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The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg - Review, Summary, Analysis & Facts

The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg

Table of Contents:

1. Book Details

Full Title:

The Polar Express


Children's Fiction



Number of Pages:

32 pages

Author - Who Wrote?

Chris Van Allsburg

Publication Date:

October 28, 1985

Country & Original Language:

United States, English


The story is set on Christmas Eve and primarily takes place on a magical train journey to the North Pole.

Point of View:

The story is narrated in the first person from the perspective of a young boy who experiences the magical adventure on the Polar Express.


  1. The Hero Boy (Protagonist): The main character and narrator of the story.

  2. Conductor: The conductor of the Polar Express train.

  3. Santa Claus: The jolly figure who resides at the North Pole.

  4. Other Children: Various children who also board the Polar Express for the magical journey.

  5. Hobo: A mysterious character encountered on the train.

2. Synopsis

"The Polar Express" tells the story of a young boy on Christmas Eve who is skeptical about the existence of Santa Claus. Suddenly, he hears the sound of a magical train, the Polar Express, outside his house. The conductor invites him to join the train on a journey to the North Pole.

During the enchanting train ride, the boy encounters various characters, including the train conductor and a mysterious hobo. The train travels through a snowy landscape, and the boy, along with other children, experiences the wonder of the journey.

Upon reaching the North Pole, the children witness the bustling activity of Santa's workshop. They also have the opportunity to meet Santa Claus himself. The boy is chosen to receive the first gift of Christmas and asks for a simple bell from Santa's sleigh.

As the Polar Express returns home, the boy discovers that the bell he received is magical. Only those who truly believe in the spirit of Christmas can hear its sweet sound. The story concludes with the boy waking up on Christmas morning to find the bell under the Christmas tree.

"The Polar Express" is a heartwarming tale that explores the themes of belief, the magic of Christmas, and the importance of holding onto the spirit of wonder and joy, even as one grows older.

3. Summary

"The Polar Express" by Chris Van Allsburg is a timeless and enchanting children's book that takes readers on a magical journey filled with wonder and the spirit of Christmas. The story begins on a snowy Christmas Eve in a small town where a young boy lies in bed, grappling with doubts about the existence of Santa Claus. As he wrestles with these thoughts, he hears the distant sound of a train outside his window.

Curiosity gets the better of the boy, and he rushes outside to find an enormous steam locomotive, the Polar Express, waiting for him. The conductor, a stern but friendly figure, invites the boy to board the train, which is bound for the North Pole. Without hesitation, the boy climbs aboard, and the adventure begins.

The interior of the train is a sight to behold. The boy is greeted by other children, all in their pajamas, and the train is adorned with festive decorations. As the Polar Express makes its way through the snowy wilderness, the children are treated to breathtaking landscapes of ice and snow. The train's journey is described with vivid and evocative language, capturing the magic and excitement of a winter night.

Throughout the journey, the conductor punches golden tickets and interacts with the children. The atmosphere on the train is joyful, and the camaraderie among the passengers is heartwarming. The boy is introduced to various cars on the train, including the hot chocolate car and the observation car with its stunning views.

As the train hurtles toward the North Pole, the boy befriends a mysterious hobo who seems to appear out of nowhere. The hobo adds an element of intrigue to the story, and his presence hints at the magical and otherworldly nature of the Polar Express. The boy is both fascinated and a bit apprehensive about the hobo, who imparts cryptic wisdom and adds an extra layer of depth to the narrative.

Upon reaching the North Pole, the children are greeted by a breathtaking display of lights and festive decorations. The North Pole is depicted as a magical and bustling city, complete with workshops, elves, and, of course, Santa Claus's grand workshop. The children disembark from the train and are led to a large square where Santa will make his grand entrance.

The anticipation builds as Santa Claus appears, and the air is filled with excitement. Santa's jolly demeanor and the festive atmosphere create a sense of joy and wonder. Santa selects the boy to receive the first gift of Christmas and invites him to choose any gift he desires. After some contemplation, the boy decides on a simple silver bell from Santa's reindeer harness.

