Whatever would they do without us? (More than you might think!)

A friend recently told me that she went to a bookstore looking for something new to read to her daughter. The bookseller made some age-appropriate suggestions, like –(and I know I write this a lot—it’s an epidemic)—Rainbow Fairies. My friend was not so impressed and pushed back. How about The Boxcar Children?  She wondered out loud.

The bookseller shook her head no. “Those kids have no parents.”

Though I was the very person who made this recommendation to my friend, I tried not to take personal offense to this reaction. Why did I think this book was okay and this trustworthy bookseller did not? Was it my own nostalgia for The Boxcar Children? Definitely. But it was something else, too. Yes these kids have no parents and yes that is disturbing and complicated…to us, the parents. It isn’t all that disturbing to kids. And I think I know why.

The same way we’re okay with Sam Gribley running away from home and living in a tree, or Claudia and Jamie Kincaid running away to the Met and making a home for themselves in the musty velvet of an antique bed. Kids are not so concerned with the Amber Alert of it all. What they care about is how those kids survive, how they make it out there in the wild world all on their own. Not a grown-up in sight.

Just yesterday I tested my own child. We were in a shopping center parking lot and I said, “pretend I’m not here, how would you get to the car safely?” She got a wide, serious smile on her face, let go of my hand, looked both ways and hustled to the car –very carefully. More carefully than if I had been holding her hand tight, tugging her along while she daydreamed about the row of colorful jeans we had just left behind. She was more careful because she had to be. And I was relieved. I had not sheltered her into oblivion, she had gotten to the car.

I do this a lot. When my kids watched Home Alone, I asked them if they thought they could get to the supermarket for milk (or, let’s be honest, a big old box of Frosted Flakes) in my absence.  Both of them mapped out all of the logistics, and eventually thought that yes they could. And again, I was relieved. The beauty of a book like The Boxcar Children is the voyeurism of it. Kids get to look inside the lives of kids who—either by circumstance or daring-do—are alone and have to eat, and stay warm, and stay safe, and take care of siblings, and make money, and the list goes on and on.

These stories are spectacular for showing us how kids might go about surviving outside of the watchful eye and grasp of their parents. How they might secure a commuter rail train pass from their parents’ waste basket, how they might give up their weekly ice cream sundae bought and paid for out of their very own allowance so they might save enough to eat on the mean streets of New York City. These authors are showing us resourcefulness at play, and extraordinary resilience, and I thank them for this.

Because in an age when we are all a tight hand-hold away from our kids—or maybe a text, or a facetime call away, we kind of need someone to expose them to a world without parents so that they at least pause to wonder if they themselves would know to make an abandoned boxcar into a shelter should they come upon one.

I, for one, loved the escape of these books and wasn’t at all fearful of them. Thankfully, my daughter feels the same way, and thankfully, when she did get to the car on her own, she turned to me with pride and relief and said, “can you go back to being here now?”

Far too many to list, but here is a selected list:

For early to middle graders (K-4):

The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

Grades 3-6:

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

And for ages 8 to 80…(we all might as well get a skill set, just in case):

The Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn Igguidan and Hal Igguidan

The Daring Book for Girls by Andrea Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz

35 thoughts on “Whatever would they do without us? (More than you might think!)

  1. gargoylebruce says:

    Yes…surely being an orphan (or otherwise parent-less) is a staple of children’s fiction…just think, if Harry Potter’s parents hadn’t faced an untimely demise, J.K.Rowling would not now be living in exhorbitant luxury!

  2. Menno van Rosmalen says:

    Great story! It proves that children adapt on the responsibility they are given and manage to be wisely in situations that ask for it. Thank you for your post, because, how minor it maybe is, this will change the way readers educate their kids in a positive way. Keep up the good work.

  3. jennifertan47 says:

    I think that you hit the nail on the head. I think we put adult things onto kids a lot, and I liked reading you tease this one out to figure out what was going on. Really good post.

  4. Nicolle says:

    I find the bookseller’s reason for not suggesting The Boxcar Children interesting. Personally, I don’t think his personal opinion should really factor into the suggestions he makes. As a bookseller, he should be promoting all books equally.

    You make a great point that books are not meant to always reflect everyone’s reality (or reality at all), and to give readers a look into a world that they don’t know. But, let’s also not forget that there are children out there who don’t have parents.

    I also love how you test your children, and make them think of ways they could accomplish things.

  5. Melissa says:

    I remember reading the Boxcar Children as a child and being totally intrigued by their ability to make-do for themselves. I thought it was “neat”. So I agree, kids are more into the story and not worrying over the stuff grown-ups fret over.

  6. Mei says:

    I absolutely loved reading all of the boxcar children books as a kid…and yes it is quite funny…I didn’t think anything strange of them not having parents. Lovely post! 🙂

  7. S.C. says:

    I remember some of these books well. And the appeal was exactly that: wondering how I’d do in the same situation without any adults around. I think it’s the same reason so many people like watching post-apocalypse and zombie movies.

  8. lovinitstacy says:

    Who would have thought that such a great book would not be considered acceptable today! The Boxcar Children is about survival as you stated; survival on a child’s level! As adults the majority of us are obsessed with “end of the world” movies! We like to think we could survive, just as a child likes to take on that “I am strong and capable” attitude if their world (their family) was to end!

  9. lsurrett2 says:

    I just about fell over in my chair when you referenced “The Mixed-up Files”. I think I’ve read that book over 20 times, at least once in the last 5 years! It’s a pity that booksellar was so skewed, a librarian would have totally approved.

  10. allthewaydoc says:

    The Boxcar children is my favorite book of all time! I probably read it a hundred times when I was in grade school. Turns out it was my uncles favorite as well. One of my aunts got me the series of which I most loved the first book and I gave it to my daughter to read. I think the fact that those kids do so well and use common sense to do it is fantastic. This world needs more kids like that!!

  11. yourbrainonbooks says:

    Though of course I have always known of The Boxcar Children series, I somehow never read it when I was younger. I’m sorry I missed it! I probably would not appreciate it the same way now. Regardless, I’m in complete agreement with you – kids don’t need to be sheltered nearly as much as many parents think!

  12. Lazy Ambitious says:

    I think you are absolutely right! Children are very underestimated these days, they are not seen as individuals with their own minds and capable of their own thinking. We try to teach them to be responsible, loving and capable to care for themselves, but most parents don’t actually want to let them go.

    As for the books, as a kid my parents could never get me out of the library. I loved books and could lose myself completely in them. Fictional stories are what they are, fictional.. and most children will be able to tell the difference.

  13. becomingcliche says:

    Homecoming by Cynthia Voight was a novel that made a huge impact on me as a kid. I still read it as an adult. It’s an incredible story of survival. The sequel is not nearly as engaging for me because have a chaperon.

  14. ashanam says:

    Kids books about children without parents are usually heavily sanitized. Generally, the kids work out the logistics of survival without the help of parents minus any of the trauma or anguish that a child who has lost parents would normally have. That’s why children are not disturbed but adults are. The children reading the books are thinking about whether they could get to the store for Frosted Flakes. Adults reading it are thinking about issues we know would be there, but that the children don’t have the experience or the knowledge to consider unless it is directly presented to them. Books like these also usually cast the child alone as triumphant, giving kids the idea they would make it, which is a reassuring view to have. But many children in those situations don’t make it, or are so deeply damaged by it that they struggle profoundly afterwards The books continue to shelter children even if difficult issues are touched on. It is almost never done realistically. And that’s why they are okay. They are fantasies–just like slaying dragons or rescuing princesses–and they make us feel the world is better than it is. Which is sometimes a good way to start out in life.

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