Chris Van Allsburg,
The Polar Express
(Houghton Mifflin, 1986)

It is far too easy to express jaded cynicism about Christmas. Likewise, it is far too easy to sanctimoniously put down the Christmas season as a commerical free for all. And it is far too easy to dismiss a seasonal gem such as Chris Van Allsburg's The Polar Express as simplistic and sentimental. But Van Allsburg's tale is one of belief, of retaining that which is childlike, not childish, and that just doesn't get old.

The narrator, a boy, lies awake listening for the sound of the bells on Santa's sleigh, a sound a friend who doesn't believe in Santa Claus says that he won't hear. Indeed, he does not, but what he does hear is even more wonderful and remarkable. He hears the hiss of steam and the squeak of metal, and when he looks out the window, he sees a train outside his house. It is the Polar Express, destination: North Pole.

Once aboard, he finds that it is full of children, all in their nightclothes. They sing Christmas carols, drink rich cocoa and eat candies as the train races northward. Finally, they arrive at the North Pole, and the narrator is selected to receive the first gift of Christmas. He asks for, and receives from Santa Claus himself, a silver bell from the sleigh.

Although the boy loses the bell on the way home, kindly Mr. C. returns it to him, and the boy discovers that the bell has a remarkable quality -- only those who still believe in the wonder that is Santa and the spirit of Christmas can hear the bell. His friends and his sister eventually cannot hear the bell, but even when he grows up "the bell still rings for [him] as it does for all who truly believe."

The story is accompanied by stunning paintings that capture the nighttime journey. Van Allsburg employs somber tones in most of his scenes, speckled with snow and highlighted with starlight and the glowing lights of the train. He captures the cold and mystery of the night, contrasting it with the warm interior scenes. The masterful artwork garnered Van Allsburg the 1987 Caldecott Medal, but I think the book would have earned its place as a holiday classic even without this award.

Share this with your favorite child of any age, and at the end, ask yourself this question: would the silver bell ring for you?

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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