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Top 100 Picture Books #56: The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg

#56 The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg (1985)
32 points

After hundreds of readings, I still cry at the end of this book. – Susan Lang

Perfect story, perfect pictures. – Rose Marie Moore

This is the second Christmas picture book to grace our list so far.  Now many authors will tell you that it is difficult to write a good picture book.  Many authors will also tell you that it is even more difficult to write a good holiday picture book.  And a Christmas holiday picture book that becomes a family classic?  One that wins Caldecott Awards?  Yeah.  Good luck with all that, buddy.

But he managed it.  Somehow or other Chris Van Allsburg managed the near impossible.  Long before The Hogwarts Express became the standard magical mode of transportation, Van Allsburg created a story in his customary mysterious style and made it kid-friendly, evocative, and timeless.  This isn’t the only Christmas book on this list but it certainly is the highest you will find on the Top 50.

Children’s Literature describes the plot as, “A young man tells a story of his childhood and how his belief in Santa comes to life one snowy Christmas Eve. Although his friends tell him “there is no Santa,” he still believes he will hear the bells of Santa’s sleigh. Those beliefs come true when the Polar Express takes him to the North Pole. When they come to the North Pole, Santa chooses the protagonist to be the recipient of the first gift of Christmas. The boy wants something small and meaningful: a bell from Santa’s sleigh. The bell symbolizes the belief in Santa and the spirit of Christmas, and only those who believe can hear the magical sound of the bell.”

100 Best Books for Children
has much to say about Polar Express.  Apparently the art was created when Van Allsburg used pastel oils on brown paper.  The book now sells something around a quarter of a million copies annually.  100 Best Books goes on to say: “Dedicated to his sister Karen, The Polar Express shows a wonderful brother-sister relationship, one that mirrored Van Allsburg’s relationship with his own sister… Because the book can be viewed as a statement about the nature of faith, it is often read as a ritual in homes at Christmastime ‘for all who truly believe’.”  This is probably less true of the creepy CGI movie they made of it not so long ago.

The book has even inspired a real life Polar Express which takes place each year. You may read the book here.

School Library Journal said of it, “Given a talented and aggressive imagination, even the challenge of as cliche-worn a subject as Santa Claus can be met effectively. . . Van Allsburg’s express train is one in which many of us wish to believe.”

Hollywood periodically tries to adapt Van Allsburg to the silver screen with mixed results.  The Polar Express attempt burned into our brains the importance of characters that don’t have dead tongues.  I mean, just look at ’em here.  Like watching deceased pink fish or something.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.