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My mother opened a children’s bookstore back in 1989. During junior high, I looked forward to my afterschool shift so I could read (and sometimes sell) books by Sheree Fitch, Robert Munsch and Roald Dahl. Each December, though, one title commanded my attention every day: The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg.
The narrator is a man recalling his unique boyhood journey to the North Pole via the Polar Express locomotive. When Santa offers him the “First Gift of Christmas,” the child doesn’t hesitate to select one with personal meaning: a bell from Santa’s sleigh. Although he loses it as he travels home, Santa returns it during his Christmas visit. The happy tale ends with a sting: as adults, everyone has lost the magical feeling Christmas brought them all as youths – except the narrator, thanks to his longtime memento from the North Pole.
I’ve never decided which of the three I enjoyed most: the flow of the story, the realistic but mysterious illustrations, or the rich tone of William Hurt’s narration on the accompanying audiocassette. We sold multiple copies of this kit every day leading up to Christmas and wore out at least one copy of the tape.
Like the narrator, I don’t feel much emotion toward the winter holiday anymore. But seeing the old bookstore’s copy of The Polar Express on the shelf at my parents’ home ties me to younger years of winter: snow forts and sliding, shovelling driveways for money, reading books for fun instead of study, and of course my mother and the devotion she showed when helping people choose just the right book for their child.
The Polar Express will be a special gift for my daughter to read for the first time this winter. It may not jingle when you pick it up but, when it opens, this book is my Christmas bell.
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Peter is a teacher with 10+ years of experience in international and public schools. He specializes in elementary literacy.
Visit his blog for more book (and teaching) ideas: www.mrpetercullen.com.