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Talking Volumes: The Polar Express
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"The Polar Express" (Courtesy Houghton Mifflin)

St. Paul, Minn. — The Polar Express was the December 2004 selection for Talking Volumes, the joint book club of Minnesota Public Radio, The Star Tribune, and The Loft Literary Center.

From the publisher:

In just twenty years, Chris Van Allsburg's The Polar Express has become a Christmas tradition as cherished as a December 24 reading of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas."

It is that rare kind of achievement in literature - a combination of powerful text and evocative imagery that perfectly captures the wonderful sense of childhood innocence. Right from its publication in 1985, The Polar Express struck a chord with readers. It tugs at the heart and gently reminds all who are touched by it of a child's faith that gradually fades with age. On November 10, 2004, Robert Zemeckis, Tom Hanks, and Warner Bros. Pictures will bring the Caldecott Medal-winning story to life in a motion picture fantastically rendered in revolutionary performance-capture CG animation. New generations - both young and old - will delight in the magic of this contemporary classic.

In addition to being one of the most respected author/illustrators in children's publishing, Van Allsburg is no stranger to the movies. Jumanji, a Caldecott Medal winner and National Book Award runner-up, was the source for the 1995 blockbuster movie starring Robin Williams and Bonnie Hunt. Zathura, Van Allsburg's most recent book, was a New York Times bestseller in 2003 and is scheduled for movie release in 2005 from the director of Elf, Jon Favreau. The Sweetest Fig and The Widow's Broom are also in development for the big screen.

With the provocative and occasionally unsettling realities he creates (qualities rarely encountered in children's picture books), Chris Van Allsburg is not a typical children's author, but his appeal is universal. The Polar Express is #2 in the NEA's Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children (second to Charlotte's Web), and it is one of two children's books most widely held by public libraries in the United States (the other is David Macaulay's The Way Things Work). Every December The Polar Express faithfully reappears on every national bestseller list.

When asked about his inspiration for The Polar Express, Van Allsburg recalls that he had a single image in mind: "A young boy sees a train standing still in front of his house one night. The boy and I took a few different trips on that train, but we did not, in a figurative sense, go anywhere. Then I headed north, and I got the feeling that this time I'd picked the right direction, because the train kept rolling all the way to the North Pole. At that point the story seemed literally to present itself."

Van Allsburg's initial images evolved into the story of a Christmas Eve when a little boy boards a mysterious train to the North Pole. There he meets Santa and gets to choose the first gift of Christmas-a reindeer bell from Santa's sleigh that rings only for those who truly believe in Christmas. Told as a first-person recollection and richly illustrated in oil pastels, The Polar Express is a story of the faith that children bring into the world, which sadly, but slowly, vanishes with emerging adulthood. "Lucky are the children who know there is a jolly fat man in a red suit who pilots a flying sleigh. We should envy them," says Van Allsburg. "And we should envy the people who are so certain Martians will land in their backyard that they keep a loaded Polaroid by the back door. The inclination to believe in the fantastic may strike some as a failure in logic, or gullibility, but it's really a gift. A world that might have Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster is clearly superior to one that definitely does not."

Van Allsburg began his stellar publishing career in 1979 with the publication of The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, which earned him unprecedented praise ("This is without question one of the best-and most original-picture books in years." -New York Times) and a Caldecott Honor Award, a rare achievement for a first-time author/illustrator. He barely gave critics a chance to catch their breath when Jumanji was published in 1981, followed by Ben's Dream (1982), The Wreck of the Zephyr (1983), the teacher's favorite The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (1984), and The Polar Express (1985). Each one was an award winner, with Jumanji and Polar earning him Caldecott Medals, the highest honor a picture book can receive, and placing him among a very small handful of authors who have earned the award twice.

"The idea of the extraordinary happening in the context of the ordinary is what fascinates me," says Van Allsburg, and that is apparent in each of his books. Many even contain pieces of his own "ordinary" home life-wallpaper and sculpture from his home are scattered throughout his books. His daughters were the models for the characters in Zathura, ants on his countertop were the inspiration for Two Bad Ants, his daughter Sophia's coloring book scribbles became the plot for Bad Day at Riverbend, and Fritz, a little dog that once belonged to his brother-in-law, can be found in every one of Van Allsburg's books.

When The Polar Express movie hits theaters on November 10, millions will be introduced to the magical world of a Chris Van Allsburg book. From the youngest child thrilled by the sight of the massive black steam train to adults of every age who feel their eyes water as they remember the happiness of hearing the bells of Christmas, The Polar Express is a gift of art and storytelling.

About the author:

Chris Van Allsburg was raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He attended the University of Michigan with the vague idea of studying law, but the art courses he took as a lark proved more interesting than anything else he studied. In 1972, he graduated with a degree in sculpture and moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where he continued his study of sculpture at the Rhode Island School of Design. Shortly after he received his graduate degree, Van Allsburg began to show his sculpture in New York City galleries, where their surreal imagery quickly won him a reputation as an artist to watch. He didn't begin drawing until 1979, when his teaching commitments at RISD and a cold studio too far across town kept him from his sculpture.

The black-and-white artwork he created in carbon pencil and charcoal was appealing to Chris's wife, Lisa, who used pictures books in her elementary school art classes. She felt her husband's pictures had the quality of illustration, and with the encouragement of a friend, the illustrator David Macaulay, she decided to show the work to children's book editors. In Boston, Lisa visited Walter Lorraine at Houghton Mifflin, Macaulay's editor. Lorraine looked at a drawing, which showed a lump in a carpet and a man raising a chair to hit it (an image much liked the one printed in Van Allsburg's The Mysteries of Harris Burdick) and said, "If he can get this much storytelling content into one piece of art, I know he can create a children's book." Lisa Van Allsburg walked out with the promise of a contract, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Houghton Mifflin has published fifteen of Van Allsburg's books-from his Caldecott Honor Award-winning first book, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, to his most recent space adventure, Zathura. The success of Van Allsburg's Jumanji and The Polar Express is no less than phenomenal: both received Caldecott Medals, Jumanji was made into a movie in 1995, and The Polar Express has become a classic with millions of copies sold and will be released as a major motion picture on November 10, 2004. The Widow's Broom, The Sweetest Fig, and Zathura are also in various stages of development for the movies.

Chris Van Allsburg lives in Providence, Rhode Island, with his wife, Lisa, and their two daughters, Sophie and Anna.

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