As the children reboard the Polar Express and head back home, the boy realizes that the silver bell is no ordinary bell. When he shakes it, only those who truly believe in the spirit of Christmas can hear its sweet, magical sound. The boy is overjoyed and cherishes the bell as a symbol of his belief in the magic of Christmas.

Upon returning home, the boy finds himself back in his bed, wondering if it was all a dream. However, the bell serves as a tangible reminder that the magical journey on the Polar Express was real. The next morning, as the boy and his sister open their presents, the bell is revealed to be the boy's most cherished gift.

The story of "The Polar Express" beautifully captures the essence of Christmas magic and the importance of belief. It celebrates the wonder and innocence of childhood, encouraging readers to hold onto the spirit of Christmas and to embrace the joy and enchantment that the holiday season brings. Chris Van Allsburg's evocative prose and stunning illustrations combine to create a timeless and heartwarming tale that continues to captivate readers of all ages, making "The Polar Express" a beloved classic for generations to come.

4. Analysis

Belief and the Magic of Christmas:

  • At its core, the book revolves around the theme of belief. The journey on the Polar Express is a metaphor for the journey of belief that children undertake in their understanding of Christmas and the magic it brings.

  • The boy starts the story questioning the existence of Santa Claus, a common phase in a child's development. His adventure on the Polar Express becomes a testament to the transformative power of belief.

The Train Journey as a Metaphor:

  • The train journey serves as a metaphor for the passage from doubt to belief. The train represents the conduit through which the boy travels from skepticism to a renewed sense of wonder and enchantment.

  • The various experiences on the train, from the hot chocolate scene to the observation car, contribute to the rich tapestry of the journey, enhancing the magical atmosphere of the narrative.

Symbolism of the Bell:

  • The silver bell that the boy chooses as his gift symbolizes the essence of belief. Its magical sound can only be heard by those who truly believe in the spirit of Christmas.

  • The bell becomes a tangible reminder of the transformative power of belief and serves as a connection to the magic of the North Pole adventure.

The North Pole as a Magical Realm:

  • The portrayal of the North Pole as a bustling city with Santa's workshop adds a layer of fantasy to the story. It reinforces the idea that the magic of Christmas is not confined to individual households but is a collective, wondrous experience.

  • The vivid descriptions of the North Pole create a sense of awe and wonder, capturing the imagination of readers and instilling a belief in the magical possibilities of the holiday season.

The Mysterious Hobo:

  • The hobo character introduces an element of mystery and wisdom to the narrative. His presence suggests that the journey on the Polar Express is not just a physical one but also a journey of self-discovery and understanding.

  • The hobo's role as a guide and observer adds depth to the story, inviting readers to contemplate the broader implications of the boy's journey.

Illustrations and Narrative Style:

  • Chris Van Allsburg's distinctive illustrations contribute significantly to the book's atmospheric and enchanting quality. The detailed, realistic drawings complement the magical elements of the story, creating a visually captivating experience.

  • The first-person narrative style, with the boy as the protagonist and narrator, allows readers to empathize with his doubts, excitement, and eventual belief. The language is simple yet evocative, making it accessible to young readers while maintaining a timeless quality.

The Theme of Growing Up:

  • While the story is primarily about belief and the magic of Christmas, it also touches on the inevitable process of growing up. The boy's initial doubts mirror the skepticism that often accompanies the transition from childhood to adolescence.

  • The Polar Express journey becomes a bridge between the innocence of childhood and the enduring magic that can be found in a belief that goes beyond the tangible and the visible.

5. Review

"The Polar Express" by Chris Van Allsburg is a timeless masterpiece that effortlessly weaves the enchantment of Christmas magic into a captivating narrative. This celebrated children's book is not only recommended; it is a must-read for readers of all ages who seek to rediscover the joy and wonder of the holiday season.

Why It's Recommended:

  1. Captivating Narrative:

  • Van Allsburg's storytelling is both evocative and engaging. The tale of a skeptical young boy's magical journey to the North Pole on the Polar Express is a captivating odyssey that transcends generations. The simplicity of the narrative conceals a profound message about belief and the enduring magic of Christmas.

