The Best Kids’ Christmas Book? Why, “The Polar Express,” Of Course!

“What’s ‘wilderness,’ Daddy?” my three-year-old son asked me one night as we were reading Chris Van Allsburg’s The Polar Express, my vote for best kids’ Christmas book ever.

It was 9:30 at night, and I was exhausted from a four-day stretch of minimal sleep. (Our 11-month-old had been sick.) I came up with a definition that, while not incorrect, was hardly eloquent: “Umm… any place that doesn’t have buildings or farms or people—that’s wilderness.”

My son seemed satisfied with the answer. He asked the question because I had just read the following line: We traveled through cold, dark forests, where lean wolves roamed and white-tailed rabbits hid from our train as it thundered through the quiet wilderness. Wolves and rabbits he gets. But wilderness was a new concept.

From the Mouths of Babes…

It was yet another example of my taking our son’s language abilities for granted. At three years and three months, he knows the word trapezoid. He also has an impressive command of irregular past participles (drew, bought). Eight months ago, he came out with this sentence in the passive voice: “Daddy, I hope Captain Hook doesn’t get eaten by the crocodile.”

The only problem with having a three-year-old with precocious language skills is that you think he’s a five-year-old. So when we read, I forget that he is still encountering dozens and dozens of new vocabulary words, that cause-and-effect relationships aren’t obvious, and that he understands tone of voice better than exposition. It’s only when he stops me that I’m reminded to slow down, pointing to a picture to ask him what’s happening.

And this is why, as a parent, I love The Polar Express. It pulls my son in. And because he cares about the story, he wants to iron out any new comprehension issues upon subsequent readings. (This is not how my son would put it.)

Image of train from The Polar Express, the best kids' Christmas book

What Makes The Polar Express the Best Kids’ Christmas Book

The Polar Express is a wonderful story not only because any kid would kill to travel to the North Pole in a steam train on Christmas Eve. The level of the writing is accessible (when read aloud, of course) to children younger than the book’s target readers. After all, a good children’s book is, among other things, one that stretches a kid’s language. What’s the fun in reading (or listening) below your level of understanding? This is why I think it’s safe to call it the best kids’ Christmas book ever.

Of course, The Polar Express wouldn’t be a classic if it weren’t for Van Allsburg’s rich oil paintings. My son drinks up the pages where the elves, reindeer, and Santa Claus appear. Sure, he’s listening to the words—but the pictures, I suspect, are the main attraction for him.

My son doesn’t think yet about authors, so he doesn’t know that Chris Van Allsburg grew up in the same city that we live in. He can’t read Van Allsburg’s 1987 autograph to my wife. She was 10 at the time and had gone to a local book signing when Van Allsburg was in Grand Rapids.

My son didn’t catch the reference to Grand Rapids in the movie version of The Polar Express when we watched it. He doesn’t know that Tom Hanks, who voices several characters in the film, came to our town when it opened. In fact, he doesn’t know or care who Tom Hanks is.

Image of Chris Van Allsburg's autograph from The Polar Express, the best kids' Christmas book

Believe

None of that really matters, of course. The story is all that counts. When my three-year-old and I read The Polar Express, he loses himself in the feasibility of it all.

Of course, he knows that Yertle the Turtle looks cartoonish and that pigs can’t really talk like Olivia and that a Very Hungry Caterpillar wouldn’t really eat a piece of pie.

But a train stopping in front of his house one winter night to take him to see Santa—why not? Van Allsburg’s realistic paintings don’t just add to the magic—they create it. There’s nothing cartoonish about The Polar Express. The author who paints trains to look like trains and people to look like people will be able to get a kid to believe, well, anything.

Aspiring children’s authors would do well to imitate the sincerity in The Polar Express. I get the feeling that Van Allsburg wrote from the perspective of the boy inside him. That boy believed, so it’s not a big leap to have the nameless boy in the book believe.

And once the main character believes, a three-year-old with advanced language (and an imagination to match) will, too.

Parents, read The Polar Express to your child this Christmas season if you haven’t already. Stop to talk about the pictures. Ask your child what she thinks will happen next. And see if you aren’t moved by the time you get to the last page, when your child marvels at the exquisitely drawn reindeer’s bell and you ponder the last few sentences.

Thank you, Chris Van Allsburg, for writing the best kids’ Christmas book that I’ve ever read. You’ve helped create a father-son holiday experience centered around one of the best things in the world—a story.

Image of bell from The Polar Express, the best kids' Christmas book

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