"The Polar Express" - 30th Anniversary Book Tour

"The Polar Express" has given author Chris Van Allsburg at least 12 million and one reasons to smile.

One Caldecott Medal and 12 million in book sales since its publication 30 years ago in 1985.

Of course, there's also the motion picture starring Tom Hanks as Santa Claus, Tom Hanks as a Railroad Conductor, and Tom Hanks as the 8-year-old Van Allsburg, who grew up in Grand Rapids

"The Polar Express" is inspired by Van Allsburg's childhood when Herpolsheimer's and Wurzburg's department stores were Macy's and Gimbels in Grand Rapids.

"When you went downtown to do your Christmas shopping, you always had to make a choice to go to Wurzburg's or Herpolsheimer's," Van Allsburg recalled. "If you went to both, that would have been greedy, because you'd be asking Santa Claus twice."

Though Herpolsheimer's isn't mentioned in the book, it's named in the 2004 film. Today, the Grand Rapids Art Museum sits on the site once occupied by Wurzburg's.

"They actually visited Grand Rapids and looked at the streets I lived on and looked at downtown Grand Rapids," Van Allsburg said of the filmmakers. Van Allsburg will be in town on Sunday for a book signing at Schuler Books & Music in Grand Rapids.

The illustrator who studied art at the University of Michigan is on tour promoting the 30th anniversary edition of the story that's been through some 54 printings and now is considered a modern classic.

Van Allsburg, 66, who taught at the Rhode Island School of Art, had no idea it would become the success it did.

"I never had expectations like that. I never thought about, would it be well liked?" he said. "If it ends up getting published, and a lot of people like it, then I'm lucky."

"Maybe 'very fortunate' is a better way of describing it," he added.

The book that won the 1986 Caldecott Medal caught the eye of Van Allsburg's fellow Baby Boomers, who remember their own childhood in departments stores decorated for the holidays with toys such as model trains.

"One of the licensees is Lionel Trains, and they make a 'Polar Express' train now that is quite popular," Van Allsburg said. "The nostalgia of the book is a big example of life imitating art."

It's yet another example of the serendipity of the story. Van Allsburg drew a quintessential steam train, inspired by a 482 Baldwin.

During the making of "The Polar Express," designers looked for a specific train to imitate.
"The train they happened on was the Pere Marquette," Van Allsburg said, which is the rail line between Grand Rapids and Chicago.

The specific engine the designers studied was No. 1225.

"That's the date of Christmas," Van Allsburg said. "That's an unusual coincidence. I guess it was meant to be."

The 30th anniversary edition includes a new jacket design and expanded interior layout, a letter from Van Allsburg, downloadable audio read by Liam Neeson, and a keepsake ornament.

"The little letter pretty clearly sums up the conflicted emotions that I had when I was that age and how fortunate I was that in my moment of doubt, the train pulls up to my house and relieves me of my anxiety."

The edition also includes a small Christmas tree ornament – a bell, of course.

"The Polar Express" 30th anniversary book tour:

When: 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 22
Where: Schuler Books & Music, 2660 28th St.SE
Admission: Tickets are available with purchase of any Chris Van Allsburg book at Schuler Books' Grand Rapids location.
More info: Call 616-942-2561

Written by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk. Jeffrey covers arts and entertainment for MLive and The Grand Rapids Press.