The Polar Express (BOOK!)
by Chris Van Allsburg

Chris Van Allsburg's The Polar Express book

Children's book review by Steve Barancik

Ages 6-12

It's June, it's Arizona, it's a gazillion degrees outside. So you'll understand that it felt like ideal circumstances to read The Polar Express for the first time.

Forgive me for that. I know, the book has been around since 1985, won the Caldecott in 1986, and later became a movie. Houghton Mifflin has turned this hugely successful book into a cottage industry. Even my home state hosts a Polar Express train ride.

Clearly the book has had an impact!

So in case you've managed to remain as culturally clueless as I have, here's my review of The Polar Express book.


It begins on Christmas Eve. A little boy lies quietly in bed awaiting Santa. But there's something special about this little boy on this Christmas Eve.

A friend has told him there is no Santa.

Now the first time another kid said that to me, that was it. The moment I allowed myself to consider the possibility that there was no Santa, I came to the conclusion that there clearly wasn't.

Not this kid. He's a purist. He's a believer. In fact, belief is what The Polar Express book is all about.

And while the regular kids can all expect a dime-a-dozen midnight visit from Santa, this special child gets the opportunity to go to Santa. At the North Pole.

Review continues

train comes to his door

Via the Polar Express train. (Not the Arizona one.)

It's a wondrous ride. The train is filled with children, presumably other true believers.

They're served cocoa and melted chocolate by waiters as the train climbs mountains and crosses bridges. Finally they arrive at the North Pole, "a huge city standing alone at the top of the world, filled with factories where every Christmas toy was made."

It's a wintry, European-looking city, populated with elves.

The children emerge from the train after being told by the conductor that Santa will be appearing, and that he'll be choosing one of them to whom to give the first Christmas gift of the season, clearly an honor.

I think you can guess which child gets chosen.

Know that this is no potluck gift. The child gets to choose whatever gift he can imagine. And what does he choose?...

A bell from Santa's sleigh.

Do you know why?

The Polar Express book

This book remains as popular as ever and is frequently used by teachers. It's not hard to see why.

The book provides a safe forum in which to discuss the nature of belief without actually touching on religion. (I see nothing expressly Christian in the book other than the word Christmas.) Santa stands in for the holy, a giver of gifts to those who believe.

Author-illustrator Van Allsburg nails it. The text is signifcantly denser and more challenging than in ordinary picture books, because the intended audience is older. This is a book you wouldn't want to share with a child who isn't yet at least questioning the existence of Santa (a Santagnostic!) or a child who you think should be starting to question Santa.

(Or maybe you just want to be the one to break the news, rather than a cruel classmate.)

Van Allsburg's oils are dark and moody in a way that conveys that the matter of belief is serious business.

Our deserving little boy actually loses the sleigh bell, only to have it returned to him by Santa himself.

So why was it a sleigh bell he wanted? Well, that's the proof that Santa does exist. Of course, it ends up being proof only to the little boy. A sleigh bell could come from anywhere.

That's why you need belief.

The Polar Express book can be gotten in a number of forms, but this one seems like the best deal. If you buy it new, it looks to include a hardcover version of the book, a CD featuring a reading by Liam Neeson, and - of course - a sleigh bell!

Visit our Christmas reading gifts page and our great books for Christmas page.

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