The Polar Express

By Chris Van Allsburg

Everyone has their favorite Christmas books. You know which ones I mean – the ones you haul out year after year and read to your children, or your siblings. From the time I could tolerably trip my way through our version of A Night Before Christmas I was reading it to my sister, thus sparking a new tradition: Christmas Eve Fight Night. (No, I kid – I knew Santa was watching and was always very, very good the night before).

One of our favorites, and perennial classic to children everywhere, is The Polar Express. No, not the movie (I’ll get to it later), but the book. I love the book. The illustrations are beautiful, incredibly rendered in gentle colours. They feel soft, in a way; looking at them makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside, which is exactly how I want to feel when I’m reading a Christmas book.

The story is the one we all wish we could take part in if this story were real. An unnamed young man, going to sleep on Christmas Eve, awakens to hear the call of a train whistle outside his house. Running downstairs, he is greeted by the conductor and told that “this is the Polar Express”. Initially reluctant, the boy climbs on, and is ushered in to a lively, magical train.

The Polar Express makes its way north, eventually coming to a stop at the North Pole, where Santa will give out the first gift of Christmas. He chooses the boy, who requests to have a bell from the reindeer’s harness. Santa grants this wish and gives him the bell, but on the subsequent trip home, the boy realizes there was a rip in his pocket at that he has lost the bell. Dismayed at the loss, he finds a package under his tree the next morning with the bell and a note from Santa.

At one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.

I’m going to say it again: I love this book. The illustrations are to die for, beautifully rendered and perfectly conveying the feeling of magic and Christmas. The story is simple, provoking children to reaffirm their belief in Santa Claus and Christmas. After all, if you believe, you too might end up on the Polar Express and receive a gift from Santa.

Suggested Ages: 3+

The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship

By Arthur Ransome

I think folktales are the best kinds of stories. Not only are they great for kids – heck, they’re practically tailor-made for our little ones – but they’re great for adults too. There’s nothing like sitting back and sharing an old-fashioned folk tale. They’re the first stories we hear, the basis of our inspirations later in life, and can be found almost anywhere if you look hard enough. Even more, they’re a universal the world over. Just look at the world-wide variations on Cinderella that can be found.

The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship is a retelling of a Russian folktale. This book was the first time I ever saw the word “Czar” (we will not get into how long it took my parents to teach me how to pronounce that, or how confused I continue to be at how many different ways there are to spell this word), “moujiks” (peasants), or “faggot” (as in faggot of wood, not the derogatory term). Isn’t it great how books teach us new things?

This book is pretty long as far as children’s stories go. It starts with the Czar sending messengers all over the land, offering his daughter’s hand in marriage to any man who brings him a flying ship. The messengers bring news to a small hut in the woods, wherein lives a family with three sons. The first two, smart and clever boys, decide they want to go out and try their luck. Their father gives them fine clothes, and their mother bakes them white rolls and gives them corn brandy before sending them off. The third boy, known only as the Fool/Fool of the World, says that he would like to follow. Sick of him, the mother gives him dry crusts and water and pushes him out of the house.

So the Fool walks along, merry as can be, when he comes across an ancient. They share a meal, and the old man tells the Fool how he can get a flying ship. Obeying the ancient’s instructions, the Fool finds himself with a flying ship. As he goes across the country, he starts collecting all manner of strange folk. First, there’s the man who listens; the man who can run around the world in one stride; the man who can shoot things at an incredibly far range; the man who can never get enough to drink; the man who can never get enough to eat; the man with the faggot of wood that turns into soldiers; and the man with the straw that turns the hottest day to winter. Quite the collection, really.

Upon arriving, the Czar looks out and sees the flying ship, but he is far from happy to see that his daughter will be marrying a peasant. He decides to present the Fool with challenges that will run the Fool off and leave the Czar with the flying ship. Of course, each challenge plays to the strength of one or more of the Companions, and the Fool ultimately bests the Czar, marrying the princess. The last page tells us that the princess and the Fool fall madly in love, the Czar and Czarina think very highly of their son-in-law, and the Fool becomes a very clever man.

I’ve always been a bit thrown off by that ending; when you call someone a Fool, I never think of them as smart. I suppose he could be a savant, or maybe he just needed some guidance and education to become an enlightened man. Perhaps he wasn’t a fool at all, and was just a very kind, naive man who thought the best of everyone, and Fool was a bit of a misnomer. Yes, I think I like that one.

The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship is a Caldecott Award Winner. The pictures are interesting for kids; it certainly has a distinctive feel. I remember the pictures as well as I remember the text, and while I don’t think the art is spectacular, it does have a folksy, Eastern-European feel, which fits with the text very well. They are simple illustrations with bright colours. There is never a page without action; in almost every page there is someone walking, or flying. It gives this long book an pace and keeps the children’s attention grabbed.

Suggested Ages: 5-9

Smoky Night

By Eve Bunting

The story of Smoky Night is set during the Los Angeles Riot, and is from the point of view of an African-American child named Daniel. He lives with his mother and cat in an apartment building located in the heart of the riots. The main plot revolves around Daniel’s family and their apartment neighbour, an Asian woman (Mrs. Kim). This dislike is reflected in the way their two cats fight.

Smoky Night tells a story of racism without overtly touching the race button. The setting of the Los Angeles Riots provides an interesting backdrop that is easily overlooked if you are young and unaware of what the name “Rodney King” involves.

The artwork is incredible. The heavy oils on one page, and the scattered mosaic of random household objects or rubble on the other. It will be one of the things you remember most about this book.

Suggested Ages: 5-9

Bunting, E. (1999). Smoky Night. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt More

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