  1. Intricate Illustrations:

  • The illustrations in "The Polar Express" are a work of art in themselves. Van Allsburg's detailed and realistic drawings bring the story to life, creating a visual feast that enhances the reader's immersion into the magical world of the North Pole. The careful attention to detail contributes to the book's timeless and enchanting appeal.

  1. Themes of Belief and Wonder:

  • At its heart, "The Polar Express" is a celebration of belief. It beautifully captures the transition from doubt to faith, making it a poignant and resonant read for both children and adults. The symbolic silver bell serves as a reminder of the intangible, magical qualities of belief in the spirit of Christmas.

  1. Magical Atmosphere:

  • The book succeeds in creating a magical atmosphere that goes beyond the ordinary. From the snowy landscapes seen from the train's observation car to the bustling North Pole with its workshops and Santa Claus himself, every detail contributes to an enchanting world that beckons readers to believe in the extraordinary.

For Whom It's Recommended:

  1. Children of All Ages:

  • "The Polar Express" is a perfect read-aloud book for families during the holiday season. Its universal themes and enchanting storyline make it suitable for children of all ages, from young listeners to independent readers. The timeless nature of the story ensures that it remains relevant and enjoyable for successive generations.

  1. Those Seeking Holiday Magic:

  • Anyone looking to recapture the magic and wonder of Christmas will find solace in the pages of "The Polar Express." Whether you're a parent sharing it with your children or an adult seeking a nostalgic journey back to the innocence of childhood, this book offers a delightful escape into the spirit of the season.

  1. Lovers of Beautifully Crafted Literature:

  • Beyond its thematic richness, "The Polar Express" is a work of literary artistry. The prose is carefully chosen, and the illustrations are a testament to Van Allsburg's skill as both a storyteller and an artist. Those who appreciate well-crafted literature will find this book to be a gem in the world of children's literature.

Why It's Worth Reading:

  1. Timeless Appeal:

  • "The Polar Express" has stood the test of time, becoming a classic that continues to enchant readers since its publication. Its timeless appeal lies in its ability to evoke the magic of Christmas irrespective of the era, making it a perennial favorite for holiday reading.

  1. Emotional Resonance:

  • The book's exploration of belief and the joy of Christmas carries a deep emotional resonance. It is not merely a story; it's an experience that tugs at the heartstrings, leaving readers with a sense of warmth, wonder, and the spirit of giving that defines the holiday season.

  1. A Gift of Tradition:

  • Reading "The Polar Express" can become a cherished holiday tradition. Whether it's a yearly family reading or a personal ritual, the book has the power to create lasting memories and associations with the magic of Christmas.

6. About the Author

Chris Van Allsburg, born on June 18, 1949, in East Grand Rapids, Michigan, is an acclaimed American author and illustrator renowned for his exceptional contributions to children's literature. With a unique blend of captivating storytelling and mesmerizing illustrations, Van Allsburg has crafted timeless works that continue to captivate readers of all ages.

Early Life and Education:

Chris Van Allsburg's journey into the world of art and storytelling began during his formative years. Born into a family that appreciated the arts, he developed a keen interest in drawing and storytelling from an early age. Van Allsburg pursued his passion at the University of Michigan, where he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in sculpture. His educational background in visual arts laid the foundation for the distinctive artistic style that would later define his career.

Literary and Artistic Career:

Van Allsburg's foray into the world of children's literature began with his debut picture book, "The Garden of Abdul Gasazi," published in 1979. However, it was his second book, "Jumanji" (1981), that garnered widespread acclaim and marked the beginning of a prolific career. Known for his meticulous illustrations, often rendered in a realistic and detailed style, Van Allsburg's work stands out for its ability to transport readers into imaginative and enchanting worlds.

"The Polar Express" (1985) remains one of Van Allsburg's most celebrated works. This holiday classic, both written and illustrated by him, has become synonymous with the magic of Christmas and the enduring spirit of belief. The book's success led to its adaptation into an animated film in 2004, further solidifying its place in the hearts of audiences worldwide.

