If there is a universal truth that unites anything and everything on earth, it is the fact that aging is inevitable. The cycle is everywhere you look. There are ways upon ways that nature marks the passage of time. The concentric rings in trees. The layers of strata visible in a canyon wall. A 16-point set of antlers on a mature red deer. And of course, the most accepted, scientifically sound way of determining age in humans: measuring reactions to the plot points in The Boxcar Children.
It’s hard to get much more classic-American-children’s-book than The Boxcar Children. Originally published in 1924, it was written by Gertrude Chandler Warner, a first grade teacher who first entered a classroom as part of the need for teachers during World War I. The story of four intrepid orphaned siblings who take their chances living independently in an abandoned boxcar rather than moving in with a grandparent who is a stranger, The Boxcar Children is one of those books that often ends up as a new reader’s first chapter book. As Warner wrote the book, she read it aloud to her classes, essentially workshopping it with the audience that would make it famous. I feel like this method would have been valuable to the brothers Grimm. If you are writing a children’s story about orphans who are having to make their own way in the woods, you are probably 100% less likely to include deliberate abandonment, cannibalism, and death by roasting if you are vetting it with actual children.
Grimms: thanks for attending our Work In Progress seminar
Children: no problem
Grimms: so any feedback on Hansel & Gretel
Children: we feel terrified, was that your objective
Grimms: omg NO like it’s supposed to be whimsical
Children: maybe dial back all the attempted murders
Adulthood ruins a lot of stuff, and it’s so unfair that the first thing it is likely to ruin is anything that entertained you as a child. It’s because of critical thinking. Critical thinking is helpful, because it probably keeps you from doing stupid things like buying magic beans or ordering chili on your onion rings, but it also straight up sucks joy air out of your joy balloon. Critical thinking demands that you reconcile inconsistencies and points out gaps and it’s basically the reason I can’t enjoy action movies made before 2003 because the special effects are so primitive (I’m looking at you, all Roger Moore as James Bond movies). It also makes it difficult to revisit a lot of beloved children’s books, because once your inner adult voice starts talking, it’s really hard to get it to shut up.
Origin Story In the opening pages of The Boxcar Children, we meet the four orphaned Alden children as they stand in front of a bakery, debating but ultimately wisely deciding to purchase bread instead of cake for their dinner. In exchange for a place to sleep in the bakery, the children agree to work for the baker and his wife, but have to run away when they overhear the baker’s plan to take the youngest of the siblings to the Children’s Home the next day. It’s an action-and-exposition packed first chapter that utterly fails to explain how these kids were orphaned. It just doesn’t come up, ever, anywhere in the book. Because why would it? It’s totally not relevant to Young Me AND NOT KNOWING ISN’T DRIVING OLD ME CRAZY OR ANYTHING.
Young Me: I would want cake too!
Old Me: so they just wandered away from a double funeral?
Young Me: Always ask an adult for help!
Old Me: WTF these people didn’t call 911 to report 4 unsupervised kids
Grimms: the baker wants to eat the kids right
Love It Or List It After sneaking away from the baker, the four children hide in the woods where they come upon an abandoned boxcar which they immediately identify as a perfect dwelling (as well as the ideal marketing and branding opportunity). It’s warm, dry, and move-in ready. Young Me was relieved and happy that the orphans found shelter and managed to stay together against odds. Old Me can’t even with wondering if everyone is up to date on their tetanus shots as they start crawling through what is clearly a rusty deathtrap.
Young Me: hideouts are cool
Old Me: is that a nest of black widows in the corner
Grimms: the witch lives here?
Young Me: no Grimms it’s not an enchanted boxcar
Old Me: it’s either a pile of spiders or a badger either way get out
Dinner Bell Once they’ve commandeered the boxcar, the Alden kids meet the challenge of establishing their meal supply chain head on. A quick walk to town for some groceries, a quick forage in the woods for some berries, and dinner is on. Due to convenient topographical features, there is a small stream running right in front of the boxcar which provides drinking water, facilitates cleanliness, and in a clever little detail, allows for refrigeration when the children store the glass bottles of milk they buy in town in the cold running water. I always loved that element of how the kids play house in the woods, although personally, I don’t really like milk when I am camping. My favorite camping food is brown sugar cinnamon Pop-Tarts.
Young Me: I like cold milk too
Old Me: those bottles are probably coated in giardia
Young Me: let’s all have a picnic!
Grimms: so does everyone turn into geese or what
Old Me: damn, Grimms, chill out
Okay, Old Me. You just need to stand down. Not everything needs to make sense. In fact, the Alden siblings might be on to the tip of a whole lifestyle iceberg. I think there is a market for a chain of Boxcar Children-themed health spas and retreats, featuring Reject Authority Power Yoga, Decorate Your Small Space classes, and Hunt And Gather juice cleanses. Get Healthy The Boxcar Way! (Meet me at my room later. I snuck in a whole case of Pop-Tarts.)
You probably are wondering if there is a list that ranks Pop-Tart flavors. Yes, there is.