The Polar Express

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The Polar Express
CM polar express.jpg
The Polar Express cover
Author Chris Van Allsburg
Illustrator Chris Van Allsburg
Cover artist Chris Van Allsburg
Country United States
Genre Children's picture book
Publisher Houghton Mifflin
Publication date
Media type Print (hardcover)
Pages 32
ISBN 978-0-395-38949-2
OCLC 12162097
[E] 19
LC Class PZ7.V266 Po 1985
Preceded by The Mysteries of Harris Burdick
Followed by The Stranger

The Polar Express is a children's book written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg and published by Houghton Mifflin in 1985. The book is now widely considered to be a classic Christmas story for young children.[a] It was praised for its detailed illustrations and calm, relaxing storyline. For the work, Van Allsburg won the annual Caldecott Medal for illustration of an American children's picture book in 1986, his second.[1][2]

The book is set partially in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the author's home town, which inspired the Herpolsheimer's and Wurzburg's department stores.[3] It was adapted as an Oscar-nominated motion-capture film in 2004 starring Tom Hanks and directed by Robert Zemeckis with Van Allsburg serving as an executive producer on the film.

Plot summary[edit]

A young boy, who is beginning to doubt the existence of Santa Claus, is awakened in the night by the sound of a train. To his astonishment, he finds the train is waiting for him. He sees a conductor who then proceeds to look up at his window. He runs downstairs and goes outside. The conductor explains the train is called the Polar Express, and is journeying to the North Pole. The boy then boards the train, which is filled with many other children in their pajamas. As the train reaches the North Pole, the boy and the other children see thousands of Christmas elves gathered at the center of town waiting to send Santa Claus on his way. The boy is handpicked by Santa to receive the first gift of Christmas. Realizing that he could choose anything in the world, the boy asks for one bell from one of the reindeer's harnesses. The boy places the bell in the pocket of his robe and all the children watch as Santa takes off into the night for his annual deliveries.

Later, on the train ride home, the boy discovers that the bell has fallen through a hole in his pocket. The boy arrives home and goes to his bedroom as the train pulls away. On Christmas morning, his sister finds a small package for the boy under the tree, behind all of the other gifts. The boy opens the box and discovers that it is the bell, delivered by Santa who found it on the seat of his sleigh. When the boy rings the bell, both he and his sister marvel at the beautiful sound. His parents, however, are unable to hear the bell and remark that it must be broken. The book ends with the following line:

At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I've grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.


Van Allsburg based the story on a mental image of a child wandering into the woods on a foggy night and wondering where a train was headed.[4]

At the premiere of the movie, Van Allsburg stated that Pere Marquette 1225, formerly owned by Michigan State University and now owned by the Steam Railroading Institute in Owosso, Michigan, was the inspiration for the story line.[citation needed] He played on the engine as a child when it was on display and was inspired by the number 1225, which to him was 12/25 - Christmas Day. The real 1225 was used to create the animated image of the engine and all the locomotive sounds were recorded from the 1225. The only exception to this is the whistle, which was recorded from Sierra Railway No. 3.


In 1986, The Polar Express was awarded the Caldecott Medal and appeared on the New York Times bestseller list.[1][2] By 1989 a million copies had been sold - more each year than the last - and the book had made the bestseller list four years in a row.[5][6]

Based on a 2007 online poll, the National Education Association named the book one of its "Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children."[7] It was one of the "Top 100 Picture Books" of all time in a 2012 poll by School Library Journal.[8]

Film adaptation[edit]

The Polar Express is a 2004 American 3D computer animated musical fantasy film based on the book. Written, produced, and directed by Robert Zemeckis, the film features human characters animated using the live action performance capture technique.

The film stars Daryl Sabara, Nona Gaye, Jimmy Bennett, Michael Jeter (who died in 2003 during production) , and Eddie Deezen, with Tom Hanks in six distinct roles. The film also included a performance by Tinashe at age 9, who later gained exposure as a pop singer in 2010, as the CGI-model for the female protagonist. Castle Rock Entertainment produced the film in association with Shangri-La Entertainment, ImageMovers, Playtone and Golden Mean, for Warner Bros. Pictures. The visual effects and performance capture were done at Sony Pictures Imageworks. The film was made at a budget of $165 million, a record-breaking sum for an animated feature at the time. The studio first released the film in both conventional and IMAX 3D theaters November 10, 2004. It grossed $307 million worldwide.


  1. ^ On the occasion of the 30th Anniversary Edition, Vicki Smith observed for Kirkus Reviews online that the real audience of the book may be nostalgic adults rather than young children who presumably believe in Santa Claus. In effect it questions the existence of Santa Claus, for the plot turns on who does and who doesn't believe.[9]


  1. ^ a b Sullivan, Kathleen (November 12, 2004). "'Polar Express' author to discuss book's trip to screen". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved November 18, 2011. 
  2. ^ a b Association for Library Service to Children. "Caldecott Medal & Honor Books, 1938-Present". American Library Association. Retrieved August 24, 2012. 
  3. ^ Kaczmarczyk, Jeffrey (17 November 2015). "'Polar Express' author Chris Van Allsburg on how Christmas in Grand Rapids inspired beloved book". The Grand Rapids Press. Retrieved 20 October 2017. 
  4. ^ "A Conversation with Chris Van Allsburg by Anita Silvey | The Polar Express". Retrieved 2016-02-01. 
  5. ^ Magazine, Kim Herron; Kim Heron Is An Editor Of This (1989-12-24). "VAN ALLSBURG'S EXPRESS". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-02-04. 
  6. ^ "Book Notes". New York Times. 25 October 1989. Retrieved 3 March 2016. 
  7. ^ National Education Association (2007). "Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children". Retrieved August 22, 2012. 
  8. ^ Bird, Elizabeth (July 6, 2012). "Top 100 Picture Books Poll Results". School Library Journal "A Fuse #8 Production" blog. Retrieved August 22, 2012. 
  9. ^ "Who's Hearing Those Christmas Bells?: Wondering about the real readership of THE POLAR EXPRESS". Vicki Smith. September 10, 2015. Kirkus ( Retrieved 2016-01-22.
Preceded by
Saint George and the Dragon
Caldecott Medal recipient
Succeeded by
Hey, Al