Van Allsburg's other notable works include "The Mysteries of Harris Burdick" (1984), "Two Bad Ants" (1988), "Just a Dream" (1990), "The Wretched Stone" (1991), and "Zathura" (2002), among others. His storytelling prowess and artistic mastery have earned him numerous accolades, including two Caldecott Medals for "Jumanji" and "The Polar Express."

Legacy and Impact:

Chris Van Allsburg's impact on children's literature extends beyond the pages of his books. His ability to seamlessly blend imaginative narratives with visually stunning artwork has left an indelible mark on the literary world. The universal themes of belief, wonder, and the power of imagination that permeate his works continue to resonate with readers of all ages.

As a storyteller and artist, Van Allsburg has received widespread recognition, and his books remain essential components of libraries, classrooms, and households around the globe. The enduring popularity of "The Polar Express" and other works is a testament to his ability to capture the hearts and imaginations of generations.

Chris Van Allsburg's contributions to literature have not only enriched the world of children's storytelling but have also inspired countless individuals to embrace the magic of creativity and the joy of imaginative exploration. His legacy as a masterful storyteller and illustrator ensures that his works will continue to be cherished for generations to come.

7. Book Club Questions

  1. Belief and Imagination:

  • How does the theme of belief play a central role in the story? Discuss the boy's journey from skepticism to belief in the magic of Christmas. How does the author use the magical elements of the Polar Express journey to convey the power of imagination?

  1. Symbolism of the Bell:

  • Explore the symbolism of the silver bell that the boy receives as the first gift of Christmas. What does the bell represent, and how does it contribute to the overall message of the story? Do you think the bell has different meanings for different readers?

  1. The Train Journey:

  • Consider the significance of the train journey itself. How does the Polar Express serve as a metaphor for the journey of growing up and the loss of childhood innocence? Are there moments in the story that particularly resonate with the idea of transitions in life?

  1. The North Pole and Santa's Workshop:

  • Discuss the portrayal of the North Pole and Santa's workshop. How does the author create a magical and enchanting atmosphere in these scenes? In what ways do these settings contribute to the overall sense of wonder in the story?

  1. The Mysterious Hobo:

  • Explore the character of the mysterious hobo on the train. What role does he play in the story, and how does his presence add depth to the narrative? Do you have any interpretations of the hobo's identity and purpose in the context of the story?

  1. Illustrations and Storytelling:

  • Consider the impact of Chris Van Allsburg's illustrations on the storytelling. How do the detailed and realistic drawings enhance the reading experience? Do you think the illustrations contribute to the timeless quality of the book?

  1. The Theme of Christmas Magic:

  • Reflect on how "The Polar Express" captures the essence of Christmas magic. What elements of the story evoke a sense of holiday wonder, and how does the author create a festive and joyful atmosphere throughout the narrative?

  1. Personal Connections:

  • Share personal experiences or traditions related to Christmas that resonate with the themes in the book. How does the story evoke nostalgic feelings or memories of your own holiday celebrations?

  1. Adaptations and Interpretations:

  • If applicable, discuss any experiences with adaptations of "The Polar Express," such as the animated film. How well do you think the essence of the book was captured in other media? Are there aspects that you believe were particularly successful or challenging in adaptation?

  1. The Timelessness of the Story:

  • Consider why "The Polar Express" has remained a beloved classic over the years. What elements of the story make it timeless, and how might its themes continue to resonate with new generations of readers?

8. Reading Plan

Day 1: Chapters 1-2

  • Start the journey by reading the opening chapter. Explore the introduction of the main character and his skepticism about Santa Claus.

  • Continue to Chapter 2, where the boy hears the magical sound of the Polar Express and encounters the conductor.

Day 2: Chapters 3-4

  • Dive into the middle section of the book covering the train ride. Discuss the various cars on the train, the hot chocolate scene, and the interaction with other characters.

  • Explore the role of the mysterious hobo on the train.

Day 3: Chapters 5-6

  • Read about the arrival at the North Pole and the scenes at Santa's workshop. Discuss the imagery and magical elements introduced in this part of the story.

