The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg

The Polar Express - Classic Children's Book Cover
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Since it was first published, 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. While on one level, The Polar Express is the story of a little boy's magical train ride to Santa's workshop at the North Pole, on another level it's a story about the power of faith and belief. We recommend The Polar Express for children five and older as well as teens and adults.

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. The 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's use of muted colors and a very soft focus in his illustrations for The Polar Express creates a dreamlike mood that is in keeping with the story and greatly enhances its effectiveness.

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.

Closing Thoughts

The Polar Express is an excellent book for a family read aloud during the Christmas season. The picture book 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. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 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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Your Citation
Kennedy, Elizabeth. "The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg." Learn Religions, Mar. 4, 2021, Kennedy, Elizabeth. (2021, March 4). The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg. Retrieved from Kennedy, Elizabeth. "The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg." Learn Religions. (accessed July 28, 2021).