For most people, the biggest names in mysteries are Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. While those beloved masters are well known worldwide, for many young readers, their first introduction into the genre is through another author: Gertrude Chandler Warner, author of the classic children's series The Boxcar Children. Join us today as we take a look at her life and work.
Warner was born in Connecticut in 1890. As soon as she could read and write, she began dreaming of being an author. Inspired by her favorites, Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and Florence Kate Upton’s Golliwog stories, she began writing her own tales and giving them to loved ones as Christmas gifts. Due to illness, she could not finish her high school education but continued learning with the help of tutors.
She taught Sunday school for a time before being asked to step into a position as a first-grade teacher during World War I to fill in for the many male teachers who went to war. Here, she found her calling. She returned to school to study education and taught first graders until 1950.
In 1924, Warner published The Boxcar Children, the first book in her most famous series. Warner first conceived of the idea as a child, imagining herself living in a freight train and cooking meals for herself on the stove. She expanded on this idea to write a story that she felt would greatly appeal to children, who often enjoyed the fun, slightly scary idea of living independently with very little adult supervision.
The Boxcar Children was well received, but Warner didn't write any more books in the series until she retired from teaching in 1950. In her retirement, she wrote eighteen more books about the Alden children and their boxcar, transforming the initial premise into a series of books about amateur detectives. In the early 90s, other authors picked up the series, expanding it to include approximately 150 novels.
While all of The Boxcar Children books are charming and recommended for young readers, the following are some of the best in the series written specifically by Warner.
The Boxcar Children
Originally published as The Box-Car Children, this novel started it all. This book introduces us to the four Alden siblings: Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny. The book opens with the four newly orphaned children searching for a place to stay.
When a couple seeks shelter with talks about putting the elder children to work and turning youngest Benny into an orphanage, the children decide they can’t trust any adults who might separate them or give them to their grandfather, a mean man who disapproved of their parents’ marriage.
The children find an abandoned boxcar in the woods and make their home there, salvaging items from a nearby dump to set up their home. Eventually, Henry has to get a job, leading to suspicion from his employer. However, when Violet becomes ill, they're forced to trust his employer, a doctor.
The doctor figures out who the children are and introduces them to their grandfather, who is a kind and generous man. The children agree to live with him and even get to keep their boxcar as a clubhouse.
Though there is no mystery in this first book, it is a charming introduction to the children, their boxcar home, and their kindness and determination.
Written over a decade after the first book, Surprise Island is the second book in the series and the first to introduce a mystery. The children are excited to spend the summer on their grandfather's island, setting themselves up a sort of camp experience in a barn and exploring to create a museum of local flowers and shells. However, a mysterious man on the island, Joe, seems to have greater natural history knowledge than your typical handyman and it’s up to Henry and the rest of the kids to get to the bottom of the mystery of his true identity. Though the mystery in this book isn't as strong as many of the others, it is worth a read as it is the first book in the series to try out the new format.
The Lighthouse Mystery
The eighth book in the series is The Lighthouse Mystery. When the Aldens rent a lighthouse but every night at midnight, their dog Watch begins to bark and the scene of food wafts into the lighthouse, seemingly from an abandoned house nearby. While in later books, the children’s age is static, this book is notable because Henry is about to go off to college, which plays a large role in the plot.
Benny Uncovers a Mystery
Warner’s final book, Benny Uncovers a Mystery, focuses on strange goings at a department store where Henry and Benny work for the summer. With someone breaking into the store to leave items instead of taking them, a mysterious old woman hanging around, and anonymous people leaving letters about their dislike of the rich Alden kids, the mystery is layered enough to be truly surprising for young readers. However, fans of Jessie and Violet might be disappointed as the girls aren’t very present in the story.