  • Explore the encounter with Santa Claus and the selection of the boy to receive the first gift of Christmas.

Day 4: Chapters 7-8

  • Reflect on the overall themes of belief and the magic of Christmas. Consider how the story has evolved from skepticism to a celebration of wonder and joy.

  • Conclude the reading with the return journey and the boy's realization about the magic of the silver bell.

Day 5: Reflection

  • Take a day for personal reflection. Encourage readers to jot down their thoughts, favorite moments, and any personal connections they've made with the story.

Day 6: Book Club Discussion

  • Host a book club discussion where members can share their reflections, discuss their favorite aspects of the book, and explore any lingering questions or interpretations.

Day 7: Festive Conclusion

  • Conclude the reading plan with a festive activity. This could include watching the animated film adaptation of "The Polar Express," organizing a holiday-themed gathering, or engaging in a creative activity inspired by the book.

9. Facts & Curiosities

"The Polar Express" by Chris Van Allsburg has several interesting facts and curiosities associated with its creation, impact, and adaptation. Here are some notable points:

  1. Caldecott Medal:

  • "The Polar Express" is a recipient of the prestigious Caldecott Medal, awarded in 1986 for its distinguished illustrations. The Caldecott Medal is given annually by the American Library Association to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.

  1. Inspiration from Childhood Memories:

  • Chris Van Allsburg drew inspiration for "The Polar Express" from his own childhood memories of growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The book captures the essence of winter and the magical possibilities of the holiday season.

  1. Single Illustration Per Page:

  • The book is known for its distinctive illustrations, with each page featuring a single, full-page illustration accompanied by a brief text. This format allows readers to fully immerse themselves in the detailed artwork, enhancing the overall reading experience.

  1. Adaptation into an Animated Film:

  • In 2004, "The Polar Express" was adapted into a critically acclaimed animated film directed by Robert Zemeckis. The film used innovative motion-capture technology to bring the characters to life, and Tom Hanks played multiple roles, including the conductor and Santa Claus.

  1. Original Bell Auction:

  • The actual silver bell that plays a central role in the story was auctioned for charity. Chris Van Allsburg, along with his wife Lisa, donated the bell used in the book's illustrations to the Grand Rapids Public Library, and it was later auctioned for a charitable cause.

  1. Translation into Multiple Languages:

  • "The Polar Express" has been translated into numerous languages, allowing children around the world to experience the magic of the story. The universal themes of belief and holiday wonder have resonated across cultures.

  1. Annual Polar Express Events:

  • Various communities host annual Polar Express-themed events during the holiday season. These events often include train rides, readings of the book, and festive activities inspired by the story, creating a real-life experience for families.

  1. Published Anniversary Editions:

  • To commemorate the book's enduring popularity, special anniversary editions of "The Polar Express" have been published. These editions may include additional content, such as an author's note or behind-the-scenes information about the creation of the book.

  1. Impact on Holiday Traditions:

  • "The Polar Express" has become a beloved part of holiday traditions for many families. Reading the book or watching the film adaptation is a festive activity that marks the beginning of the Christmas season for numerous households.

  1. Interactive Experiences:

  • Some editions of the book include a special keepsake gift, such as a silver bell, adding an interactive element to the reading experience. Readers can enjoy the tactile connection to the story through these included items.

10. FAQ

1. What is "The Polar Express" about?

  • "The Polar Express" follows the magical journey of a skeptical young boy who embarks on a train ride to the North Pole on Christmas Eve. The story explores themes of belief, wonder, and the magic of Christmas.

2. Why is the bell significant in the story?

  • The silver bell is a symbol of belief in the spirit of Christmas. Only those who truly believe in the magic of the holiday can hear the sweet sound of the bell. It becomes a tangible reminder of the enchanting journey on the Polar Express.

3. What age group is the book intended for?

  • "The Polar Express" is primarily targeted at children, but its universal themes and enchanting narrative make it enjoyable for readers of all ages. It's often considered a family-friendly book that can be shared and appreciated by both children and adults.

