(Host) The children’s book “The Polar Express” is widely read this time of year. The Christmas story about a boy who takes a train ride to the North Pole is also told in a new Hollywood movie this season. In Burlington, “The Polar Express” has become the center of an annual event that brings the story to life for children.
VPR’s Lynne McCrea was at the train station last year, and spoke with author Chris Van Allsburg about his book.
(Train conductor) “North Pole! North Pole Express!”
(McCrea) When Chris Van Allsburg wrote “The Polar Express” in 1985, he never could have imagined the story taking on a life of its own:
(Van Allsburg)”The story is told in first person. So it’s actually my voice that describes the peculiar feelings an 8 year old can have.”
(McCrea) The book revolves around a boy who is beginning to have doubts about the magic of Christmas. He listens for the bells of Santa’s sleigh. Instead, Van Allsburg says, the boy hears the sounds of a train:
(Van Allsburg) “And a character sticks his head out the train window, he’s a conductor who asks the boy if he’s coming. What else could he do but get on the train? And he does that and he finds the train loaded with other kids, all dressed like him in pajamas and bathrobes. And they in fact take this trip to the North Pole.”
(Train conductor) “Going to the North Pole!”
(Child) “Who we gonna see?”
(Train conductor) “Santa!”
(McCrea) Like the boy in the book, hundreds of young children – many dressed in pajamas – descend on Union Station in Burlington to take a train ride to the North Pole. The event was created by Burlington organizer Fagan Hart.
(Hart) “This is such an incredible story, and it just lends itself to this sort of magical journey. And just, a moment and a memory that every family can have to take with them from year to year.”
(Train conductor) “Two minutes to the North Pole! Two minutes!”
(McCrea) About 300 volunteers over two nights help in the effort, which raises funds for the Vermont Children’s Trust Foundation. Sue Camp is the executive director:
(Camp) “The children ride on the train to the North Pole, which is about a 20-minute train ride in Burlington. While they’re on the train, they’re served hot chocolate and cookies by chefs in tall white hats – just like in the book. And then when they arrive at the North Pole they’re greeted by a sea of elves, and then are invited to come in and listen to the story.”
(Hart) “Kids are really taken by the beauty of the event, and how pretty everything looks and how amazing everything smells – like a pine forest to them. How tasty everything is and the cocoa is the best they’ve ever had and the cookies are the most amazing they’ve ever tasted. It’s the enormity of everything – I mean the whole experience is just magnified by a 1,000 times of joy.”
(McCrea) After the train ride, children come into the station where a storyteller reads The Polar Express. The end of the story describes how Santa has given the boy a bell from his sleigh. The boy’s parents think the bell is broken, because they can’t hear it ring. But the boy and his younger sister can hear it ring, because they ‘believe.’
(Storyteller) “The bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe. Do you still hear the bell?”
(McCrea) Author Chris Van Allsburg says part of the story, and now, the staging of the story, is about trying to stretch out the magical period of childhood a little bit longer.
(Van Allsburg) “At least this little idea I came up with creates these – it’s clich to say, but – these childhood memories. The idea of these kids having this experience with their parents when they’re seven, and it all gets confused with having read the book. Or, Gee, did I really take that train ride? So, being able to affect people’s imagination and fantasy life that way is, well, that’s satisfaction.”
(McCrea) In keeping with the book, the Polar Express event wraps up with a visit from Santa, who gives each child a bell, and sends everyone home, many of them believing.
For Vermont Public Radio I’m Lynne McCrea in Burlington.
The Polar Express event is sponsored by a number of area businesses and organizations, in support of the Vermont Children’s Trust Foundation and its statewide prevention programs, such as literacy, mentoring and parenting education.