny and Violet and even Henry. She is often responsible for cooking. Jessie is described as being very tidy and organized. She is sometimes called Jess but is mostly referred to as Jessie. She is not afraid of anything, adores the color blue, and is very strong.
Violet Alden: is 10 years old in most of the books. She is the most sensitive of the children and is skillful at painting and sewing. She can frequently win over grouchy characters and is good with animals. Violet is often very shy and loves playing the violin. Of course, her favorite color is violet or purple and she always wears one of those colors. She is the shyest of all the children.
Benjamin "Benny" Alden: is the youngest child at 6 years old. He celebrates his birthday in Surprise Island. Benny is known for his love of all food and the cracked pink cup he found in the dump. His endearingly childish qualities and comments make him a favorite amongst young readers. He is very talkative.
Watch: is the dog of the Boxcar children. He acted as a "watchdog" when they lived in the boxcar and protected them. Watch was originally owned by a wealthy lady but ran away and was adopted by the Alden children. The lady was so charmed by the children that she permitted them to keep him. Watch is an Airedale Terrier, and the children found him while Henry was away one day at work. He had a thorn in his paw, and Jessie removed it. Because of this, he became known as her dog. In subsequent books, Watch's bed is in Jessie's bedroom.
James Henry Alden: is the wealthy and kind grandfather of the Alden children, allowing them a lot of freedom and always offering them advice. He takes care of the kids after the death of their parents.
Dr. Moore: is the man who gave Henry a job and checked Violet when she was ill.
Soo Lee: She is the cousin of the boxcar children.
Mrs. McGregor: The Aldens' housekeeper. Her husband was first seen in the third book of the series.
Mike: Mike is Benny's best friend and appeared on Surprise Island.
Joe and Alice: The children's cousins/aunt and uncle. (Called both, but mostly cousins) Joe was first seen in the second book of the series, Surprise Island. Alice was first introduced in The Yellow House Mystery; she also married Joe in same book. They moved to a new house in the Mystery of the Singing Ghost. They adopted Soo Lee from Korea.
Aunt Jane and Uncle Andy: The children's great aunt (Grandfather Alden's sister) and her husband. Aunt Jane was once unkind, but was changed in Mystery Ranch, the fourth book of the series.
John Carter: An employee of the children's grandfather. Does investigation and carries out the children's grandfather's wishes "off camera".
The series involves the children solving various mysteries and occasionally traveling to other locations as they do so. After the first novel, the children become amateur sleuths. They stumble across a mystery no matter where they are, whether on vacation or in their own backyard. They usually solve the mystery with very little adult intervention, although adults are present in the novel (the author said she wrote about mostly-unsupervised children because that would appeal to children). Some of the mysteries border on the supernatural, although the practical Henry and Jessie always find the practical reason for anything that appears other-worldy. Most of the mysteries involve thefts and usually involve the Alden children helping someone they know.
The series are divided into mysteries and specials; all of the specials were written after Warner's death. As of 2014[update], there are 137 mysteries and 21 specials in the series.
Warner's life was chronicled in the biography "Gertrude Chandler Warner and the Boxcar Children" by Mary Ellen Ellsworth, illustrated by Marie DeJohn, which tells the story of Warner's childhood living across the street from the railroad tracks, her bouts with poor health, her teaching career, her earliest attempts at writing, and her inspiration for The Boxcar Children.
As she wrote the story, Warner read it to her classes and rewrote it many times so the words were easy to understand. Some of her pupils spoke other languages at home and were just learning English, so The Boxcar Children gave them a fun story that was easy to read. Warner once wrote that the original book "raised a storm of protest from librarians who thought the children were having too good a time without any parental control! That is exactly why children like it!"