The Polar Express
AuthorChris Van Allsburg
IllustratorChris Van Allsburg
CountryUnited States
GenreChildren's picture book
PublisherHoughton Mifflin
Publication date1985
Media typePrint (hardcover)
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The Polar Express is a 32-page children's book written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg and published by Houghton Mifflin in 1985. Today, it is widely considered as a classic Christmas story for young children, although the point has been challenged. It was praised for its relaxing storyline and detailed illustration.

The book is set partially in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Van Allsburg's home town. In 2004, it was adapted into an Oscar-nominated motion-capture film starring Tom Hanks, directed by Robert Zemeckis and with Van Allsburg as the executive producer. Audiobooks of the book read by Liam Neeson, William Hurt and Maggie Todd.


One Christmas Eve, a boy was laying quietly in his bed, listening for the ringing bells of Santa's sleigh, despite being told by a friend that Santa did not exist, when he hears the sounds of, not Santa's sleigh, but a train that stops in front of his house. A Conductor steps outside and looks at the boy's window, so he goes outside. The Conductor explains to the boy that the train, called the Polar Express, is going to the North Pole.

The boy boards the train, which is full of other children, all in their pajamas, singing carols and eating candy and hot chocolate. The train passed through towns and villages, then through a cold, dark forest and up mountains. Finally, the train arrives at the North Pole, which is a city filled with factories where all the Christmas toys were made. However, no elves are seen because, as the Conductor explained, they are gathering in the center of the city where Santa will give the first gift of Christmas to one of the children on the train.

Soon, the train stops at the center of the city where hundreds of elves were gathered. The Conductor and all the children got off and went to the edge of a large, open circle, where Santa's sleigh was. Soon, Santa appears and marches over to the children. He chosen the boy to be the one to receive the first gift of Christmas. The boy, knowing he can have anything he wants, decides to have a silver bell from Santa's sleigh. One of the elves cuts a bell from the reindeer's harness and it is given to the boy, who puts it in his pocket. Eventually, the clock strikes midnight, so the boy exits the sleigh and Santa takes off to make his deliveries.

The children get back onto the train. When the boy tries to show his bell to them, he only finds a hole in his pocket and the train leaves before they can go out to look for it. Soon, they arrive in front of the boy's house where the boy, feeling sad to have lost the bell gets off. He waves goodbye and the Conductor wishes him a Merry Christmas.

The next morning, the boy and his sister Sarah were opening their presents. One of the gifts was the silver bell he lost with a note from Santa saying it was found in his sleigh. He shakes the bell and he and Sarah enjoyed the sound it made, but neither his mother nor his father could hear it and remarks 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."


Allsburg based the story of the book on the mental image of a child walking through the woods on a foggy night, seeing a train and wondering where it is going.

The locomotive in the book is based off of Pere Marquette 1225, a steam locomotive currently owned by the Steam Railroading Institute. When Allsburg was a child, the locomotive was on display at Michigan State University and he would play on it every time they attended football games there. He was also inspired by the locomotive's number, 1225, which is also the date of Christmas, 12/25. Drawings of 1225 were used to create the CGI model of the locomotive in the film while its sounds were also recorded from 1225.


Van Allsburg won the annual Caldecott Medal for illustration of an American children's picture book in 1986, his second, and it appeared on the New York Times Bestseller and Best Illustrated Book lists. It has sold a million copies by 1989 - more each year than the last - and the book had made the bestseller list four years in a row. As of September 2015, it has sold 12 million copies world wide.

Based on a 2007 online poll, the National Education Association named the book one of its "Teacher's Top 100 Books for Children." It also appeared on School Library Journal''s "Top 100 Picture Books" of all time in a 2012 poll.


  • This is the seventh book written by Chris Van Allsburg and the second one to be both adapted into a film and win a Caldecott Medal for U.S. picture book illustration after Jumanji.


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