Gertrude Warner's The Boxcar Children was published in 1924 and remains a classroom staple to this day due to its unique themes of independence and ingenuity. If you somehow never had to read it, it's about a gang of orphan siblings who take up residence in an abandoned boxcar and survive by their wits. They eventually succumb to adult suppression, but only because one of them gets sick. Otherwise, they were doing just fine.
When you're a kid, you live in an adult world. You're constantly told what to eat, where to go, what not to watch on TV and when to go to bed. The Boxcar Children never had any of those problems and that's why they continue to be read decade after decade. Most books are written by adults who have forgotten what being a kid is like, and are often based on adult theories of how children think. It's not hard -- kids want to be treated as HUMANS.
The book was so popular, Ms. Warner expanded it to a series of mystery novels, one per year, until she died. These later books weren't favorites of mine because she kept aging the characters. Their being KIDS was the whole point to their appeal.
There was a paradox, though. While the series treated its children like grown-ups, the writing was severely dumbed down. I kept reading, but I was irritated enough to start writing my own adventures for them when I couldn't get what I wanted to read. My initial attempts were pretty lousy, and usually involved the Alden children trying to escape elaborate death traps operated by some guy who wanted to kill them for no explained reason. I wanted bigger thrills than Gert could give.
In addition, some moments in these novels were head-scratchingly strange:
WHO DOES THIS??!?
And they love it! They love eating that glop! LOOK at them!
One evening, during a fateful parent-teacher-conference-slash-bookfair, I walked into the midst of the library to find, among other things....a Boxcar Children #21. I had to look twice. How could it be? There were only 19 and the writer was dead! Upon closer inspection, the cover now said "CREATED BY Gertrude," not "written by." I guess if they owned the characters it was legal to continue on without her. What could she do about it, really?
This turned out to be the best one I ever read. For one thing, the characters were back to their original ages. Another thing: they could die. They started finding pieces of a valuable sword, and had a limited time to uncover them all while a creepy psycho stalked them, trying to get the sword for himself. Unlike any other book in the series, this had real danger and suspense; he could have killed them at any time and came close once. So, naturally, this never happened again. The editor must have been furious: "You can't put actual peril in a novel for children; they might get entertained and therefore corrupted!" All future books would deal with the likes of stolen paintings and soft sabotage.
Scholastic released a new one every month forward, and I kept buying them up to the forties, because again, it was the fascination of their independence that did it for me...but the condescending manner in which they were written often annoyed me so much that I whipped out my pen and started scribbling in little comments. They were my books; I could treat them however I wanted.
Around this time I also gave my Boxcar Children comic one more shot...only this time I went for a more humor-based approach, and it worked much better for me -- a LOT better. I couldn't get the ideas out of my head fast enough. From May of 1993 to May of 1994 I scribbled out 25 issues' worth of irreverent Boxkid fan-fiction, with several issues being double-sized. That's a record I doubt I'll ever break.
I wrote some of my first real pop-culture gags through that series. Anchorwoman Connie Chung visited them in one story, only to be shocked that their dog handled raw burger patties with his mouth at Burger King when they weren't watching him. She reported it as a scandal, and news vans and helicopters immediately surrounded the Aldens' house. As they're being smothered by reporters and cameramen, the phone rings. "It's Tonya Harding," Violet says, "....and she's laughing."
The Aldens have a dog named Watch, and at first he was played straight as a background character, until one issue that for some reason followed a dog named Hank telling his life story to a psychiatrist, instead of anyone familiar. It was revealed midway through that Hank was actually "Watch" and that he in fact HATED the children and would rather be with his previous owner. From that point stories about Hank involved attempts by him to escape the Alden kids, but he usually failed. The heroes were protrayed as villains in Hank-perspective stories, dragging him by the collar and swinging him by the tail. Looking back, this was a pretty clever inversion.
Meanwhile, I continued to buy Boxcar Children books just to riff them apart.
Eventually they started coming out with "super-sized specials" that were actually shorter than the other books, but padded out with "games and activities" in the back. They took the occasion of the first special, "The Mystery on the Ice," to introduce a new character. The kids' cousin Joe and his wife Alice adopted a Korean girl named Soo Lee, who showed up on occasion to cram a little diversity into what up to that point had been a cast whiter than a blizzard.
Soo Lee showed up in my own comic beginning with issue 10. Stories starring her were some of my first attempts at social commentary, as I was just starting to pay real attention to the news. Television violence was a hot-button issue back then, and I made one of the worst stories I've ever written in response. People saw murders on TV and immediately went out and shot other people afterward (non-ironically). Soo Lee confronted the network executives, who were depicted as a bunch of bearded biker guys in leather jackets with names like "Deathmeister." "As long as we get our money," growled Deathmeister, "we don't caaare if the nation goes berserrrrrk!"
Eventually, she left the comic and America to attempt a revival of the Soviet Union so she could aim nuclear missiles at us and blow everybody up. She was never happy. .....This didn't happen in the books.
In 1994, that comment was REALLY funny.
References a poem some kid wrote for the teacher in my second-grade class: "From east to west, you are the best and cats are cats and rats are rats."
I don't know where I got "I want to caress you all of my days!" but even as an adult it's funny.
If you venture into the children's section of today's modern bookstore, and you don't look like a suspicious creep, you can observe that many of the book series that dominated the 90's, like Goosebumps or Babysitters Club, are no longer there. Boxcar Children mysteries, however, have passed the test of time yet again and are still on the shelf. And that's not all. They finally print actual comic books!
Or, rather, graphic novels based on Ms. Warner's books. They're pretty thin (the compliation above doesn't count). Much padding from the originals is cut out to the point where I think they should just call them comic books because "graphic novel" implies something hefty. But at least the art looks better than the hasty scribblings I used to mock so mercilessly.
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