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The Polar Express

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The Polar Express
AuthorChris Van Allsburg
IllustratorChris Van Allsburg
Cover artistChris Van Allsburg
GenreChildren's picture book
PublisherHoughton Mifflin
Publication date
November 12, 1985
Publication placeUnited States
Media typePrint (hardcover)
[E] 19
LC ClassPZ7.V266 Po 1985
Preceded byThe Mysteries of Harris Burdick 
Followed byThe Stranger 

The Polar Express is a 1985 fantasy children's picture book written and illustrated by American author Chris Van Allsburg. 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 after Jumanji.[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. Van Allsburg served as an executive producer on the film.

Plot summary[edit]

A young boy, listening from his bed for the ringing sounds of Santa's sleigh, on Christmas Eve instead hears the sound of a train. He looks through the window to see a train right outside his house. He sees a conductor who looks up at his window. He tiptoes downstairs and goes outside. The conductor explains that the train is called the Polar Express and is journeying to the North Pole. The boy then boards the train, which is filled with other children in their pajamas and nightgowns. They all sing carols and are served candies and hot chocolate by the train's staff.

The Polar Express races north past towns and villages, through boreal forests, and over mountains, but the train never slows down. When it arrives at the North Pole, the conductor explains that Santa Claus will select one of them to receive the first gift of Christmas.

The boy and the other children see thousands of 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 he could choose anything in the world, the boy asks for a bell from Santa's sleigh. An elf cuts 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. As the train begins the ride home, the boy discovers that the bell had fallen through a hole in his pocket. The boy arrives home, the conductor wishing him a Merry Christmas as the train speeds away.

On Christmas morning, his sister Sarah finds a small box for the boy behind the tree. 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 and to get the hole in his pocket fixed. 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 is 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 film, Van Allsburg stated that Pere Marquette 1225, a class N1 2-8-4 Berkshire steam locomotive formerly owned by Michigan State University and now owned by the Steam Railroading Institute in Owosso, Michigan, was the inspiration for the story line.[5][6][7] 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.[6] The real 1225 was used to create the animated image of the engine in the film.

The 1225 is 14 and a half feet tall, 101 feet long, and weighs 400 tons.[6][7] It is one of the biggest steam locomotives in operation in the United States.[7]


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.[8][9]

Based on a 2007 online poll, the National Education Association listed the book as one of its "Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children".[10] It was one of the "Top 100 Picture Books" of all time in a 2012 poll by School Library Journal.[11]

Film adaptation[edit]

The Polar Express is a 2004 American 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.

Rail tours[edit]

The Polar Express has inspired real-life train rides across the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom based on the book and film.[12] These train rides are hosted by a number of different railways, including the Grand Canyon Railway, the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, the Texas State Railroad, the Steam Railroading Institute in Owosso, Michigan, the Valley Railroad in Connecticut, the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad in Frostburg, Maryland, and others.[13][14][15][16][6][17][18] Beginning in 2016, the UK's Telford Steam Railway offered the Polar Express ride on a steam engine.[19]

The round-trip journey to the "North Pole" includes a live musical performance, hot cocoa and cookies, and Christmas characters such as Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus.[17][20][21] At some locations, guests are invited to wear pajamas, similar to the characters in the book.[17]


  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.[22]


  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 (November 17, 2015). "'Polar Express' author Chris Van Allsburg on how Christmas in Grand Rapids inspired beloved book". The Grand Rapids Press. Retrieved October 20, 2017.
  4. ^ "A Conversation with Chris Van Allsburg by Anita Silvey | The Polar Express". polarexpress.com. Retrieved February 1, 2016.
  5. ^ Burns, Adam (February 28, 2022). "Pere Marquette #1225: Polar Express, Top Speed, Whistle". American-Rails.com. Retrieved September 12, 2022.
  6. ^ a b c d Trautman, Sherry (September 7, 2022). "STEAM TRAIN Michigan Polar Express | Pere Marquette1225". Travel Michigan. Retrieved September 12, 2022.
  7. ^ a b c Samilton, Tracy (December 16, 2013). "All Aboard! Real-Life Polar Express Chugs Through Michigan". NPR.org. Retrieved September 12, 2022.
  8. ^ Magazine, Kim Herron; Kim Heron Is An Editor Of This (December 24, 1989). "VAN ALLSBURG'S EXPRESS". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved February 4, 2016. {{cite news}}: |first= has generic name (help)CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  9. ^ "Book Notes". New York Times. October 25, 1989. Retrieved March 3, 2016.
  10. ^ National Education Association (2007). "Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children". Archived from the original on July 30, 2013. Retrieved August 22, 2012.
  11. ^ Bird, Elizabeth (July 6, 2012). "Top 100 Picture Books Poll Results". School Library Journal "A Fuse #8 Production" blog. Archived from the original on December 4, 2012. Retrieved August 22, 2012.
  12. ^ "THE POLAR EXPRESS™ Train Ride". Rail Events Inc. Retrieved September 8, 2022.
  13. ^ "Polar Express | Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel". Grand Canyon Railway. Retrieved September 8, 2022.
  14. ^ "Hot ticket: Polar Express on Grand Canyon Railway". AZ Big Media. October 16, 2019. Retrieved September 8, 2022.
  15. ^ "THE POLAR EXPRESS | Believe the Magic on This Holiday Season Christmas Train Ride". Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in NC. Retrieved September 8, 2022.
  16. ^ "Polar Express - Texas State Railroad - Buy Tickets Today". Texas State Railroad. Retrieved September 8, 2022.
  17. ^ a b c Tucci, Joseph (September 13, 2022). "Essex Steam Train announces North Pole Express 2022 dates". CT Insider. Retrieved September 14, 2022.
  18. ^ "Book Your Polar Express Tickets Today". Western Maryland Scenic Railroad. Retrieved December 20, 2022.
  19. ^ "Families going loco for Telford Steam Railway's Polar Express". www.shropshirestar.com. December 11, 2016. Retrieved September 8, 2022.
  20. ^ "All aboard! Tickets on sale for The Polar Express train ride in Galveston". khou.com. August 24, 2022. Retrieved September 14, 2022.
  21. ^ Stegen, Anne (September 8, 2022). "Tickets on sale for the Polar Express out of St. Louis". ksdk.com. Retrieved September 14, 2022.
  22. ^ "Who's Hearing Those Christmas Bells?: Wondering about the real readership of THE POLAR EXPRESS". Vicki Smith. September 10, 2015. Kirkus (kirkusreviews.com). Retrieved January 22, 2016.
Preceded by Caldecott Medal recipient
Succeeded by

External links[edit]