Books written for a young audience are often quite strange. At times you can tell the author is pulling his or her punches, avoiding going in the natural direction with a story, in order to keep it "age appropriate." While some books for young audiences contain strong elements of realism in life, others paint a picture that perhaps leaves the child reading the story wondering why his or her life sucks so much in comparison.
I've been reading the series of books following the adventures of The Boxcar Children at work lately. I've found them comical at times, highly predictable and almost ridiculously formulaic, especially after the first nineteen books, written by Gertrude Chandler Warner, who died in 1979. At some point after her death, the series was continued by authors who do not use their name and the byline simply says "created by Gertrude Chandler Warner."
The first nineteen books have a certain charm to them, contain more involved plots and, well, more words than the sixty to seventy written after Ms. Warner's death. The early stories focus on how the four Alden siblings, two sisters and their two brothers, lost their parents in an accident, went to live in a boxcar in order to avoid being taken in by their grandfather, who they've heard is a very mean man, and then learn he is anything but mean.
Grandfather Alden, who is always called "Grandfather" and never "Grandpa" or anything more familiar, is a mysterious figure. He works in a mill and has more money than he knows what to do with. He flies people in from all over the country for various reasons, often revolving around the children needing playmates or help solving the mysteries they encounter. He takes the children on all kinds of vacations, from stays in luxury hotels in New York City to first class cabins on cruise ships. No orphan even had it so good, except maybe Little Orphan Annie, but the bald guy who took her in was a lot rougher around the edges than Grandfather Alden.
Grandfather Alden once flew in a boy from Canada in order to entertain the children when they were bored one summer. He flew him into town the next day. Enough said.
So, aside from the mysteriously wealthy and extremely caring, loving and spending Grandfather, we have the four children. The oldest is Henry, who is fourteen and is generally thought to be in charge of the group. He isn't really, but we'll get to that later. Henry is somewhat rigid and interested in learning about everything. He is something of a pragmatist, the Doubting Thomas whenever his younger siblings jump to conclusions. He is the voice of reason as they work to solve various mysteries that appear in their lives at about the same rate as they do in the lives of The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and that woman on Murder, She Wrote. When the others begin to suspect ghosts or supernatural intervention, Henry is there to remind them that "these things aren't real." Every mystery has a logical conclusion, although the logic of those conclusions is often more than a little hokey.
The second oldest is Jessie, who is twelve and seems to grow increasingly horny as the series goes on. She appears to be the most intelligent and resourceful of the group, but is often distracted by any reasonably attractive older man who smiles at her. She blushes a lot. Everyone else makes fun of how horny she is.
The third child is Violet. She is ten and has two notable characteristics, both of which the stories never get tired of telling us about. She is obsessed with purple and wears purple and collects purple things as often as possible. This is on account of her name, although she will refer to the colors as anything but purple or violet. Things are always lavender or periwinkle or whatever other term someone could look up in a thesaurus while typing along with the formula. Her other characteristic is shyness, which isn't really apparent from her actions, so she talks about being shy whenever she gets a chance.
The fourth child is Benny. The stories really revolve around Benny, a six year old boy who never, ever, ever gets tired of eating. Whenever there is any break in the action of the story, Benny will ask about food, eat food, or wonder when food will become available. If you wanted to play a Boxcar Children drinking game, drink every time Benny talks about food and the others laugh in response. You'll be unable to walk to the bathroom after reading two books.
Benny is the real protagonist of the series and this is evident after reading three or four of the stories. He is very likeable, very outspoken and is responsible for leading them into most of their mysteries. Unless you have a thing for twelve year old girls who are constantly horny (I usually forget she is twelve when I'm reading and then feel dirty when I remember), Benny is the only one of the four you really care about. He is a very likeable little imp who is always so earnest and unspoiled by the negative energies of life that his naive outlook can be quite refreshing.
The people the children encounter are mostly eccentric and downright weird. Like The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, all good people are financially well off and extremely polite and bad people are limited in their resources and extremely rude. This generally helps you solve "the case" before the children do, but on the plus side, there are often so many weirdoes roaming around in these stories that you have to figure out which weirdo is behind the "crimes." I put that word in quotations because the crimes these children help solve are usually not really crimes so much as protracted weirdnesses. A couple makes it seem like the house next door is haunted because they are saving up to buy the property and don't want anyone else to buy it in the meantime. A man is trying to delay a cruise ship from making it back to port because another man on board is scheduled to inherit his aunt's fortune and house, but only if he can make it to the reading of her will. No one is ever armed. All the suspects, once cornered by the children, give up and explain everything and ask the children and those impacted by their actions to forgive them.
Despite all the trouble the children get into with their mysteries, Grandfather rarely tries to convince them to stay out of trouble. He is always there for them if they need him, and can leave the mill he works at, and is paid a great deal of money by, at any time if they need him or get into trouble. When confronted by weird, almost Scooby-Doo type criminals, the police, or any real authority figures are never called in. Just Grandfather. If these kids ever really got involved with a violent criminal, they have an elderly man in reserve.
The Boxcar Children series is a very enjoyable read, more because of the elements mentioned above than in spite of them. It provides a moment of enjoyable hilarity when you once again read about Violet being excited about lavender socks, or when Benny gets hungry, or Jessie smiles at another man.
However, I am mostly reading in order to unravel the mystery of Grandfather Alden, who not only has copious amounts of money, but everyone close to him seems to have had their parents killed in strange accidents. And then there is the matter of Grandmother Alden, who died ten years earlier under mysterious circumstances and was once given a necklace by Grandfather that was so valuable it ended up in a museum. I want to know what Grandfather is really all about, and although I know the books will never get me there, it is about the sex, not the orgasm.