BELVEDERE --- With descriptions of hot chocolate that tastes like melted candy bars and screeching train wheels on the track, Belvedere Elementary first-grade teacher Heather Shuler said it's easy for her students to get sucked into the world of The Polar Express.
The Chris Van Allsburg tale was published in 1985, but it has become a catalyst for winter wonderlands in many elementary schools in the past few years. In Aiken County, all Area 2 elementary schools celebrated with their own versions of The Polar Express day Thursday, which included "train" rides around the school, making bell necklaces and a pajama day.
Mrs. Shuler said the 2004 film featuring Tom Hanks put the book back in people's minds but the book itself is full of lessons for her class.
"We read the story in the dark and I'll have the flashlight so it looks like the train light, and even though the kids know it's a flashlight, they are still staring at the ceiling waiting to see what happens," she said. "The kids become a part of the story."
Mrs. Shuler said pupils study geography by comparing the book's settings -- Michigan and the North Pole -- with South Carolina's temperate climate. The book also helps Mrs. Shuler teach nouns and adjectives and how they work together for better description. Pupils then write their own story of sharing during the holiday season.
The book, about a boy who's losing his faith in Santa Claus, features a bell as the symbol of believing. Each pupil received a bell necklace after attending a grade-wide reading of the book. Mrs. Shuler said one teacher even placed her bells in the freezer so they feel as if they've come from the North Pole when pupils receive them.
"When we're headed toward the break, they're all excited about it and this keeps them excited about Christmas in a way that they're still learning," Mrs. Shuler said.
Media Specialist Jill Smith said the staff pulled 10 pages of book titles based on the holidays, but The Polar Express was the only one to never hit the return shelf because of demand.
"We have 100 children in here at a time when it's read, and they are drawn into it," she said. "It really plays to the child."
Jacob Boyette, 6, said he wanted to be in the book just so he could be part of the action.
"The only thing that's better than when they go down the big slide into the presents is when he (Santa) disappears," Jacob said. "I have so many favorite parts."
Reach Julia Sellers at (706) 823-3424 or firstname.lastname@example.org.