Golden Ticket

Revisiting the tracks of a beloved Christmas story and the Providence writer and illustrator behind the engine


"This is the Polar Express!” Tom Hanks’ voice rings out as his character, the conductor in the 2004 animated film, gestures at the magnificent steam engine. The Polar Express picture book published in 1985, along with the film and, more recently, the real-life train excursion here in Rhode Island’s Blackstone Valley, has become a bonafide holiday classic. But if you had told its creator, Chris Van Allsburg, that a story he wrote would become a beacon of the Christmas season for close to 40 years, he never would have believed it.

Van Allsburg was a sculpture artist, creating “narrative pictures” for himself on the side after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design. When his wife, Lisa Van Allsburg, an elementary school teacher, saw his work, she insisted he show his drawings to children’s book publishers. After a battle of wills against his wife and crippling self-doubt – he didn’t believe his illustrations were in the correct “aesthetic” for kids’ books – Van Allsburg eventually connected with a publisher and created his first book: The Garden of Abdul Gasazi.

The longtime East Side resident has since become a household name, with titles like The Sweetest Fig, Jumanji, and of course, The Polar Express being his most famous. Van Allsburg is known for hiding “Easter eggs” – details of his own life – in his illustrations (most famous is his dog, Fritz), and The Polar Express is no exception. Of course Fritz is hidden in there, but the illustrations of the North Pole were “influenced by all the old mill buildings around Providence and Fall River,” he shares. The elves at the North Pole, Van Allsburg reckoned, couldn’t produce toys on a world-wide scale in a little chalet, and the old mill buildings were both functional and “romantic,” perfect qualities to give his story a sense of truth and magic.

The Christmas book holds a special magic for Van Allsburg: “It is, to a degree, autobiographical,” he shares. The story was a “reflection of how it felt to get to a certain age and start to have doubts about the mythology of Christmas and Santa Claus. There’s kind of a peer pressure to reject it because it makes you feel older and makes you feel wiser, but at the same time, it feels like you’re really losing something.”

Encapsulating this experience in a picture book was a way to recapture the magic when social pressures make children feel the need to grow up. “I was […] thrown out of the land of make-believe, and hearing the gates close behind me and wondering if there was a way to get back in,” Van Allsburg reminisces. “The way for me to get back in was just through my imagination, writing the books I’ve written, and in particular The Polar Express – basically inviting children to ride on the train with me.”

This invitation has been accepted countless times over the years. In Rhode Island, the Blackstone Valley offers a special excursion to the North Pole on their very own Polar Express – complete with live readings, performances, hot cocoa, and the first gift of Christmas, pajamas encouraged, but similar rail tours occur all over the US and the world. “As the child ages, they don’t really remember all the ways it didn’t really seem like a ride to the North Pole,” Van Allsburg insists, “but they still remember as they get older and older […] this idea that it wasn’t just a dream, but they really did go to the North Pole on a train.” Like the theme of his book, it’s not about magic, per se, it’s about belief.

Parents read The Polar Express to their children to recreate their childhood holiday magic and continue traditions; at October’s RI Festival of Children’s Books and Authors, one parent, Erin Ergene, picked up two copies to read to his young son and nephew at Thanksgiving, and little Jimmy Rolando, four years old, decided to go as The Polar Express train conductor this past Halloween. It is this way that Van Allsburg’s legacy should be measured – not in terms of train tickets sold or film views (though they would be extensive) – but in the belief of pure imagination, wonder, and the magic of Christmas.

Please consider shopping for books this season at your local independent bookseller. 



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