We’re off to see the wizard!

We’ll be heading down a well-known road in our next book and it should be a lot of fun. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is one of the oldest books on our list, published in 1900 – and it’s such a familiar story, known in so many different versions – but 118 years later, how many of us know the original story? Or stories, actually – 13 Oz books in all. How well do the political/historical allegories and satirical elements come through in the 21st century? Is it a fairy tale? A fantasy? An adventure?

wizard-of-oz-original1When I was growing up – way back when there were just 3 channels to choose from on television, long before we could watch movies pretty much anywhere/anytime we want to – watching the The Wizard of Oz was an annual event – something not to be missed. The film ranks in the top 10 on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 movies of all time – it’s a cultural icon, with easily-recognized references in music, films and TV – even casual conversation (We’re not in Kansas anymore. I’ll get you my pretty – and your little dog too! Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!)

But for this book review, we have a brand new generation of readers who – although they have no doubt seen more movies/videos/shows of all types than their parents/grandparents even had access to through their entire childhood/adolescence – they may not have seen the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz. And even if they have, it’s unlikely to have had the same impact on them as it did on the generations that knew it as more of a special event than just a movie.

For the first time in decades, we may have some readers who will be heading to Oz with no more expectations than kids who read it a century ago. So, let’s follow the yellow brick road and see where it takes us. It should be a wonderful journey.



Kids’ Review #1: The Boxcar Children

boy diving into bookFor our first book, our panel of experts consists of…

One girl:

  • EW, age 8

And two boys:

  • AW, age 12
  • OA, age 8  (reading the book for the second time)

They are all avid and experienced readers who are eager to share their thoughts as we make our way through the Top 100 Children’s Novels

The reviewers were provided with a few guidelines to help them pull together the ideas they wanted to share about The Boxcar Children, but for the most part, I wanted to leave them free to simply tell us why kids might or might not want to read the book.

Their comments below are reported just as they passed them along to me – all I did was rearrange them into a group review.

Who might want to read The Boxcar Children?

OAI think it could be for both boys and girls – for 6-10 year olds.  

AW – The book is geared toward a younger age group than me but that didn’t make it any less enjoyable…I really liked it but I think girls would enjoy it too. 

EWDefinitely both boys and girls would like this book because there are two girls and two boys that are the main characters…I wouldn’t recommend it for kids younger than me because it has a few hard words in it that I needed help with. Like “refrigerator” and “delightedly.”  I do think kids my age and older than me would like it though.

What did you think about the story? 

OAIt’s not like that exciting with a lot of action, but it’s really cool how they set everything up…It was cool how Henry would go down to town and bring back supplies.

EW – You have to keep reading it – you can’t stop for a week because then you would forget what’s going on….The story kept my attention. I kept reading a lot of times even though my timer went off. 

AW – It is an easy read and the story line is fast and fun. 

How did the story make you feel? 

OA – It wasn’t scary, I did not laugh, and it was kind of sad because their parents die.

EWI would like to be part of this story because they are adventuring – in the woods, hiding from their grandfather, trying to find a job – and I think that would be fun…Overall, it made me feel happy. There was one part that made me anxious – when Henry was in a race and he was getting really close to the finish line and two people were in front of him and he was like “I can do this,” and he just went ahead and I was like “Is he gonna win? Is he gonna win?.”

AW –  I really felt like I was there when they were having their adventures in the woods. 

Anything special about the characters?

OA[I most identified with] Benny because he is a boy who is pretty young and funny.

EWI think Jessie is like me because she is generous and she always finds a way how to do things.

AW – My favorite character is the youngest, Benny, he made me laugh so much. 

Anything confusing or that you didn’t like? 

EW – One confusing thing was that they were running from their grandfather, but they were working for someone and that person could have been their grandfather. I’m still not sure what that was about…One thing I didn’t like was that they found the boxcar so soon. I wanted them to have more adventure before they found it. The story seems a little old-fashioned, but that is not a reason to not read it.  The people and the activities would make sense today. 

Are you interested in reading more books in this series?

OAOh yes, I am trying to read as many as I can right now. 

EWI do like that it sets the stage for the next book and makes you want to read the next book…I would definitely read the series. 

AW – I want to read more stories about The Boxcar Children because the author made them easy-going with a sense of humor.

Final recommendation?

EW – You should read this book.

OAI love that bookI’ve given it to my cousin.

AWThe entire book is so exciting and fun and I would suggest it to my friends.

