On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love read to me this magical masterpiece!
In some ways, it feels ridiculous adding this book to the list. The Polar Express is pretty much the first title that comes to mind when people talk about Christmas picture books. But I am of the staunch belief that just because something is popular and possibly canonical, doesn’t mean it should be ignored.*
For those who haven’t already been touched by this magical masterpiece, the story is quite simple: a train rolls up outside a young boy’s window on Christmas Eve and takes him, along with a number of other children, on a special ride to the North Pole**. There, the boy meets Santa and is allowed to choose one gift. Being the sensitive type, the boy asks for a bell from Santa’s sleigh. When it’s time to board the train home, the boy is devastated to discover that he has lost the bell. But this is a Christmas book, and when he awakes on Christmas morning, the boy finds that Santa has left the bell under the tree.
In a stroke a genius, the boy and his sister can hear the bell, but his parents hear nothing. The boy, also the narrator, mentions that as his friends grow up, they stop hearing the bell, but it still rings true for him, “as it does for all who truly believe.” What a perfect, metaphor for the complexities of faith, magic, belief, and growing up.
If I could be reincarnated as an author/illustrator, I would want to come back as Chris Van Allsburg. His books exist in that magical space between awake and dreaming where anything is possible, the strange is made believable, and the familiar is made strange. Much like Santa’s bell, his books resonate with children in a way that adults can’t really understand or hope to experience. The Polar Express perfectly captures, in text and illustration, what it means to believe in magic.
Needless to say, The Polar Express is a staple of not only my Christmas book collection, but my picture book collection. I recently bought the 25th anniversary edition, which comes with a beautifully produced audio version, fully orchestrated, and narrated by none other than Liam Neeson***. Take it from me, reading along with Liam while sipping something Christmasy is a recipe for the perfect December evening.
*This debate happens all the time with the Harry Potter books. Do you include them on Best Of lists, or do they exist on a completely separate plane that is beyond Best Of lists? There is a spot for Harry on my list, in any case.
**Shades of Starlight Express, a musical I loved as a child. Starlight Express came out in 1984 , The Polar Express in 1985. Coincidence, or conspiracy? Or rather, what was it about the early 80s and magical midnight train travel?
***Talk about kids lit mash-ups. Aslan reading The Polar Express? Too perfect for words.