Taking Mental Snapshots Aboard The Polar Express

Ever have one of those moments you just wish you could have captured in a photo, but had to settle for a mental snapshot? I’ve been having many of those lately. Recently we went to a Christmas light display after dark (but well before bedtime). I do not have photography skills sufficient to capture the complexities of nighttime photos, but in my mind’s eye I captured dozens of breathtaking shots. My two Bookworms stared wide-eyed at the light displays, the air electric with the excitement of being up “so late” (read: outside after dark). Most recently I took several dozen mental pictures of my Preschool Bookworm’s first reading of The Polar Express.  He was enraptured by this beautiful, exciting classic!

Each Thursday I’ll be featuring a book that my parents *could* have read to me as a child (spoiler alert: I’m no spring chicken), so we will go with a publication date of 1988 or earlier; all books must still be in print as of my writing.

Title/author: The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg

Copyright date: 1985

Plot in a Sentence (or two): The narrator retells his memory of his Christmas Eve ride to the North Pole on the Polar Express train; he meets Santa and is chosen by him to receive the first Christmas gift: he selects a bell from one of Santa’s reindeer, but unknowingly loses it through a hole in his robe before returning home. The next morning he discovers one last gift under the Christmas tree– the bell has been returned by Santa!

Why It’s Timeless: My Preschool Bookworm is not quite 3 years old, and he is not steeped in much of Christmas yet. To him, Christmas means trees decorated with lights. I wasn’t sure if we’d need to wait another year for The Polar Express, but clearly Van Allsburg’s story envelopes readers beyond what listening comprehension levels might assume! The illustrations are absolutely gorgeous, earning Van Allsburg the 1985 Caldecott Medal. I’m still not sure how much of the plot Bookworm understood, but he stared, rarely blinking throughout the entire 6 minute reading.  As an adult reader, I loved the sentimentality of the story (retold as a flashback), and for real I get goosebumps every time I read the last page.

While You’re Reading: Be sure to pause after turning each page. Don’t let the need to read the text detract from allowing your readers to soak in the artistry on each page. Same after you’ve finished reading the text of each page– pause before turning as additional details in the pictures may stand out after hearing the textual piece.

Just for Fun: If your bookworm loves The Polar Express, look for Van Allsburg’s other offerings. He is prolific, and his artwork never disappoints. Y’all remember the movie Jumanji? That was a Van Allsburg book first. How about the lesser known movie Zathura? Also a Van Allsburg book. His books have HUGE range. I used them with older elementary classes with great success.  There are so many layers and complexities in his stories. A few other titles to look for are Probuditi, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, and The Garden of Abdul Gasazi. For older readers, there’s a great book called The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: Fourteen Authors Tell the Tales in which famous authors take the illustrations from the Van Allsburg book as their jumping off point for a variety of short stories (Lemony Snicket, Stephen King, Kate DiCamillo, Gregory Maguire, Lois Lowry… I could name all 14, they’re all superstars!). I used this during my private Language Arts tutoring for a fifth grader and we LOVED it.

Also, check out Amazon’s page for The Polar Express for some fun extras from the author. There’s a heartwarming story he recounts about the effect of his story on a barrack of soldiers stationed in Iraq. There are also links and PDFs of recipes and activities connected to the book. Worth a look!

Books mentioned in this post should be readily available at your public library, or at the Amazon affiliate links provided.

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