Review #1: The Boxcar Children

Even though The Boxcar Children is one of the books from our Top 100 list that was written before I was born, and I’ve raised and read to two now-adult children, and I’ve always been aware the book was out there – I had never read it till now, mainly because I figured I wouldn’t be interested in it.

I’m not sure exactly why I thought I didn’t want to read it – vague thoughts that it was a “little kid story” that I felt too mature for even as a child, or maybe that it was too “old-fashioned” to hold my interest. Whatever my reasons, I’ll admit that I wasn’t expecting much  in the way of a compelling story – at least not a story that would seem compelling to me and my worldly wisdom.

Shows how much I know.

From the first pages, I was gripped by the story. I was immediately interested in what would happen to these four children. After all, “No one knew them. No one knew where they had come from.”  And they were hungry, they needed shelter. And I totally did not trust the lady who was clearly “helping”‘ them for her own selfish purposes, so I was quite relieved to find that there were clever and resourceful children who could look out for themselves – all while maintaining a sunny attitude and polite demeanor.

All this in the first few pages, written with a vocabulary intended for young readers. It didn’t take me long to understand why the book lead to a series that remains popular after more than 70 years.

As an elementary school teacher, author Gertrude Chandler Warner  clearly knew her target audience. There’s no doubt that a key reason for the story’s perennial popularity is that it provides kids an opportunity to explore that childhood fear and fantasy – being on their own with no parents. And according to an article by Caity Weaver  Ms Warner got a lot of grief from librarians for glamorizing this no-adults-necessary lifestyle. But fortunately for generations of young readers, she ignored the criticism and let the kids get on with it.

The plot of The Boxcar Children is uncomplicated. We join the world of four siblings – Henry, Jessie, Violet and Benny – at a point sometime after their parents have died in some unknown way. We know that they have a grandfather that they assume does not like them, so they’re trying to avoid him. We know that they are together and want to stay together, and we accompany them along their way. For the most part, we know only what they know, and know that they need what any of us would need out there in the world – food and shelter. And some fun adventures. And maybe a dog.

After a couple of nights finding what shelter they can in the woods, the kids are thrilled to find – believe it or not – an abandoned boxcar! An ideal spot to make a home, especially after a trip to the dump, where many treasures are found. Being honest children, they know they’ll need money to buy food, so Henry goes into town to look for work and finds a doctor who needs some chores done. The doctor and his mother seem to have plenty of jobs for Henry to do and make sure that after he weeds the garden, he takes home the pesky extra vegetables that were cluttering things up. And it just so happens they have a lot of cherries that need to be picked. And eaten.

As I said, the story is uncomplicated, and I don’t want to give too much away plot-wise. Suffice it to say that the children always look out for each other and are great at figuring out how to solve problems, they eventually find out that some adults are nice and helpful, they get to keep their boxcar, and they go on to have many, many, many more adventures.

And what did I realize as I read this book? Me, who thought that the story might be too simple to keep my attention? I remembered that when I was in early elementary school, one of my favorite things to pretend was that I was stranded on a desert island and had to make my own shelter, find my own food, fend for myself without the aid of any parents.

Gertrude Chandler Warner knew her audience, and it seems likely that as long as there are young kids who dream of independence and adventure, The Boxcar Children series will remain popular.

But enough of what a grown-up thinks of the book – next post, we’ll hear from the readers who really understand it.


Top 100 Children’s Novels Rank: 99

Amazon Best Sellers Rank: 2,935

Number of pages: 153

Chapters:  13

Date of publication:  1942

Story time and setting: New England, contemporary to time of publication

Opening sentences:  “One warm night four children stood in front of a bakery. No one knew them. No one knew where they had come from.”

Main characters: Four siblings – Henry (age 14), Jessie (12), Violet (10) and Benny (5); Dr. Moore and his mother, Mrs. Moore, who pay the children for doing odd jobs and who just maybe keeping an eye on them; Grandfather – a shadowy figure that the children assume does not like them

Reading age level:  7-10

Emotional/Maturity level:  Suitable for early elementary school children. The story necessarily includes a bit of uncertainty and tension since everyone knows that these are kids on their own – that’s what drives interest in what they’re doing – but potentially uncomfortable situations are quickly resolved and it never feels like the children are in imminent danger.



Gertrude Chandler Warner

“I believe that children are only beneath me in years. I find in some, my superiors.”

