Remembering the books that taught us more than we ever cared to learn.
The Boxcar Children series by Gertrude Chandler Warner
My cousins were always annoyed by the same refrain when we played―that my name was Benny and I was six years old and once lived in a boxcar. None of which was true. They, being my cousins, very clearly knew my parents (who were in the next room over), but they also knew that I was annoying them again with my obsession with The Boxcar Children.
If you’ve never read the books, the basic plot is about four orphaned siblings who take refuge in a boxcar. They are on the “run” from a grandfather they believe to be cruel, sight unseen. But eventually the kindly grandfather takes them in―and puts the boxcar in the backyard at the end, as a sort of makeshift playhouse. In subsequent novels, the siblings would solve mysteries, often somewhere in the realm of Encyclopedia Brown but with occasional Scooby Doo overtones.
The book to hit me first was The Haunted Cabin Mystery. It had everything I wanted out of a book―namely, the word “haunted” in it, as, at the time, I would read anything even sort of ghost related. And the character Benny, youngest of the siblings, hit me more than the others. I had somebody a little annoying but also capable of holding his own. Which sometimes, around my cousins, that’s how I felt. In second grade, this is a Very Important Thing. I was, after all, not yet old enough to be a fourth-grade nothing like Peter in Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. But here I had someone around my age who was having genuine adventures. It was an absolute delight to me, even if my cousins rolled their eyes every time it comes up.
It’s funny to think that the book that booked me wasn’t by the original writer, Gertrude Chandler Warner. The last one of those was book 19, Benny Solves a Mystery, another personal favorite in the series, for reasons obvious in the title. There was a fifteen year gap between Benny Solves a Mystery and The Haunted Cabin Mystery―the first was written in 1976, three years before Ms. Warner passed away, the second in 1991. As I delved deeper into the mysteries the siblings uncovered, I also learned a new ghost term―“ghost writer.”
Having a character my own age made the books more relevant to me than any other series of young mystery solvers―the Hardy Boys were just a bit older, and Nancy Drew just didn’t do it for me. Sometimes, that’s what’s important to a child. Superman and Batman may excite our imaginations, but we can’t possibly live up to those tales. I mean, I don’t know anybody rocketed from a dying planet. Do you? But to be able to unravel a mystery at such a young age, it makes you want to strive to be smarter.
Within a couple years, somewhere around book 30, the fascination had passed. The books were gathering dust in favor of Judy Blume and other authors. And of course, eventually, Goosebumps. But still, the tales of a bunch of orphans living in a railcar still stick with me to this day, and were a big part of my upbringing. And today, children who want to delve into those mysteries have 136 books to choose from. But maybe the original 19 (plus The Haunted Cabin!) would be the best place to start.
—John Wenz is, among many other things, a writer living in Philadelphia. He likes loud music, soft cats, bad movies and warm baked goods.