"All aboard," the conductor cried out. I ran up to him.
"Well," he said, "are you coming?"
"Where?" I asked.
"Why, to the North Pole of course," was his answer. "This is the Polar Express."
The primary criteria for the Caldecott medal is excellence in illustration, and there's no denying Chris Van Allsburg's talent. His signature surreal style and striking use of chiaroscuro (contrast between light and dark) is at full force in this book. The color scheme is composed of rusty hues of purple, red, and orange, which makes for some neatly staged scenes. On the other hand the muted tones may prove visually uninteresting for most children.
The story itself isn't that much more exciting. A young boy boards a magic train in the dead of night and is taken on a (transoceanic?) train ride to the arctic circle to meet Santa Claus. Sounds intriguing, but it's told briefly without much description. The boy is a passive character (a stand-in for the reader) to whom things happen. The lack of action, though, is not the most problematic part of the book.
When you substitute belief in Santa Claus for the true meaning of Christmas, the joy of Christmas will tend to fade with your belief. This is the problem that The Polar Express was written to address. It's a problem, of course, that has an obvious solution.Without Christ, Christmas is a meaningless holiday.
Thus you get books like the Polar Express. The saccharine ending reinforces the idea; believe (in something other than Christ) in order to retain that magical feeling around Christmas. There is nothing wrong with pretending that Santa Claus exists, or even that a magic train could come scoop you up at any moment and take you to the North Pole. It's the same vein in which children leave milk out for the fairies, or check the backs of every wardrobe for the entrance to Narnia. The problem is when it becomes the focus of a Christ-centered holiday.
So The Polar Express is partly a symptom of a larger cultural problem. But truthfully, all those reservations aside, the book is an imaginative tale that expands a modern myth, told by the talented Chris Van Allsburg, though it's not the most riveting of his books. Whether to take it or leave it is up to your personal discretion.
This 25th anniversary edition comes with an audio recording by Liam Neeson and a keepsake ornament.
Review by Lauren Shearer
Lauren Shearer writes words for fun and profit. She also makes films, but everyone knows you can't make a profit doing that. Her other hobby is consistently volunteering way too much of her time. You can read more of her reviews here.
Review by Lauren Shearer
Lauren Shearer writes words for fun and profit. She also makes films, but everyone knows you can't make a profit doing that. Her other hobby is consistently volunteering way too much of her time. You can read more of her reviews here
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