The Polar Express

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The Polar Express
CM polar express.jpg
AuthorChris Van Allsburg
IllustratorChris Van Allsburg
Cover artistChris Van Allsburg
CountryUnited States
GenreChildren's picture book
PublisherHoughton Mifflin
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardcover)
[E] 19
LC ClassPZ7.V266 Po 1985
Preceded byThe Mysteries of Harris Burdick 
Followed byThe 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, and was inspired in part by Van Allsburg's memories of visiting the Herpolsheimer's and Wurzburg's department stores as a child.[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 is awakened on Christmas Eve 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.

The Polar Express races north over mountains and through boreal forests inhabited by timber wolves as well as rabbits, but the train never slows down. When it arrives at the North Pole, the conductor explains that Santa will select one of them to receive the first gift of Christmas.

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 a 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 Sarah 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 contains the bell, delivered by Santa along with a note explaining that he 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 (since they don't believe in Santa) 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 listed the book as 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 computer-animated 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, Eddie Deezen and Tom Hanks. The film was first released in both conventional and IMAX 3D theaters November 10, 2004 and 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 does not 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 Caldecott Medal recipient
Succeeded by