4. Has the book been adapted into a movie?

  • Yes, "The Polar Express" was adapted into an animated film in 2004, directed by Robert Zemeckis. The film features innovative motion-capture technology and has become a holiday classic, often watched during the Christmas season.

5. Are there different editions of the book?

  • Yes, there are various editions of "The Polar Express." Some editions may include special features, additional content, or keepsake items like a silver bell. Anniversary editions and international translations are also available.

6. What inspired Chris Van Allsburg to write the book?

  • Chris Van Allsburg drew inspiration from his own childhood memories and the enchanting possibilities of Christmas. The book reflects his experiences growing up in Michigan and captures the magic of winter and holiday festivities.

7. Is the story based on a true experience?

  • While the story is a work of fiction, it incorporates elements of wonder and imagination that are often associated with the holiday season. It is not based on a specific true experience but aims to evoke the joy and magic of Christmas.

8. How long does it take to read "The Polar Express"?

  • The length of time it takes to read the book can vary depending on the reader's age and reading speed. On average, it may take around 15 to 30 minutes to read the entire book, making it a perfect choice for a cozy holiday read.

9. Are there any educational resources or activities related to the book?

  • Yes, many educational resources and activities are available, including lesson plans for teachers, printable activity sheets, and ideas for creating a Polar Express-themed event. These resources enhance the educational and interactive aspects of the book.

10. Are there sequels to "The Polar Express"?

  • No, "The Polar Express" is a standalone book, and there are no official sequels. However, Chris Van Allsburg has authored other acclaimed children's books, each with its own unique story and themes.

11. Books Related

If you enjoyed "The Polar Express" by Chris Van Allsburg and are looking for books with similar themes of holiday magic, wonder, and timeless storytelling, here are some recommendations:

  1. "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" by Dr. Seuss

  • Dr. Seuss's classic tale tells the story of the Grinch, who learns the true meaning of Christmas through the spirit of giving and love. The whimsical illustrations and rhyming prose make it a festive favorite.

  1. "The Snowman" by Raymond Briggs

  • This wordless picture book tells the story of a boy who builds a snowman that comes to life and takes him on a magical journey. The illustrations capture the enchantment of a snowy winter night.

  1. "The Night Before Christmas" by Clement C. Moore

  • A timeless poem that has become a holiday tradition for many families, "The Night Before Christmas" captures the anticipation and excitement of Christmas Eve with charming verses and vivid imagery.

  1. "Polar Express 30th Anniversary Edition" by Chris Van Allsburg

  • This anniversary edition of "The Polar Express" may include additional content or special features, providing readers with an enhanced experience of the beloved classic.

  1. "Olive, the Other Reindeer" by Vivian Walsh, illustrated by J.otto Seibold

  • In this whimsical and humorous story, Olive the dog believes she's meant to be one of Santa's reindeer and sets out on a delightful adventure to the North Pole.

  1. "The Jolly Christmas Postman" by Janet Ahlberg and Allan Ahlberg

  • In this interactive and delightful picture book, the Jolly Postman delivers letters to well-known fairy-tale characters, including those celebrating the holiday season.

  1. "The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey" by Susan Wojciechowski, illustrated by P.J. Lynch

  • This heartwarming tale follows the transformation of a lonely woodcarver as he discovers the true meaning of Christmas with the help of a widow and her son.

  1. "The Tomten" by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Harald Wiberg

  • This classic Swedish tale introduces readers to the Tomten, a small, mythological creature who watches over the farm at night. The soothing story captures the quiet magic of winter nights.

  1. "A Wish to Be A Christmas Tree" by Colleen Monroe, illustrated by Michael Glenn Monroe

  • This charming story revolves around a tree that wishes to become a Christmas tree, leading to heartwarming lessons about friendship and self-discovery.

  1. "The Christmas Eve Tree" by Delia Huddy, illustrated by Emily Sutton

  • A touching story about a small, imperfect tree that finds itself in the heart of a bustling city on Christmas Eve and experiences the joy of being part of a family's holiday celebration.


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