1. Journey on a Runaway Train
2. The Clue in the Papyrus Scroll
3. The Detour of Elephants
4. The Shackelton Sabotage
5. The Khipu and the Final Key
created by Gertrude Chandler Warner
2017 / 687 pages total
The Aldens are four children, – Benny, Violet, Jessie, and Henry – aged 6 to 14, who, after being orphaned, ran away and found an abandoned railway boxcar in the woods which they turned into their new home. The very first book in the series, The Boxcar Children, published way back in 1924 is all about how their grandfather searches for them, and how they hide from him, thinking him to be a mean man since he’d never come to visit the family when their parents were still alive. But, as so often happens in children’s stories, this bad guy turns out to be not so bad after all: Grandfather Alden is actually a wonderful man (and rich too) who loves them very much. Eventually, all the misunderstandings are cleared away and the children go to live with him in his big house. To top things off Grandfather Alden has their boxcar brought to his house’s backyard, so they can use it as their clubhouse.
That first Boxcar book spawned 200 more, with this Great Adventure series published almost 100 years after the original story. Great Adventure is really just one story, 687 pages long, that’s been divided into five books (each 129-145 pages) for the sake of making it a lot less intimidating for the intended 8 to 10-year-old audience. The setting is modern day, and the mystery that starts it all takes the children around the world to retrieve lost treasures. It turns out there are two groups after the treasures: a good “Reddimus Society” that wants to restore the items to the museums where they belong, and a bad Argent group that just wants to keep the treasures for themselves. The children are allied with the Reddimus Society and use the group’s plane to fly from one place to the next. But somehow the Argents always seem to know where the Aldens are heading. Could one of their pilots be a traitor? And if so, which one?
The main caution is God’s complete absence. This struck me as a lot like a typical Christian kids’ fiction series in how safe it is: a loving grandfather, his sweet grandchildren, and all sorts of other very kind people contend with villains who are most often misunderstood rather than evil. And unlike pretty much all the children’s fiction published after 2020, there’s no one here sharing their pronouns or any of that sort of wackiness. Safe. But that’s not exactly a recommendation – to badly paraphrase Chesterton it’s good for children to read about evil, not to learn about its existence which they already know, but for them to realize that evil can indeed be fought. At the same time, there is a time and place, so some nice safe books, in a moderate dosage, can be good too. It is that safety that makes these a favorite among Christian families (and even sold in some Christian bookstores). But it struck me that in the stories themselves, there’s not a Christian to be found anywhere. Nor is there any hint of Christianity – Sunday is celebrated as a day off of school when they can work on their projects. When the kids get into trouble, God’s absence becomes all the more noticeable since the kids never think to ask Him for help. So, even though the first story was written a century ago in what was still a largely Christian culture, this is an entirely secular series.
One other caution has nothing to do with these 5 books. If your kids want to check out more Boxcar, there are a couple of hundred others. However, while the original 19 books written by Gertrude Chandler Warner all seem similarly “safe,” the 150+ books written after her death aren’t always so. There’s still no one offering pronouns (so far) but in one, Native spirituality is given a soft endorsement, and it might have been that same book where Man was presented as more an enemy of Nature than as the caretaker that God has charged us with being. So parents shouldn’t presume that the whole series is reliably safe.
This 5-book set is just a fun simple adventure that has enough suspense to keep its young target audience on edge. It’s also a bit of an educational travelogue, with readers learning at least a bit about each country they visit, which includes: Egypt, England, Italy, India, China, Thailand, and even Antarctica. For kids just learning to read, they’ll feel a sense of accomplishment in tackling all five, and if a little one finds working through it a bit tough, the audiobook version is quite well done. Overall this is an story that most boys and girls under-9 will really enjoy, whether it is being read to them, or they are tackling it themselves.