Author Patricia MacLachlan firmly believes that it's good to try something new every now and then.
"Otherwise, you get tired of yourself," Ms. MacLachlan said in a recent telephone interview from her home in western Massachusetts.
Ms. 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 writing talents.
So, when editors at Albert Whitman publishers asked Ms. 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," Ms. MacLachlan said.
The result is "The Boxcar Children Beginning: The Aldens of Fair Meadow Farm" (Albert Whitman, $16.99, ages 7-10), published just in time to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the series.
In her book, Ms. 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 the "Boxcar Children" series.
Ms. MacLachlan readily admits that it was a challenge dealing with such well-loved characters created by another author. The first "Boxcar Children" 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, Ms. MacLachlan said, because it both gave her some boundaries and a direction as she worked to imagine what kind of parents the children would have had.
"I really liked the children. They are fun, interesting, inventive," Ms. MacLachlan said. "And so I knew what kind of parents they must have had."
She 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 many of their 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 Ms. MacLachlan's challenging duty to "dispatch" the parents, something she does with both a minimum of fuss and a maximum of dignity.
Overall, Ms. MacLachlan's book is careful to connect with Warner's characters, setting and subjects. But Warner was more of a one-dimensional writer, while Ms. MacLachlan, as her Newbery Medal demonstrates, is a writer of more complex books. In fact, Ms. MacLachlan says she was interested to learn that Warner wrote for reluctant readers, particularly boys, and deliberately kept her books easy to read.
"I do notice some differences in our writing," she said. "I kind of write a many-leveled book, while her (Warner's) books were very child-oriented."
Before beginning the book, she asked the editors at Albert Whitman "whether I should write my kind of book or her kind of book. And they said that I should write my kind of book. So I did."
While the writing style of Warner and Ms. MacLachlan may be different, they are united in their belief in the importance of family. In preparing to write the prequel, Ms. MacLachlan drew on her own family -- in this case, her son and 6-year-old granddaughter -- watching as they read together the first "Boxcar Children" books.
"I saw her reaction to the books and this really helped draw me into the lives of the characters," Ms. MacLachlan said.
While some critics find the Alden children just too perfect, she disagrees.
"They're survivors. They don't have time to muddle around," she said. "These children don't have the luxury of being annoyed with each other. They have to close ranks and be careful with one another, respectful of one another."
After writing the prequel, Ms. MacLachlan has found that "I now have these characters in my head. They are part of my family." She has no plans to do any more "Boxcar Children" books, but says she's also glad that she decided to write 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."books
Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.