Do you remember Gertrude Chandler Warner’s book The Boxcar Children? Remembering it because you bought it for your kids or grandkids doesn’t count. Although initially published in 1924, it was the wildly popular 1942 edition I remember reading in Miss Bennett’s third grade classroom at Joaquin Miller School in Oakland. How wickedly wonderful to think guilt-free of living on your own with no parents. That book, with its silhouette illustrations by L. Kate Deal, is embedded in my memory.
When offered the chance to review the prequel, The Boxcar Children Beginning, I jumped at it, especially because its author is Newbery Medal winner Patricia MacLachlan (Sarah, Plain and Tall.) MacLachlan is a master at chapter books for early readers. But does the book need a prequel? The subject of prequels runs hot and heavy with readers who either love knowing how this or that protagonist came by their traits, or those who’d just as soon the original be left alone.
Beginning is a stand-alone tale, successfully describing the Aldens’ farm life in rural Connecticut. The reader learns, from a series of random events occurring on the farm, how the children, Henry, Jessie, Violet and Benny, are almost hardwired to respond imaginatively and with an innate sense of cooperation; so that when they are told of their parents’ death in an automobile accident, the idea of them surviving on their own is entirely believable.
The enthusiasm of young readers for the original book was singularly different from that of their parents, teachers and librarians. Gertrude Chandler Warner insisted that the Alden children’s ability to survive on their own was exactly the reason young readers loved the story, although of great concern to parents and teachers. MacLachlan’s prequel is the perfect balm for such concerns. I have a feeling that kids couldn’t care less about why Henry, Jessie, Violet and Benny are able to live without parents, and it’s really adults who need the reassurance that parents are, in fact, necessary, at least as teachers and models of resourcefulness, kindness and self-confidence.
MacLachlan did her homework in writing a tale that carefully foreshadows events and responses to those events in the original story. Children will find MacLachlan’s story believable and a strong enticement to find out what happens to these children when they set off on their own rather than wait to see if they will be sent to an orphanage. Violet’s ability to sew, Benny’s wish for a dog, Jessie’s gift for list-making and Henry’s resourcefulness are all imaginatively described in Beginning.
Many of the foreshadowing events in Beginning revolve around a family whose car breaks down in a snow drift and who are welcomed into the Alden household until the car can be repaired. I was puzzled by the author’s decision to give the family an ethnic identity (only really addressed by the illustrations). Had the story been set anywhere beside rural Connecticut, it would not have appeared so contrived; as if remaking history to look more racially inclusive than it really was. But this small intrusion of modern sensibilities is a very minor complaint about an otherwise welcome addition to children’s literature. Gertrude Chandler Warner’s original story, eventually expanding into a mystery series, continues to fascinate generations of children. Patricia MacLachlan has skillfully taken some of the mystery out of how the children did it and after reading her prequel, there will likely be an “ah hah” moment when Warner’s The Boxcar Children is read for the first time. s.s.