Isn’t that just the kind of thing you’d like to hear from your young child’s teacher? That was the attitude of Gertrude Chandler Warner, author of The Boxcar Children. She taught elementary school for more than 30 years – which is pretty amazing for a 20th century teacher, especially considering the fact that she never graduated from high school!

child gertrudeBorn in April of 1890, Ms Warner lived all of her 89 years in Putnam, Connecticut. Her father, Edgar, had a law office in Putnam and her mother, Jane, was the head of the town school committee. Gertrude was the middle child of the family, two years younger than Frances and two years older than John. These kids grew up in a house built by their grandfather that was right across the street from  — drum roll please — a railroad station. Our author particularly enjoyed looking through the windows of the caboose when it pulled up to the station and always thought it would be a really fun place to live.

Unfortunately, living with the constant flow of smoke and cinders seems to have had a negative impact on her health. Gertrude missed a LOT of school due to illness, ending with her withdrawing altogether halfway through high school, though she did continue with a tutor at home.

Young Gertrude loved books and reading and from the age of 5 knew she wanted to be an author and began filling in small blank books as soon as she could hold a pencil. Her first little hand-made book – “Golliwog at the Zoo” was presented to her grandfather, and she wrote one for him every Christmas after that. As a young girl, she also played the cello and expressed her love of and interest in nature by collecting butterflies, pressing wildflowers, learning about the birds in her area and tending her own garden.

When the US got involved in WWI, there were no longer enough teachers to go around gertrude chandler warnerand on the strength of her experience as a Sunday school teacher, Gertrude got a job helping out a first-grade teacher in her town of Putnam, CT. When that teacher died, she continued the job on her own. During her years as a teacher, she continued her own education, taking summer classes at Yale University.

Ms Warner wrote educational works for schools and other non-fiction books for children, including The World on a Farm, the no doubt closely-related The World in a Barn, as well as Peter Piper Missionary Parakeet – “The true story of a parakeet that accompanied a lady missionary for ten years across two-hundred thousand miles during which time he accumulated a vocabulary of eight-hundred words.” (And hers is not the only book on this wonder parakeet, though copies seem to be few and quite far between.)

And based on a book of essays she wrote with her sister Frances – “Life’s Minor Collisions” – I’m thinking if she was still with us, she might be a blogger. The sisters introduce these essays saying:

“All the chapters are for those kindred spirits who try to be easy to live with—and find it difficult.”  

The essays provide often-humorous observations of daily activities and interactions, such as the challenge of finding your way around Boston, men practicing the “virile” and “primitive art” of carving meat at the dinner table, and annoying family members who talk to you while you’re talking on the telephone (“The person at the receiver looks so idle; there seems to be no reason why he should not listen with his unoccupied ear; and, when he is so evidently in need of correct data, it seems only kind to help him out.”)

teacher warnerBut of course, the books that Gertrude Chandler Warner is known for are the Boxcar Children Mysteries. She began the first one while she was taking time off from teaching due to a bout with bronchitis. While recuperating, she decided to write a book “just to suit myself.” And since from childhood, she had always wanted to live in a train car, that’s where she placed her young protagonists, and then shared the story with the children in her classroom. As mentioned previously, the original story was published in 1924, but was revised in 1942 with a simplified vocabulary, designed specifically for young readers.

Ms Warner wrote 19 Boxcar Children books, but the series appears to be never-ending and continuously popular, with more than 150 stories and no end in sight. Her home town of Putnam, CT even has a museum dedicated to her work on the series.

After she retired from teaching, Gertrude continued to spend time with children in Putnam. Her former students and other children in the town knew they were always welcome to come and visit her to talk about her books or any other interesting or educational topics. It seems likely that she would be glad to know that through the museum, she can still play host to kids who share her interest in the possibilities of life in a boxcar.






Gertrude Chandler Warner and the Boxcar Children by Mary Ellen Ellsworth


Illustrator in shadows

more boxcar illustrationThe first thing we learn about the four siblings in The Boxcar Children is that “No one knew them. No one knew where they had come from.” So it seems completely appropriate that all of the illustrations in this first book of the series are done in a shadow/silhouette style.

Illustrator L. Kate Deal does a nice job with this format, providing just enough pictures to enhance the story, but not so many that it feels like a picture book.  Young readers can readily see that this is a chapter book, one that they have to read to know what’s happening in the story. Ms Deal shows a nice level of detail in her black and white drawings so that we have a good idea of the children’s relative ages, how they dress, how they take care of themselves and each other. Though we see them only in the dark, it’s obvious that there is nothing shady about them.

boxcar children illustration

I’m afraid I can’t say the same about L. Kate Deal. Not that I know anything to her detriment – it’s just that I can find little about her anywhere.  And by “anywhere” I of course mean “online through my typical practice of googling everything I want to know about.”

