Polarizing the Polar Express

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Christopher Whitten
The Polar Express
Caldecott Award paper
Lorinda Cohoon
Polarizing The Polar Express
The Polar Express written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg in 1985, was chosen for a Caldecott Medal in 1986. It was praised for its detailed illustrations and calm, relaxing storyline. Widely considered to be a classic Christmas story for young children, it has earned recognition several times in the 28 years since its conception and publication. No stranger to such honors, Van Allsburg has continued to work with children and inspire illustrations for years following this timeless masterpiece. The 1985 Christmas favorite, The Polar Express” won Van Allsburg a Caldecott Medal in 1986. That wasn’t his first however. He received the same honor for Jumanji, published five years earlier. He also received a Caldecott Honor Book for The Garden of Abdul Gasazi in 1980. He was awarded the Regina Medal for lifetime achievement in children’s literature. Jumanji won the national book award in 1982 and was made into a popular feature film in 1996. The Polar Express was likewise turned into a motion capture computer-animated fantasy film in 2004 (Awards). It was praised for its detailed illustrations and calm, relaxing storyline. Based on a 2007 online poll, the National Education Association named The Polar Express one of its "Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children." It was one of the "Top 100 Picture Books" of all time in a 2012 poll by School Library Journal. Van Allsburg’s Christmas creation makes its way each December into The New York Times’ best sellers list. According to a 2011 USA Today article, The Polar Express has spent 130 weeks in the top 150 since the list began in 1993. It was number one for three weeks in 2004 after the movie, starring Tom Hanks, was released (Minzesheimer). Van Allsburg has also been recognized by several states’ children’s book awards for his vast list of publications. A New York Times book review called the book “magic indeed.” The critic goes on to say that Van Allsburg is “a master of light” and that the book is nothing cute … rather there is something I would have to call majestic” (Perrin). The illustrations certainly provide an atmosphere of magic in a merry time and place. The illustrations make the reader feel the cold in the woods and the warmth in Santa. Many of Van Allsburg’s illustrations are drawn from a child’s eye height. This viewpoint appeals to both children and adults – children because it conveys the world as they see it; and adults because they may unconsciously perceive the world as they did when they were children. Van Allsburg gets away from that viewpoint in The Polar Express, however, as many of his illustrations are from above the North Pole or below the train bridge. Many others feature settings that no child in the story would be found in, including in the woods among a pack of wolves or reflected in a portrait of the Christmas Bell that the story’s protagonist asks for from Santa as his gift. When accepting the Caldecott award for his book, Van Allsburg explains how his imagined setting began. says The Polar Express began with the image of a train in the woods. He then says he asked himself what if a child got on the train, where would it go? Then the North becomes a possibility. That leads him to think of the North Pole and its residents. As innocent as Christmas and Santa may be for Van Allsburg, The Polar Express has been accused by many to have a remarkable resemblance to the 1940s-era Adolf Hitler and Nazism. Van Allsburg has always dismissed such accusations as mere coincidence. The movie, directed by Robert Zemeckis maintained that call to communism. The similarities in the book translated to the big screen as well. Both the book and movie show reindeer with reins that resemble a Nazi soldier with his helmet strap coming down below his jaw. One critic says that “the most specific and astonishing parallels between the Riefenstahl film and The Polar...
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