I read “The Polar Express” to my daughter for the first time last night. It was more of an emotional experience than I was prepared for.
I remember growing up, listening to my father read us the book with his storytelling voice (the most soothing of all his voices) and discovering the mystery of believing. I remember looking at the pictures in the book, realizing that some illustrations in books were pictures, and some were artwork. I learned to value that artwork, to value that people made art for children that surpassed the concept of simply pictures to accompany words, that good art in a book can add to a story, and give it depth and texture and motion and pathos.
I didn’t learn all of that the first time we read the book, but through my years of my parents sharing the artwork of Chris Van Allsburg and others who think that intricate and good work is worth doing for children who might not understand the depth of it, but that children see when they are valued participants and interpreters of art, I learned that art matters.
The Polar Express matters, in ways that is clear even for people who might have only seen the movie.
And because this particular story impacted me in a particular way at a pivotal moment in my childhood, I wanted to be the first one to share it with my daughter. I wanted to control the way she was first read the story. And I don’t know if I was ready to share it with her yet, but her preschool is having a “Polar Express” day next week, and I don’t trust her teachers to “get it right” (whatever that might possibly mean) and so I read my favorite Christmas book to my elder daughter. And I cried.
She watched and listened and interacted with the story and sat to listen for the whole of the book, even though it is one of the longer books we have for children before we switch to chapter books. She wants to know why we don’t have a leather thong for our bells on our tree, but I think I can manage that one.
I hope she heard the beauty of the story. It was that wanting, for her to hear the beauty of the story, not the plasticine commercialism that became the movie and the train rides and the vast number of companies who are capitalizing on the nostalgia of parents who remember their parents reading it to them and so want to “do the experience” with their kids… though I did price check what it would take for me to take my daughter to the “experience” in town…
I like that The Polar Express is not just my thing. I like that the story hasn’t disappeared into obscurity, and that it keeps being told. It is a good reminder to me that what I found special during my childhood wasn’t necessarily isolated to my own experience. I am not the only child who heard this story as a kid. I think I forget that sometimes, in part because I feel so different from the rest of the world, that all of my experiences have not been unique solely to me. Sure, looking at the details there are always details that only I have, but sometimes things are more common of an experience than I think. And then, on the other hand, it is good to be reminded that what I see in ubiquity is still not universal. Not everyone my age has read The Polar Express, not even my writing partner who I shared this story with first.
And even in the details, I hope that there are people who have parents who shared their favorite books with them, even if it wasn’t the same book, or for the same reason. Because I love it when books and stories are shared, and I love sharing my favorite books from my childhood with my children. I love it when they love the things I remember loving, and knowing that some of the reason they love the book and the story behind it is because I shared my love with them.
But then, isn’t that what we do with most things we believe in? Or at least, isn’t that what were should be doing? Sharing our story and our love of the story with those around us so that the love expands?