Over the past twenty-five years, many people have shared stories with me about the effect that reading The Polar Express has had on their families and on their celebration of Christmas.
One of the most poignant was told to me five or six years ago at a book signing in the Midwest, on a snowy December evening. As I inscribed a book to a woman in her sixties, she told me that it was the second copy she had owned, and wanted to know if she could she tell me what had happened to the first. “Of course,” I answered.
A dozen years earlier the woman, who had no children of her own, befriended a neighbor, a boy of about seven, named Eddie. He would often cross his driveway to visit her.
She had a collection of picture books, which she read to him, but around the holidays, the only story he ever wanted to hear, over and over, was The Polar Express. One year she offered to give him the book, but Eddie declined because he wanted to hear her read it aloud to him, which she continued to do every year until the boy and his family moved away.
Years later the woman learned from a mutual acquaintance that Eddie had grown up and become a soldier. He was stationed in Iraq. Since Christmas was approaching, the woman decided to send him a gift box. She included candy, cookies, socks, and her old copy of The Polar Express. She wasn’t sure what a nineteen-year-old battle-weary soldier would do with the book in an army barracks in the Middle East, but she wanted him to have it. A month later, after the holidays had passed, she received a letter from Eddie.
He told her he was very happy to have heard from her and to get the box of gifts. He had opened it in his barracks, just before curfew, with some of his fellow GIs already in their bunks. A soldier in the next bunk spotted the book. He knew it well from his own childhood and asked Eddie to read it. “Out loud?” he asked. “Yeah,” his buddy told him.
Eddie, quietly and a little self-consciously, read The Polar Express. When he’d finished and closed the book, a moment of silence passed. Then from behind him a voice called out, “Read it again,” and another joined in, “Yeah, read it again,” and a third added, “This time, louder.” So Eddie did.
He wrote to the woman that he’d stood up and read it to his comrades just the way he remembered she had read it to him.
Chris Van Allsburg