It's a beloved picture book! It's a flashy new movie! And fittingly, The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg (Houghton Mifflin) is also the cornerstone of a sizable literacy campaign. First published in 1985, the Caldecott-winning title is experiencing an adrenaline boost just in time for the holiday season and the release of the Warner Bros. film later this week (see sidebar).
A new edition of the hardcover featuring refreshed artwork is now available. "It involved going back and taking an old piece of film that has not enjoyed the finest technology and making a clearer print," said the author of the facelift. The new books are distinguished by a sticker announcing "Now a Major Motion Picture!" Van Allsburg elaborated, "The marketing people said we had to put it on there. So I asked, 'Is there some way we can make it ironic?' I advocated for the exclamation point at the end. I wanted to squeeze 'Can You Believe It?' on there, too, but they didn't go for it."
Houghton has also released a raft of movie tie-in books, including an interactive shadow-casting bedtime story, board books and a junior novel. But the book's journey this fall is proving much more extensive than page—to—silver screen.
The National Education Association's Read Across America initiative, a program that reaches 50 million children annually, partnered with Warner Bros. and Houghton Mifflin for the Polar Express Reading Challenge. The core partners challenged students nationwide to read 200,000 books between October 1 and October 22. Kids and teachers were invited to submit book logs of titles they had completed for entry in a sweepstakes with a chance to win a private screening of The Polar Express, signed copies of the book and other prizes. Each book read, up to the 200,000 total, resulted in $1 pledged to support libraries. According to the NEA, the goal was reached handily; more than 60,000 submissions were received, with more book logs still to be tallied. Warner Bros. will donate $200,000 to the NEA, designated for school and public libraries in need.
Also on the library scene, the American Library Association has created a Polar Express poster and bookmarks available in its catalogues and on ALA's Web site, www.ala.org. The posters contain detailed suggestions for planning and hosting library Polar Express Pajama Readings.
Houghton Mifflin has also developed language arts lesson plans for each of Van Allsburg's 15 books. Each plan contains lessons for K—2 teachers and grades 3—5 teachers. The plans can be accessed at www.polarexpress.com under the link for teachers and librarians.
The American Booksellers Association's Book Sense program and the literacy charity First Book are on board as well. Book Sense has distributed to its independent bookseller membership Polar Express Pajama Party Kits from Houghton. As a charitable component of Book Sense's campaign to promote the book, customers may purchase paper cut-out trains at member stores for $1 each. The trains, listing the customer's name, will be used to decorate the store. All the money raised will be given to First Book to benefit children in need in the store's community.
Up Close and Personal
On the face-to-face front, Van Allsburg will be meeting and greeting fans on a 14-city tour that kicked off last week in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Mich. The author-illustrator warmed up for the bookstore swing with his role as keynote lecturer at both New York University's Steinhardt School of Education and Teachers College (Columbia University) on October 23 and 24, respectively, speaking to teachers about integrating his books into the classroom.
Teachers around the country can see Van Allsburg on November 9 when Regal Cinemedia's educational division, Big Screen Classroom (www.bigscreenclassroom.com), presents "All Aboard with Chris Van Allsburg." This interactive program with the author will be broadcast live in 100 movie theaters to 50,000 students nationwide. According to Regal, a live author chat of this magnitude is a first, and Regal is the only theater chain equipped to offer it.
Operation Read, a Los-Angeles—based organization that encourages reading as a way to keep kids off the streets, is arranging to give copies of The PolarExpress to 750 underprivileged kids. Founded by probation officer Wini Jackson, the group has been very successful in securing donations. Houghton Mifflin, Hyundai and the National Basketball Association's Read to Achieve program are among those providing Polar Express copies. Jackson has organized a screening of the movie this week for the 750 kids slated to receive books; Van Allsburg will meet with roughly half of those children at a special event in Los Angeles on November 16.
Back on the East Coast, fans and art lovers can catch a retrospective of Van Allsburg's work, which will be on display November 21—March 13 at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst, Mass. Van Allsburg plans to attend an exhibit-opening party and book signing on December 2.
The Polar Express author tour ends in Minneapolis on December 14, in time for Van Allsburg to take a holiday break. And speaking of the holidays, Macy's Herald Square store in New York City—where Santa makes a grand entrance in the huge Thanksgiving Day parade each year—will feature the Polar Express movie as the theme of its annual holiday window displays.
Two newly launched Web sites, www.polarexpress.com and www.chrisvanallsburg.com, provide more information, activities and other bonus materials related to the book and film.