Chris Van Allsburg’s The Polar Express, which has enchanted children and adults for three decades, has a fresh new look on bookstore shelves this holiday season. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers has issued a 30th-anniversary edition of this story of a magical Christmas Eve train ride to the North Pole. The new version incorporates some design and illustrative alterations, but fans of this holiday book need not worry: HMH was judicious with its tweaks to the iconic look of this well-loved 1986 Caldecott Medal winner, taking great care to enhance its graphics without making major changes.
The Polar Express’s anniversary edition introduces a new jacket design featuring a red ribbon banner, an expanded interior layout, and repositioned text in a slightly larger type size. Also included are a back-flap note from Van Allsburg, downloadable audio read by Liam Neeson, and a golden keepsake ornament.
The refreshening of the picture book at its three-decade milestone was initiated by Mary Wilcox, HMH v-p and editor-in-chief, and Carol Chu, creative director of franchise and branded publishing, spearheaded the book’s design changes. Chu admitted that she approached the task “with a bit of trepidation, since everyone knows, and loves, the look of the original. We all knew we wanted to be very thorough in considering any changes – and that we didn’t want to change too much.”
As a starting point, Chu removed the borders from both the cover and interior spreads, opting to feature full-bleed art on both, which brought the images into closer focus. “Breaking the art out of that frame changes the proportion of the painting and lets us zoom in, which gives the images a greater immediacy and lets readers explore the pictures without borders – in the same way that they do with digital interfacing,” she explained. “It’s a much more modern treatment.”
Donna McCarthy, executive director of production, who was on press when the very first edition of The Polar Express was printed in 1985, noted that the full-bleed art “captures the movement of the story – readers are actually on the train rather than looking at it. We are in such a more digital world now, and this makes the book so much more interactive.” McCarthy was quick to add that she was in no way criticizing the original printing of the book, which is clearly close to her heart. “I spent a lot of time on that first printing, and I thought it was wonderful then, and I think it’s wonderful now,” she said.
With the new honed-in formatting, Chu said, “details definitely pop more.” Van Allsburg stepped in to “very expertly highlight things your eye might not have otherwise noticed,” she said, “and went back and added highlights and colors to every spread.” Using oil pastels, the medium he used in his original art, the author was able to enhance the contrast and brighten his paintings.
The backdrop for Van Allsburg’s work on the new edition, which took place in his publisher’s Boston offices during the snowiest winter on record, couldn’t have been more apropos. “The driving was treacherous, so we had a car pick up Chris at his home, and he’d come in from the snow all bundled up, take off the layers, and get to work,” Chu recalled. “Outside was such a winter wonderland, and I’d loved The Polar Express as a kid, and I thought, ‘This is so very surreal!’ ”
McCarthy explained that Van Allsburg “used a printed page from a previous printing, and colored it in to smooth out any kind of exaggerated texture and to increase the contrast and color. He managed to enhance the parts of the art that aren’t light, which draws the eye to the midtones and the darker areas.”
McCarthy also commended Chu for “doing a wonderful job with the challenge of taking such a classic – one you think, ‘How can it be any better?’ – and truly enhancing it. What I love about this anniversary edition is that it is still The Polar Express – the essence of the book is the same.”
As part of the launch of the new edition, HMH is conducting a social media book donation campaign; every time the hashtag #ReadandBelieve is used on various platforms before December 31, the publisher will donate a copy of the book to Christmas in the City, a Boston-based nonprofit that helps families in need. HMH has also created an interactive online calendar on its Polar Express website so fans can count down the days of December until Christmas. Visitors to the site can also enter a sweepstakes to win a trip to ride the Polar Express Train in Durango, Colo.
Van Allsburg, who has just wrapped up a weeklong tour promoting The Polar Express: 30th Anniversary Edition, was very pleased with the results of so many HMH staffers’ contributions to the book. “The new design approaches were undertaken with my initiative and approval,” he said. “I felt fortunate to have the opportunity to make these modifications to the original design – changes I feel respect the original and do not in any way make it feel obsolete. I look forward to participating in the future redesign celebrating the book’s 60th anniversary.”
The Polar Express 30th Anniversary Edition by Chris Van Allsburg. HMH, $19.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-544-58014-5