What Children’s Literature Teaches Us About Money: Gertrude Chandler Warner’s ‘The Boxcar Children’

There’s a Box-Car universe and a Boxcar universe.

Yes, there is a movie version of The Boxcar Children where they all look like video game characters. It’s available on Netflix.

So I want to write about The Box-Car Children. No, not The Boxcar Children. These are two very, very different books.

Gertrude Chandler Warner originally wrote The Box-Car Children in 1924. In 1942 she would revise it as The Boxcar Children, eliminating anything that could be considered dangerous — the children drink out of pumps and water fountains instead of brooks and streams — and limiting herself to the 600 most common English words so that her story could be used as a Beginning Reader in schools.

She also took out all of the personal finance.

Here’s an excerpt from The Box-Car Children, which you can read for free at Project Gutenberg:

“I’m going to keep track of everything I earn and spend,” said Henry, watching Jess as she handed around the cookies with reverence.

“How are you going to write without a pencil?” asked Jess.

“There are pieces of tailor’s chalk in my workbag,” said Violet.

Henry gave his younger sister a gentle pat, as she returned with her workbag and fished for the chalk.

While the girls rinsed the empty dishes in the brook and stored away the food for supper, Henry was beginning his cash account on the wall of his bedroom. It was never erased, and Henry often now looks at the account with great affection.

Soon the girls came to inspect it. Meanwhile Benny looked on with great delight as Watch tried to bury his bone with only one paw to dig with.

“Earned, $1.00; Cash on hand, $3.85,” read Jess aloud.

Below, he had written:

Milk .24

Bread .10

Bread .20

Cheese .10

Milk .24

Beef .20

Bone .05

Cloth .10

In addition to keeping a cash account, Henry decides to open a savings account with the $25 he earns winning the Field Day race:

“What are you going to do with the prize?” queried Dr. McAllister.

“Put it in the savings bank, I guess,” replied Henry.

“Have you an account?” asked his friend.

“No, but Jess says it’s high time we started one.”

“Good for Jess,” said the doctor absently. “I remember an old uncle of mine who put two hundred dollars in the savings bank and forgot all about it. He left it in there till he died, and it came to me. It amounted to sixteen hundred dollars.”

“Whew!” said Henry.

“He left it alone for over forty years, you see,” explained Dr. McAllister.

(Dr. McAllister is Dr. Moore in the 1942 version. Most of the surnames get changed. The Box-Car Children are Cordyces, the Boxcar Children are Aldens.)

In 1924, $25 would have been the equivalent of $350—and Dr. McAllister’s uncle, who put $200 in the bank and got $1,600 forty years later, would have been earning a little over 5 percent interest.

Today they’re still handing out $25 prizes to people who win races, and many banks offer less than 1 percent interest.

I am guessing that at least 80 percent of The Billfold’s audience grew up reading the edition of The Boxcar Children with the yellow cover, where the four children are wearing bizarrely anachronistic, matchy-matchy outfits as they race into the boxcar.

The edition I read growing up and the newest edition.

There have been newer editions of The Boxcar Children since, both the original story and the bajillion solve-a-mystery sequels that followed, many of which have also chosen to contemporize the Alden children into the current era. (The 2014 animated movie sticks to its uncanny valley concept in both facial features and time period. The girls are wearing skirts, but Jessie’s also wearing an olive-green field jacket—a Vietnam War icon that has since been softened into a fashion standard—and a very modern sweater.)

Why do we keep updating the Aldens? Why not acknowledge that this is a story about kids in the 1940s (that used to be a story about kids in the 1920s) and let Beginning Readers deal with that?

The further away we get from Warner’s era, after all, the less realistic the Boxcar Children story becomes. In the 1940s, a thirteen-year-old could still walk by himself to a neighbor’s house—even a neighbor he doesn’t know—and offer to mow his lawns and weed his gardens without needing direct adult supervision. Today, a thirteen-year-old cannot legally be left unsupervised “for an unreasonable amount of time” in the state of Illinois.

It’s fascinating how Warner’s first revision, the moment where we go from The Box-Car Children universe to The Boxcar Children universe, edits out everything that a school system or parent might not want children to read. Both the Box-Car Children and the Boxcar Children begin the novel as itinerants, walking into a new city in search of bread and shelter—but the Box-Car Children have an alcoholic father with them, who dies within the first four paragraphs. (It’s implied that the children discover his body.) The Box-Car Children cut up their clothes to make pillows and blankets; the Boxcar Children conveniently have everything they need. The Box-Car Children wash their dishes in the river and immediately begin using them; the Boxcar Children make a big deal about how you have to wash dishes in hot water to get them clean.

The Box-Car Children calculate their income and expenses and want to open a savings account. The Boxcar Children don’t.

Earlier this month, Jia Tolentino wrote about The Box-Car Children and The Boxcar Children for The New Yorker (which I didn’t realize until today, so I’m calling it great minds think alike):

“The Boxcar Children” and the Spirit of Capitalism – The New Yorker

More notably, in the earlier book, the grandfather anoints Henry future president of the steel mills, and tells the other children that they must go to college, after which, he says, “you may do whatever you choose for a living.” In a parenthetical, Warner tells us that the grandfather’s vision will come true: the kids won’t rest on their new riches. “Of course I have more than enough money to support us all,” the grandfather says, “but if you have something to do, you will be happier.”

J.H. Cordyce, steel-mill magnate and formerly frightening grandfather, also tells the Box-Car Children that they will go to “the finest schools in the country.” Warner immediately adds:

This came true, for all the children finally went to the public schools, and are they not the finest schools in the country?

There’s something about the idea of living on your own, in a boxcar, that is immediately appealing to many young children. (By all historical accounts, Warner was very aware of this, and defended her story against librarians who, even in 1924, said the book promoted too much independence.)

I used to imagine taking up residence in a boxcar or in one of those metal sheds that people kept in their backyards. It would be just big enough for me and my sister and our single shelf of dishes which we would carry home from the dump and scrub clean with sand and the all-important hot water.

As the original story approaches its centennial, we have young people—no longer children—living in pods and tiny houses and shipping containers. We have Professor Dumpster and dumpster divers and landlords renting kitchenless apartments while telling their tenants to wash their dishes in a bucket.

We still think it’s a great deal when we get an unexpected $25.

We still hope our savings accounts will work out for us someday.

We still wait, in the back of our minds, for the mysterious stranger to show up and say we can live in a real house, with more than one room, and we never have to worry about money again.

Next week: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Also, I’m curious: I had a request to do Gordon Korman’s No Coins, Please—which I loved as a kid—but the library doesn’t have a copy and the online resellers want over $30 each. So I’m thinking about doing John D. Fitzgerald’s The Return of the Great Brain instead, since it’s another story about a young conman who grifts everyone around him. Has anyone else read this?


What Children’s Literature Teaches Us About Money: ‘The Witch of Blackbird Pond’

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