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As the book starts off on the night of Christmas Eve, a young boy is lying in bed waiting to hear the sound of Santa Claus's sleigh bells. Suddenly, he hears loud rumbling outside on the street as a magical train called The Polar Express pulls up in front of his house. The boy ventures outside and is invited by the train's conductor to journey to the North Pole. The train is filled with children, all dressed in their pajamas, who drink hot chocolate as rich as melted chocolate bars and the train rumbles on.

As the train reaches the North Pole, the boy and the other children see thousands of elves gathered at the center of town waiting to send Santa Claus on his way. The boy is handpicked by Santa to receive the first gift of Christmas. Realizing that he could choose anything in the world, the boy asks for one beautiful-sounding silver bell from Santa's sleigh. The boy places the bell in the pocket of his robe and all the children watch as Santa takes off into the night for his annual deliveries.

Later, on the train ride home, the boy discovers that the bell has fallen through a hole in his pocket. The boy arrives home and goes to his bedroom as the train pulls away. On Christmas morning, his sister finds a small package for the boy under the tree, behind all of the other gifts. The boy opens the box and discovers that it is the bell, delivered by Santa who found it on the seat of his sleigh. When the boy rings the bell, both he and his sister marvel at the beautiful sound. His parents, however, are unable to hear the bell and remark that it must be broken. The book ends with a famous quote, also promoted to the film based on it:

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.

Music by Josh Groban, "Believe"
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