When I was a kid I loved to read. I still love to read but not quite as obsessively these days. Plus, there’s the whole job/adult thing that really puts a damper on things. I remember my mom would condemn us to bed around 9 every evening and if I was in the middle of a book I hadn’t finished, I’d get under the covers and read by the light of my alarm clock while my sister happily slept. I guess younger people these days don’t know much about non-cell phone alarm clocks, but reading by light of red digital numbers was a torturous and tedious process for a fast reader, as an alarm clock can only illuminate a couple words at a time. This is probably why I needed glasses by the time I was 10.
Anyway, a few days ago, I stumbled upon the first love of my literary life: The Boxcar Children. The first Boxcar Children book, to be exact. I believe it was Mrs. Noss back in first grade who introduced me to the Boxcar children at story time, and I remember that awe struck feeling of love at first listen. The boxcar children’s world was a romantic, idealized world to me. Imagine four siblings living in the woods in a boxcar, making it their home and surviving! And they were orphans no less, and as resourceful and independent as I wanted to be. As a kid, I frequently slipped into reveries of the grassy meadow where that boxcar sat among long, untended grass and set against a backdrop of deep dark woods, home to crackling streams, squirrels, deer, foxes and chirping birds. I wanted to be one of the boxcar children because they created this perfect, charming little world for themselves and they survived just fine. Plus, they were always solving all these mysteries and stumbling upon all these adventures. At six or seven years old, my freedom was limited to the backyard (which, in defense of my backyard, seemed very large at the time) and riding around in circles on my bike in our cul-de-sac. No boxcars, woods or even a creek in sight.
So I picked up the book and decided to start rereading it during my lunch break. I was done by the end of my lunch break. One of the things that always strikes me when I reread old childhood favorites is how simple and straightforward the writing usually is. Adult fiction is often full of complex, flowery, convoluted, sometimes experimental prose; double meanings, multiple interpretations and artistic, sometimes questionable, grammar choices. And let me tell you, the Boxcar Children, at least the first book, has extremely simple prose — short sentences that are to the point with no need for artistry or experimentation, probably because kids don’t need this kind of thing to set off their imaginations. There is nothing that particularly screams literary masterpiece, except in a way it is, because an adult was able to understand children, to write a story children can understand, a story that has survived nearly 100 years that is still read in classrooms. The story stuck with me for so long and when I think of the series, I think of it with enthusiastic nostalgia. It’s amazing to me that so much imagination, so many fun childhood fantasies resulted from these 150 large print pages of improbable plot. I mean really, how many six to fourteen year-olds survive nicely in a boxcar in the woods until they are rescued by their very wealthy and indulgent grandfather?
It’s a little sad to think that I will never inhabit that world the way I did when I was seven; I don’t know if I will ever be able to take such pleasure imagining the small details, the specific particulars of furnishing a boxcar or converting a creek into a bathtub (you’d have to read the book). But it made me happy to reread the book and remember the kind of kid I used to be and the kind of things my mind used to be capable of, when real life and the fantasy world overlapped and intersected.