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Patricia MacLachlan gives Boxcar Children a fresh start


Patricia MacLachlan

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Patricia MacLachlan will discuss and sign “The Boxcar Children Beginning: The Aldens of Fair Meadow Farm,” 7 p.m. Oct. 1 at Anderson’s Bookshop, 123 W. Jefferson Ave., Naperville.

Updated: November 1, 2012 6:24AM

Author Patricia MacLachlan firmly believes that it’s good to try something new every now and then.

“Otherwise, you get tired of yourself,” MacLachlan said in a recent telephone interview from her home in western Massachusetts.

MacLachlan’s novel “Sarah, Plain and Tall” won the 1986 Newbery Medal, which is given annually by the American Library Association to the best-written children’s book. Since then, she’s written a number of other novels and picture books, but she’s always trying to stretch her talents.

So, when editors at Albert Whitman publishers asked MacLachlan if she’d be interested in writing a prequel for the beloved series called “The Boxcar Children,” originally created by Gertrude Chandler Warner, she decided to say yes.

“A door opened and I decided to walk through it and see what happened,” MacLachlan said.

The result is “The Boxcar Children Beginning: The Aldens of Fair Meadow Farm” (Albert Whitman, $16.99), published just in time to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the series.

In her book, MacLachlan imagines the life that the four Boxcar siblings — Henry, Jessie, Violet and Benny Alden — led before they became the orphans they are in the first book of Warner’s original series.

MacLachlan readily admits that it was a challenge dealing with such well-loved characters created by another author. The first book was published in 1942; there currently are more than 150 titles in the series (many written by people other than Warner) and 50 million copies of “Boxcar Children” books in print.

Knowing that the series is so beloved by young readers actually was a help, however, MacLachlan said, because it both gave her some boundaries and a direction.

“I really liked the children. They are fun, interesting, inventive,” MacLachlan said. “And so I knew what kind of parents they must have had.”

MacLachlan opens the prequel with a portrait of the Alden family — parents and four children — each of them working hard, but happy to be together and to be weathering the difficult times that are affecting friends and neighbors.

Everything seems stable for the Aldens and then, in the midst of a blizzard, another family arrives, stranded by a late-winter storm and in need of a place to stay. The Aldens naturally take in the family: Jake Clark, his wife Sarah, their children Meg and William, and even their dog, Joe.

It turns out that the Clarks’ car needs a special part that must be ordered and takes some time to arrive. So the Clark family settles into life at the farm, working alongside the Aldens. All of the children become fast friends, and it’s devastating when the car part finally arrives and the Clarks can go on to their new home.

But that’s not the worst thing that happens to the four Alden children in this new book. As everyone who has read the “Boxcar Children” series knows, the children are orphans, and it’s MacLachlan’s challenging duty to “dispatch” the parents, something she does with both a minimum of fuss and a maximum of dignity.

Asked what she thinks has drawn children for decades to the “Boxcar Children,” MacLachlan said she believes it is the idea of “being alone.”

“This series fulfills kids’ fantasies about being on their own. And these books are enticing because it’s the children who make the decisions.”

MacLachlan has found that “I now have these characters in my head. They are part of my family.” MacLachlan has no plans to do any more “Boxcar Children” books but is glad she wrote the prequel.

“It’s a little like children playing princess. They put on a costume and they become someone else. Well, writing this book is like me putting on my princess clothes.”

Scripps Howard News Service

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