The Polar Express is a children's Christmas book written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg and published by Houghton Mifflin in 1985. The book is widely considered as a Christmas classic and has won a Caldecott medal in 1986 for illustration in an American children's picture book.
One night on Christmas Eve in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a young boy was sleeping quietly in his bed, waiting for the sounds the bells from the sleigh of Santa, whom a friend claims does not exist, but the boy was sure he was wrong. Later that night, a train stops in front of the boys house. A conductor steps outside one of the coaches and looks up at the boy's window, prompting him to put on his slippers and robe and head outside. The conductor explains to the boy that the train, called the Polar Express, is there to take him to the North Pole, so he holds out his arm and the Conductor pulls him on board.
On the train, the boy sees a lot of other children going to the North Pole too. Along the way, they are served candies and hot chocolate and they pass through villages, forests and mountains. The train eventually arrives at the North Pole, but the children are confused as to why they cannot see any elves. The conductor explains that they are gathering in the center of the city to watch Santa give the first gift of Christmas to one of the children on the train. Sure enough, they find elves as soon as the train stops at the center of the city and get off. Santa soon arrives and chooses the boy as the one to receive the first gift of Christmas. The boy, sitting on Santa's lap, tells Santa that he would like to have one of the silver bells from his sleigh, so an elf cuts off one of the bells from the reindeer's harness and gives it to Santa, who holds it up and declares it the first gift of Christmas. The clock suddenly strikes midnight and Santa gives the bell to the boy, who puts it in his pocket. Everyone then watches Santa fly away and the children and the conductor get back onto the train.
Back on the train, the other children want to see the bell, but when the boy reaches into his pocket, he can only feel a hole. One of the children suggests they go outside to look for it, but the train was already on its way, much to the boy's sadness. The train soon stops in front of the boy's house where he is dropped off. The conductor wishes him a Merry Christmas, but the boy could not hear, so he puts his hands around his mouth and shouts it.
The next morning, the boy and his sister Sarah were opening their presents. Sarah finds one last present behind the tree and hands it to the boy, who opens it to find the silver bell along with a note from Santa telling him the bell fell through the hole in his pocket and into his sleigh. The boy rings the bell and he and Sarah enjoy the sound, but their parents could not hear it and assume that it must be broken.
Most of the boy's friends could also hear the bell, but they would lose their ability to hear it over the years, including Sarah, but the boy, even though he is now a grown man, can still hear it as well as he could then.
Van Allsburg based his story on a mental image of a train wandering through the woods at night, wondering where a train was heading.
The locomotive in the book is based off of Pere Marquette 1225, an N1-class steam locomotive which Allsburg used to play on while attending football games at Michigan State University, who used to own the locomotive and had it on display at the time. He was also inspired by the 1225, which is also the date of Christmas, 12/25. Drawings of the locomotive were used to create the CGI model for the film while its sounds were also recorded.
Pere Marquette 1225 is currently owned by the Steam Railroading Institute and has been doing passenger excursions throughout the year, including the world-famous North Pole Express during the months of November and December.
The book has won a Caldecott medal in 1986 for illustration in an American children's picture book and has sold a million copies by 1989. As of September 2015, it has sold 12 million copies worldwide. It has also appeared on the New York Times Best Illustrated Book and Bestseller lists. The National Education Association named the book one of its "Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children" in an online poll in 2007 while the School Library Journal called it one of "Top 100 Picture Books" of all time based on a 2012 poll.