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The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg

Classic Christmas Picture Book

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The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
Houghton Mifflin Company
Since it was first published more than 25 years ago, The Polar Express has become a Christmas classic. Chris Van Allsburg, the author and illustrator, has received numerous accolades for this heartwarming Christmas story, including the prestigious Randolph Caldecott Medal, awarded in 1986 for the quality of the illustrations in this picture book. In his Caldecott Medal acceptance speech, Van Allsburg said, “When I started The Polar Express, I thought I was writing about a train trip, but the story was actually about faith and the desire to believe in something.”

The Polar Express: The Story

The narrator, an old man, shares his memories of the magical Christmas experience he had as a boy and its life-long impact. Almost all of the story takes place on a dark and snowy night. Van Allburg’s dark, yet luminous illustrations, create an atmosphere of mystery and anticipation.

It’s Christmas Eve. They young boy can’t sleep. Although his friend insists, “There is no Santa,” the boy is a believer. Rather than sleeping, he is very quietly listening, hoping to hear the sounds of Santa’s sleigh bells. Instead, late at night, he hears some different sounds, sounds that draw him to the bedroom window to see what’s causing them.

Is it a dream or is there really a train outside his house? Wrapped in his robe and slippers, the boy goes downstairs and outside. There the conductor is calling, “All Aboard.” After asking the boy if he’s coming, the conductor explains that the train is the Polar Express, the train to the North Pole.

Thus begins a magical journey on a train filled with many other children, all still in their night clothes. While the children enjoy hot cocoa, candy and singing Christmas carols, the Polar Express speeds north through the night. The train travels through “cold, dark forests where lean wolves roamed,” climbs mountains, crosses bridges and arrives in the North Pole, a city filled with buildings, including factories where toys are made for Santa to deliver.

The children are special guests as Santa greets a crowd of elves and selects the boy as the child to receive the first gift for Christmas. The boy is allowed to select anything he wants, and he asks for, and receives, “one silver bell from Santa’s sleigh.” As the clock strikes midnight, Santa and his reindeer fly away and the children return to the Polar Express.

When the children ask to see Santa’s gift, the boy is heartbroken to find that he has lost the bell because of a hole in the pocket of his robe. He is very quiet and sad on the train ride home. On Christmas morning, the boy and his sister, Sarah, open their presents. The boy is elated to find a small box with the bell in it and a note from Santa, “Found this on the seat of my sleigh. Fix that hole in your pocket.”

When the boy shakes the bell, it's "the most beautiful sound my sister and I have ever heard." However, while the boy and his sister can hear the bell, their parents cannot. As the years pass, even the boy's sister no longer can hear the bell. It's different for the boy, now an old man. His story ends with, “Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me as it does for all who truly believe.” Like the magical train ride, The Polar Express is a magical story, one that readers and listeners will want to enjoy again and again.

Author and Illustrator Chris Van Allsburg

Chris Van Allsburg is known both for his dramatic illustrations and his unique stories, many of which feature strange topics or creatures, as well as mysteries of one kind or another. His picture books include: Jumanji, for which he received a Caldecott Medal; The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, a Caldecott Honor Book; Zathura, The Stranger, The Widow’s Broom, Queen of the Falls and my personal favorite, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.

The Polar Express: My Recommendation

The Polar Express is a excellent book for a family read aloud during the Christmas season. The picture books appeals to a wide range of ages, with younger children enthralled with the boy’s magical train ride and visit with Santa Claus and teens and adults caught up in nostalgia about their days of believing in the magic of Christmas and appreciation for the joy they still feel during the holiday season. I recommend The Polar Express for ages 5 and up, including teens and adults. (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1985. ISBN: 9780395389492)

Additional Christmas Classics

Some of the other Christmas classics that have become part of many families' Christmas celebrations include: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, "Twas the Night Before Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr Seuss and The Gift of the Magi by O Henry.

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