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Top 100 Children’s Novels Poll #99: The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner

#99 The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner (1942)
19 points

If there is a shining example of a book considered a classic in spite of the fact that it has garnered no awards, my vote would go for Warner’s ultimate kids-living-on-their-own story. When I was a child I spent a frightening amount of time writing stories about independent children who were orphaned by various horrible means. Looking back, I suspect that my influence at the time had to be Ms. Warner. Yet you will not find her books mentioned in Louise Seaman Bechtel’s Books in Search of Children, Anita Silvey’s Children’s Books and Their Creators or even The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their CreatorsMinders of Make-Believe by Leonard Marcus makes no mention of it nor does Gertrude Chandler Warner have an entry in the 1971 edition of The Who’s Who of Children’s Literature, compiled and edited by Brian Doyle.  Finally, pick up a copy of your New York Times Parent’s Guide to the Best Books for Children by Eden Ross Lipson.  Nope.  Not there either.  Heck, nobody even sent me a quote of the reason they liked this book.

The reasons for this are manifold but one problem may be the fact that you are dealing with the titular book in what would later become a series.  Many is the library system that carries the Boxcar Children series but not that many kids know that the series had a single book begin it all that acted as a starting point.

The plot as described by Wikipedia says: “Originally published in 1924 by Rand McNally and reissued in 1942, the novel The Boxcar Children, tells the story of four orphaned children, Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny. They get permission to stay overnight at a bakery but run away when they hear the baker’s wife say she will keep the older three and send the youngest, Benny, to an orphanage. They create a home for themselves in an abandoned boxcar in the forest. They fear their legal guardian, their grandfather, believing him to be cruel. They enjoy their freedom, but need to seek help when Violet becomes ill. They eventually meet their grandfather, James Alden, who is a kind and wealthy man. The children agree to live with him. James moves the beloved boxcar to his backyard so the children can use it as a playhouse. In the subsequent books, the children encounter many adventures and mysteries in their neighborhood or at the locations they visit with their grandfather.”

Who defends it?  Well me, for one. I have vivid memories of the book, having had it read to me in school.  Cleaning the silverware.  Hiding from the authorities.  It was simultaneously gripping and comforting all at once.  Add to that the fact that it’s not every book that lasts from 1924 onwards.

Lest you forget, a prequel to the series as written by Patricia MacLachlan called The Boxcar Children Beginning is due out this coming September.

  • You can learn more about Ms. Warner here.
  • And you can download an activity guide here.

In terms of covers, it seems fitting to show a special 60th anniversary edition that was released

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. This book was very important to me as a child. It seemed a great handbook should I ever pursue any of the hundreds of threats I made to run away. I adored how everything had a purpose and such order could be made in the wild.

    I was just thinking of it yesterday as I read SUMMER OF THE GYPSY MOTHS. I would be surprised if Pennypacker didn’t have Violet, Benny, Jesse, and Henry echoing through Stella and Angel’s summer.

  2. Thank you for this great endorsement of The Boxcar Children. That one book has touched so many lives and generations of families. And, everyone, please do visit our museum in Putnam Ct.

  3. The Boxcar Children series got really boring after the kids were safe with their rich grandfather. This book, the first one, though? Still love it. Will be reading it to my children. The four kids being independent, taking care of each other, their innovations … they were my heroes for years. Well, Henry and Jessie, anyway. Violet and Benny always struck me as drips.

  4. My good friend urged me to read The Boxcar Children (with the wonderful second cover shown here). I never read any sequels, but the story of that first one stuck with me. When my first son learned to read, I got him several in the series. They are perfect for a kid reading early, because the stories are gentle, despite the higher reading level. Though he did tire of them before he got them all read.

  5. I loved this one, too. I read the whole series (and there were a lot of books in that series); I still remember that getting some of was my first time using interlibrary loan was to get some of the later ones. It was an odd shift though, from the “kids surviving on their own” of the first one to the low-stakes mysteries of the later books in the series. But they may be part of the reason that mysteries have remained my favorite genre fiction.

  6. I have fond memories of my first grade teacher reading this book outloud to our class.

  7. Stephanie says

    I think I have a Boxcar Children cookbook somewhere . . . This book and Enid Blyton’s Famous Five “Five Run Away to Danger” along with “My Side of the Mountain” by Jean Craighead George were my three favorite books about kids running away from home and living on their own to some degree. My mother read this to us when I was probably seven or eight. I went on to read some of the mysteries, but really preferred just the first book.