It’s been three decades since The Polar Express (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 1985) first came chugging into our lives, enchanting us with the story of a young boy who boards a train on Christmas Eve to take a fateful and reaffirming journey.
In the book which has sold over six-and-a-half million copies—and later the film adaptation of the same name starring Tom Hanks as the kindly conductor—author and author Chris Van Allsburg weaves a tale that he describes as not only fortifying traditions as well as intensifying feelings we already have about the holiday but also has a sub textural theme that also appeals to adults. It begins as a young boy listens for the sound of Santa’s sleigh bells hardly hoping to believe anymore after a friend has told him that Santa doesn’t exist.
“That theme deals with the coming of age transition that parents are reluctant to witness in their children,” says Van Allsburg who is on a mufti-city tour including a stop hosted by Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, to celebrate the book’s 30 years of popularity noting that is a time when children’s youthful innocence, faith and naiveté is yielding to skepticism and doubt. “Their children are leaving childhood behind and mom and dad are sorry to see it happen. The book addresses that issue and might even delay the inevitable for one or two Christmases.”
Van Allsburg, formerly a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, who used oil pastels to illustrate The Polar Express, giving it a dreamy fantastical look, describes that medium as unwieldly and “not particularly well suited for detail but goof for atmospheric effects.”
Interestingly, he hadn’t used it before and hasn’t since, adding to the one-of-a-kind charm to both the story and the illustrations.
When asked about the sustaining popularity of his book, Van Allsburg says that both the train ride and the anticipation of Santa Claus are two reasons he thinks the book remains a favorite.
“This makes it an ideal book to read as the holiday approaches,” he says, “when children are already primed by the season to hear a story about the remarkable event that is just days away.”