I read a lot as a kid. One of the first chapter book series I remember reading was The Boxcar Children. Gertrude Chandler Warner wrote the first 19 books. So far there are 137 books, and it looks like they are still being published. The reading levels can range from second through fourth grade. I think I began reading them in second grade, but enjoyed them for several years after. However, I don’t think I ever read more than ones written by Warner. She published the first book in the early 1920s, but they didn’t really take off until it was reissued in 1942. Most of these original books are set in the 1920s and 30s.
These are simple books aimed at emerging readers that are ready to tackle longer books with fewer pictures. The story lines are more complicated than picture books and easy readers, but they are still simple and move along quickly. Topics tend to be common and familiar. The vocabulary used is limited, so as not to be too difficult for second and third graders. The boxcar books always feature some kind of mystery, or question that must be answered. I remember not being able to put these books down because my anticipation to find out what happened next was so great. Rereading them as an adult I remembered this feeling and it made me smile, but I didn’t feel it in the same way.
The first book of this series is where the name comes from, obviously. We meet four children, who are living on their own. Their parents are dead. They have a grandfather who is looking for them, but they don’t want to be found by him. They believe he didn’t like their mother and that he is a mean man. They find an old empty boxcar in the woods and set up house there. There is a stream that they use for drinking water, swimming, and washing. One of my favorite parts from when I was a kid is that there is a little waterfall with some space behind it in the rocks, and they use this as a refrigerator. I remember being so entranced by this idea of kids living on their own. All the things they did to set up house fascinated me. Henry, the oldest boy gets a job working for a doctor, and eventually the doctor gets in touch with their grandfather. They learn that he is a very kind and caring man, who is also very rich (if only all of us could be so lucky).
For adults, of course, the stories are predictable and simple. But for kids reading them, and I was one, this was the height of suspense. Also, you can see in these books that they are preparing the reader to tackle more complicated plot lines and characters in the near future. There are efforts at helping the kids to empathize and anticipate the needs of certain characters, with simple explanations as to why they act or react in certain ways.
Personally, I think it would be pretty difficult, as an adult, to write like this. To use a limited vocabulary and to not complicate your plot too much for these early readers. Now that I’ve revisited my reading past, I am curious what has been published recently at this grade level. Perhaps I will look to some of the authors and titles that are aimed at the same population of readers and do some comparing and contrasting.