I have become so accustomed to casually typing in key words and instantly finding multiple references to every little thing I have questions about, I’ve been a bit put out by my lack of success in finding out any personal information about this woman. The sum total of my findings about L. Kate Deal – she was an illustrator. Seems she mainly did children’s stories – but who knows?

book twoWhat I do know is that besides The Boxcar Children, Deal provided illustrations for Child Library Readers, Book Two (1925) by William H. Elson, one of the authors of the “Dick and Jane” readers that helped so many of us in our early days of reading. I was so annoyed that I couldn’t find out anything online about L. Kate Deal that I bought a musty old copy of this reader, in which someone penciled in neat cursive “Lime Ridge Grade.” A quick search told me more about Lime Ridge than I found about our illustrator. There’s a Lime Ridge in Pennsylvania and one in Wisconsin, either of which might have had a grade school in the 20s – and then there’s an elementary school in New York state that is on Lime Ridge Road, which looks even more promising. Anyway, this little reader was helping young kids learn to read 90 years ago, which is nice no matter where it was doing its job.

The introduction to this reader assures us that “the stories have been selected for their child-interest and wholesome ethical content. Kindness, helpfulness, contentment, industry, promptness, gratitude, love of Mother, and obedience are attractively portrayed in interesting stories, yet without any of the atmosphere of preachiness.” (Perhaps the stories aren’t preachy, but there seems to be a bit of sermonizing in the introduction.)

We are told the illustrations by L. Kate Deal and others “are not mere decorations, but are so drawn as to present in visual form the unfolding of the narrative.” And here we see a couple of examples of her narrative-unfolding skills. A pleasant, old-school style.

girl with fairy

“If you meet a fairy”

peter rabbit

Peter Rabbit and family.

One interesting aspect of these illustrations is that as far as I can tell, various illustrators worked on the Reader in a general way, because illustrations within a single story are sometimes from different artists. All of the drawings are stylistically similar, but there are a few distinctive signatures. For example, let’s look at two illustrations from “The Magic Ladder” by Jay T. Stocking – a title/author pairing that strikes me as funny – makes me think of British women complaining of damaged pantyhose.

But to get back on topic, here we have two very similar drawings from the story that have different artist other illustratorsignatures. Early in the story, we see Jack and “the funniest little man that you ever saw” who hopped out of a grandfather clock. And here’s a closeup of the signature:


Later on, Jack is in the same room talking to the same funny little man, and this picture shows with a fairythe signature of our mysterious illustrator, L. Kate Deal.


You can clearly see that the pictures show the same room, same characters, but if you compare, you can see the differences in style.

I wondered if maybe publishing companies just commonly had – or still have – a sort of team of illustrators that pitch in wherever they’re needed. But in searching for publishing practices and illustrations for school readers in the 1920s, I got pretty much nowhere. If anyone knows about such things, I’d be happy to hear about it.

dorothy lake gregoryAll in all, I didn’t find out much about our Boxcar Children illustrator – but I do think her style suits the story better than those of the illustrator of the first publication. Nearly 20 years after the original version, Gertrude Chandler Warner revised the book to make it more accessible to young readers – which evidently was the right thing to do, judging by the never-ending popularity of the series.

The earlier illustrations by Dorothy Lake Gregory are lovely, but this is a story about runaway orphans living rough – these kids look a bit too refined and elegant. I like the shadowy kids better in this context.

Another cool reason the simple black and white illustrations work for this book is that in20170624_144016 her role as grade school teacher, Gertrude Chandler Warner used to draw silhouettes of all of her students, like this one:

I wonder if any of my elementary school teacher friends plan to add that activity to their busy school day….


boxcar children







Impossible things

I recently finished The Boxcar Children, and I was surprised to find myself wondering, “Is this believable?” Just what I was questioning, I’ll address when I review the book, but the question itself turned my thoughts toward a rather important feature of much of children’s literature – the possibility of the impossible.

It’s one of the things I love best about children’s lit – the idea that pretty much anything might happen. The story might be about a family you could imagine living next door to you, or a family that lives undetected under your floorboards, or a family of mice (or rabbits or badgers or fairies) dealing with challenges that, strangely enough, you might be facing yourself. Or it might be about someone who seems to have a life much like your own but unexpectedly finds a cricket that chirps classical music or a wardrobe that leads to a different land.

