1985's poetic 'Polar Express' is worth a second look

Sunday, November 7, 2004

Ask not for whom the bell rings; it rings for thee.

Paraphrasing poet John Donne seems appropriate when writing about one of childhood's most poetic books, "The Polar Express," which has been made into a major movie opening nationwide on Wednesday. Written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg, the mesmerizing picture book won a richly deserved Caldecott Medal in 1986 and has developed into a holiday classic that has spoken to both children and adults for the past 20 years.

Focusing on the magical bell from a reindeer harness, given from Santa Claus to a sensitive boy, "The Polar Express" is an expression of children's capacity to hear, see and believe in things that escape adults. The book touches movingly on how much of Christmas's wonder is lost to most who grow up.

The magic of that sleigh bell is told with the eloquence of John Donne, and there is no doubt Van Allsburg meant it to be heard by all of us who read about and see it. Although the ending of the narrative is bittersweet, we can't help but believe that if we were to encounter this memento from Santa, it would set off a ring in our hearts, no matter what our age.

To go with its mystic message are softly radiant illustrations that make Santa Claus into a figure of nobility, and the North Pole a place of alternate light and dark. The elegance Van Allsburg gives this story provides Santa with a dignity that transcends the usual "ho ho ho" Christmas tales. In this story, both the young boy and the Santa who befriends him are characters that inspire admiration.

Published by Houghton Mifflin Co., "The Polar Express" is also available in a variety of other versions, including a shadow book format which uses the light of a flashlight to cast scenes from the book onto a wall in a darkened room. The perfect bedtime companion, it condenses the story into five stunning black-and-white images that will enrapture any child, and, indeed, any adult. The sights of caribou and a polar bear seen from the windows of the Polar Express are nearly as entrancing as the image of the North Pole in its vast expansiveness.

In both of these versions of "The Polar Express," belief is the true miracle that can make sound come from a seemingly soundless bell. May all who view Van Allsburg's gift to children find that the bells of the coming season are as beautiful to listen to as the one that a little boy who believed in Santa kept hearing throughout the rest of his life.