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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 on November 12, 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, Allsburg's home town. Audiobooks of the book have been narrated by Liam Neeson, William Hurt, and Maggie Todd. In 2004, it was adapted into an Oscar-nominated motion-capture film starring Tom Hanks, directed by Robert Zemeckis and with Van Allsburg as an executive producer.


One Christmas Eve, a boy is laying quietly in his bed, listening for the ringing bells of Santa's sleigh, despite that a friend told him that Santa does not exist. He suddenly hears the sounds, not of Santa's sleigh, but a train stopping in front of his house. A Conductor steps outside and looks at his window, prompting him to come outside. The Conductor explains that the train, called the Polar Express, is going to the North Pole, so the boy puts out his hand and is pulled aboard.

On the train, there are other children wearing their pajamas, singing carols, eating candy and drinking hot cocoa. The train passes through towns and villages, followed by a cold, dark forest and then up mountains, never slowing down along the way. As it crosses the Great Polar Ice Cap, the children see lights in the distance, which the Conductor says is the North Pole. Finally, the train arrives at the North Pole, a city of Christmas toys factories. However, no elves are seen because, as the Conductor explains, they are gathering at the Square where Santa will give the first gift of Christmas to one of the children.

The train comes to a stop at the Square where hundreds of elves are gathered. The Conductor and the children disembark the train and head towards the edge of a large, open circle where Santa's sleigh is. The excited reindeer's pracing causes the silver bells on their harnesses to make a beautiful ringing sound the boy enjoys. Santa shows up and chooses the boy as the one to receive the first gift. Knowing he can have anything he wants, the boy decides to have one of the silver bells. Santa asks an elf to cut a bell from the harness and toss it to him. He holds it up and declares it the first gift of Christmas before handing it to the boy, who puts it in his pocket. At that moment, the clock strikes midnight, so the boy exits the sleigh and Santa takes off to make his deliveries.

The children reboard the train and ask the boy to show the bell, but when he reaches for it, he only finds a hole in his pocket. One child suggests they go search for it, but the train had already started to move, leaving the boy heartbroken. When they arrive at the boy's house, the still sad boy returns home and waves goodbye. The Conductor wishes him a Merry Christmas as the train starts to leave, but the boy does not hear him, so the Conductor repeats himself, shouting while cupping his hands around his mouth.

The next morning, the boy and his sister Sarah open their presents. Upon having opened nearly all of them, Sarah finds one more behind the tree. The boy opens it to find the silver bell with a note from Santa saying it fell into his sleigh. He shakes the bell to create a sound he and Sarah both enjoy, but neither his mother nor his father can 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."


Chris Van Allsburg considers The Polar Express the easiest of his picture books to write, citing there only being one draft with few changes from the final version.[1][2] He based the story on the mental image of a child walking through the woods on a foggy night, seeing a train and wondering where it is going. Writing the story became easier once he decided the train is going to the North Pole; he felt more like he was remembering his past rather than making something up.[2]

For his illustrations, Allsburg got inspiration from Caspar David Friedrich, a German painter from the nineteenth century known for panoramic landscapes featuring silhouetted figures. Allsburg thought Friedrich's paintings had a gloomy feeling, which he matched in his illustrations using brown and violet colors.[1][2]

The locomotive in the book is based on Pere Marquette 1225, a steam locomotive currently owned by the Steam Railroading Institute. When Chris was a child, the locomotive was on display at Michigan State University and he would play on it whenever his family attended football games there. He was also inspired by its number, 1225, which is 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.

The setting of the boy's hometown, including his house, is based on Allsburg's own childhood home of Grand Rapids, Michigan.[1] He modelled the children in the book on neighbors of writer David Macaulay while David himself was Santa Claus.[2]


Allsburg won the annual Caldecott Medal for illustration of an American children's picture book in 1986. The book 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 book after Jumanji to be both adapted into a film and win a Caldecott Medal for U.S. picture book illustration.
  • The book was published the same year Leyla Rangel was born, as well as the same year as the release of the film, Back to the Future, which was directed by Robert Zemeckis.
  • Fritz the Dog, an Easter egg that appears in all of Van Allsburg's books, appears as a puppet on Hero Boy's bed post in the first illustration. This appearance was carried over to the film adaptation.
  • A picture of Babe Ruth, an American professional baseball player, can be seen on the wall in the boy's bedroom next to the window. This picture is also seen in the film.
  • Contrary to its basis, the locomotive in the book has a 4-8-2 wheel arrangement instead of 2-8-4.
  • The Polar Express Train Ride events often feature a reading of the book.

In other languages

Language Name
Arabic القطار القطبي السريع
Catalan L'Exprés Polar
Chinese 极地特快
Danish Polar-Ekspressen
French Boréal-express
German Der Polarexpress
Greek Το Πολικό Εξπρες
Italian Polar Express
Japanese 急行「北極号」
Korean 폴라 익스프레스
Polish Ekspres Polarny
Portuguese O Expresso Polar
Romanian Expresul polar
Russian Полярный экспресс
Spanish El Expreso Polar
Swedish Norrskensexpressen
Vietnamese Tàu Tốc Hành Bắc Cực


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 "PE-Full-Kit" (PDF). p. 24.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 "A Conversation with Chris Van Allsburg by Anita Silvey".

External links

Toy trains Bachmann Brio Lionel
Board games The Polar Express Game Matching Game Train-Opoly
Books The Polar Express A Guide for Using The Polar Express in the Classroom The Art of the Polar Express The Gift of Christmas All Aboard the Polar Express The Journey Begins The Magic Journey Trip to the North Pole Keepsake Memory Book Shadowbook The Movie Scrapbook
Albums Original Motion Picture Soundtrack For Your Consideration
Other Cereal Video Game CD-ROM Multimedia Edition