Charlotte’s Web author E.B. White speaks beautifully about the challenges and rewards of writing for children:

Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly.

220px-A-dressing_the_White_QueenThis is the one of the pleasures ahead of us as we take on some of the best of children’s novels – we’ll get to practice believing impossible things. According to a certain White Queen (who looks suspiciously like a chess piece), if we do it for half an hour a day, we can work our way up to believing six impossible things before breakfast! Although frankly, I prefer to believe my impossible things after breakfast – otherwise it just seems like sleepiness or hunger-induced delirium.

As much as I look forward to reading and discussing the Top 100 Children’s Novels with kids of various ages, and as much as I hope that lots of kids will join us in reading them, there’s a sense in which I really don’t like thinking of them as children’s books. Most of the books on our list that I’ve already read, I read for the first time as an adult – and I enjoyed them as much as my children did, maybe more. I find that human struggles and successes, dilemmas and discoveries stand out sharp and clear against the backdrop of a magical or alien world and what I learn from them is more memorable because of the contrast.

As children, we’re encouraged to read to exercise our imaginations, expand our horizons, to believe that anything is possible. Then somewhere along the line, those encouragements turn to exhortations to get our heads out of the clouds, face facts and live in the real world. The longer we do that, the harder it becomes to “suspend our disbelief” – which is kind of a dull and pretentious way to talk about relaxing and enjoying impossible things.


So, while I read through these books, my suspended disbelief will take the shape of the Cheshire Cat’s head after its body fades away – but floating just over my shoulder so that as my imagination gets a workout, my critical thinking skills can reach out and tap me with a paw to remind me of important points to bring out when it’s time to write my reviews.





Let’s hear it from the kids!

Welcome! My name is Patti, a mom who has been an avid reader since childhood, as well as a committed read-alouder who has raised two avid readers, aged 33 and 18 (and who still reads aloud to a husband who would otherwise never read fiction.)

Some young friends and I are embarking on a reading adventure and our mission is to read and review the Top 100 Children’s Novels, as compiled by the School Library Journal. 

Five years ago, I started a completely similar project with my daughter, hoping we could get through the list together by the time she graduated from high school. It was a great idea and really fun, but we got through fewer than 10 books before school, sports, interest in other books and adolescent life in general pushed the project to the side. My daughter still loves to read, but she just graduated from high school and will soon be – quite appropriately – busy with college textbooks.

BUT – even though we haven’t posted anything for five years, our blog still receives visitors nearly every day, and folks still optimistically click the “follow” button, hoping that we will post more reviews.

So, I’m back with a crew of avid readers who range in age from 8 to 12 (and I’m still recruiting!). Together we plan to work our way through this list of fabulous books and provide detailed reviews from the parental perspective (that would be from me) and – more importantly – from the point of view of the intended audience: elementary to middle-school kids.

Reader reviews are so helpful, especially when you’re looking for books to feed your kids’ reading habit, but too often the reviews are written by adults who have fond memories of the book from childhood. And don’t get me wrong – those are valid reviews. (I know, because I’m full of reviews like that.) And adults should absolutely share their book thoughts with the kids that they know. Think about it – it’s how most of us became book lovers in the first place. I know you remember the adults who shared books with you when you were younger.

But let’s face it – hindsight is not 20/20. It is colored by fond or not-so-fond memories and  – let’s face it – forgetfulness and/or the fact that we grew up in a very different decade. Our goal here is to provide a kid’s eye view of books written anywhere from just a few years ago back to the 19th century, letting parents and kids know what to expect when they open those pages – with a bit of help from an adult who either knows the book well or may be reading it for the first time (again, that would be me).

This project is exciting to me because a lot of these books, I never read until I had kids of my own. Out of the 47 that were available when I was a child, I read only 7 while I could still be considered a child — and I still remember all of them fondly.

In reading many of these books as an adult, I have discovered that a great book is simply a great book – you’re not supposed to “outgrow” it.  It will just keep getting better,  revealing new depths, new insights when you re-read it – which is basically why it is considered a classic.

So here we go – our first review will be for The Boxcar Children, published in 1924 by Gertrude Chandler Warner. Prior to the reviews, I will post a bit of information about the author and illustrator — and anything else that might occur to me before my panel of experts finish their reviews.