1942 Cover Art of The Boxcar Children, written by Gertrude Chandler Warner,
illustrated by L. Kate Deal
Ever since I started this little blog, The Boxcar Children has been waiting its turn to be featured here. You can find out more about this book here. It was always my intention to link my post about this classic children’s book with Elspeth Thompson’s wonderful blog about making a home out of two Victorian railway carriages.
Elspeth's blog has been on my sidebar from the very first under "Blogs That Got Me Started." I did not know her personally, but she and I shared a number of comments with each other. We both loved poetry and children's books about trains.
But then I learned that Elspeth had suddenly died.
I was in the middle of “Looking Into Cupboards,” and thinking about “Looking into Pockets” next, when I learned about Elspeth’s death, and I’ve been on a long detour through the deep dark woods ever since. Her death made me want to go back the beginning and to think about all the moments in our lives when we go one way and not another.
For this beautiful, talented, vibrant, and much-beloved woman took her own life. She was only 48 years old. She left behind her husband, her ten-year-old daughter, her hopes and dreams.
At first I thought I would not try to write about Elspeth at all, for I don’t know what to say. But I could not stop thinking about her. So then I thought I would just go ahead with my post about The Boxcar Children anyway, and see where it took me.
The illustrations are not in the public domain. The only one I felt I could use is the top one featured here because it was on the 1942 cover, but I felt Ms. Deal's beautiful black and white illustrations were essential to my writing about this book, so I made little replicas of the ones that I wanted to show you.
I was actually very much taken aback as I reread this book and worked at making my own paper cut-outs of these beloved illustrations, for I realized how much this little book must have contributed to my own love of the black and white silhouette.
And as I looked for clues to Elspeth, the very first thing that struck me was a repeating phrase: “against the
The Boxcar Children is often described as a story about four children who survive against the odds. And Elspeth’s last project, which she had only just started, was a brand-new website titled "Gardening Against the Odds.”
So I thought I would put my finger on this phrase, "against the odds," and with it in mind, begin where The Boxcar Children begins:
"One warm night four children stood in front of a bakery. No one knew them. No one knew where they had come from."
This is a very powerful way to begin a children's story. I have used this for years as a model for how to begin my own stories with words that are both simple and mysterious at the same time.
This is my very rough cut-out of Ms. Deal's illustration of the children finding the boxcar in the woods in the middle of a thunderstorm.
There are many orphans in children's literature, but usually they are living with a relative or in a school. They are not all alone in the woods.
It is this idea of children surviving all alone, against all odds, that makes this little story so appealing. And so powerful.
Apparently, when it first came out, some librarians would not have it on their shelves, for they were afraid it would entice children to run off to the woods and become wild things!
This is Watch, the dog, a stray who finds them in the woods, limping with a thorn in one paw. I love it that four children, who have almost nothing to eat themselves, take this dog into their care and share their food with him. He, in turn, becomes their watch-dog.
The children are Henry, the oldest, Jessie next, and then Violet who is ten, and Benny who is five. While Henry goes into the nearest town to try to get odd jobs, the other children explore an old dump where they find all that they need to set up home in the boxcar.
Here is my own cut-paper version of the shelf with all their findings. It is this part of the book that I used to "play" over and over in our damp old basement with my two brothers and sister. There were four of us, too, and I used to beg my siblings to play "The Boxcar Children" with me.
I gathered together some odds and ends (above) to try to replicate the illustration of the bowls and cups on the shelf in The Boxcar Children. This is what our little shelf in the basement might have looked like, so long ago, when we played at being all alone in the world.
Our mother would give us saltine crackers and little boxes of raisins to "live on" in our basement-boxcar. And we plundered the kitchen cupboards for cups and bowls and a jug and a teapot, so that we, too, could survive against the odds.
Here is Jessie stirring a stew with a big spoon. My mother (alas!) would not let us recreate this particular scene in our backyard, but I imagined it a thousand times in my daydreams.
And when I go camping now, and bend over a campfire, there is Jessie, too, forever stirring her big pot of stew.
And there are the four children forever finding blueberries in the woods, and making pine-needle beds, and washing their chipped and cracked dishes in a little stream.
Ms. Warner was a teacher, and she worked hard to make this book easily readable for young children. Most third graders can read it independently.
And because this one first book was so popular, Ms. Warner wrote 18 sequels, and about 100 more books have been added to the series by other authors.
As a child, I read two or three of the sequels, but they did not have the magic of the first book, for in the sequels the children had the safety-net of their rich grandfather. They were no longer all alone in the woods. They no longer had to depend on only the things that they had brought with them in a laundry bag or that they could scrounge for themselves.
It is the first book that is so absolutely pitch-perfect. I would read it through to the end, and then turn right back to page one and begin all over again.
And it is here that I put my finger upon Elspeth and find the same perfection in her.
However much we long for a hundred sequels to Elspeth, nothing can take away the fact of her total and absolute perfection as she was in the one life that she lived. We will write the sequels for her, as others did for Ms. Warner. We will make gardens that will thrive against the odds in forbidding and barren places. We will carry on for her.
Most of us have faced some dark night of the soul of our own. I have spent a lifetime buffeted between great tidal waves of both faith and doubt. But Elspeth faced a darker night than I have ever known. And no matter how much we long to sit with her during that great dark night of her soul and somehow pull her back from the edge, we cannot.
I wish I had written my review of The Boxcar Children for Elspeth in time to give it to her, but perhaps it is never too late to give a gift.
I don't know if she knew about The Boxcar Children, but I know she would love it that here and there all around the world, on any given day, children are playing "The Boxcar Children" and thereby practicing how to survive against the odds because of Gertrude Chandler Warner.
And, likewise, here and there all around the world little gardens are thriving against the odds because of Elspeth Thompson.
Let us take Elspeth with us in our hearts and go forth then into the world and find our own ways to survive and thrive against the odds.