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THE GOODS : Bowled Over (Again) by 'Express'


On a Christmas morning 10 years ago, I sat on a sofa reading the new book "The Polar Express" to a little girl named Anna. Her mom and dad were there too. The three of us adults took turns reading from this beautifully illustrated book by Chris Van Allsburg about a child who is transported to the North Pole on Christmas Eve to receive the gift of a sleigh bell from Santa.

As we neared the end of the book, Anna's mom and I had to skip our reading turns. "The Polar Express," like "Peter Pan" and other great children's works, not only spins a great tale, but also has a deeper, disturbing resonance for adults about the lost innocence of childhood.

Anna's dad, through sheer force of will, finished the story for Anna, who then climbed down to play with other toys. Luckily, she didn't seem to notice that the three of us on the sofa now had tears coming down our cheeks. I'm not sure how we would have explained it to her.

This year, when I heard that "The Polar Express" was being made into a CD-ROM, I summarily dismissed the project. It seemed that if there was ever a story that could be ruined by an electronic, digital make-over, this was it.

I was wrong. A small team from Houghton Mifflin Interactive, working with animators at Ark Studios in Boston and audio specialists at Artists for Multimedia in the San Fernando Valley, have added subtle enhancements to "The Polar Express" that make the story, if anything, even more evocative.

The illustrations that appear on the computer screen as the story unfolds are faithful to Van Allsburg's originals, with only bits of animation--such as falling snow and a lonely child waving as a steam locomotive passes his house--added.

Garrison Keillor's narration strikes just the right tone, reverent but never sentimental. And composer Kevin Maloney's quiet score is lovely.

There is little about "The Polar Express" CD-ROM that is state of the art or even interactive. You can skip to a different part of the story with the click of a mouse, an effect that can be achieved with a book by turning pages.

But there are precious few CD-ROMs that can generate the kind of emotional response that this work does, and those that do are to be treasured.

I sent my copy of the CD-ROM across the country to Anna. She's a teen-ager now, and I don't think I'll have to explain anything.

"The Polar Express" is my top pick of the season, but a couple of other programs with holiday themes are very much worth mentioning.

* "QuickCards," from Connectix, is an ingenious CD-ROM that has 60 pre-made, multimedia greeting cards, including a few for Christmas and Hanukkah. You personalize the cards with a message and, if available on your computer, a scanned picture or digitized video clip.

Then you download your card to a floppy disk and mail it to a friend. The beauty of this electronic card is that it's self-contained--your friend won't need the original CD-ROM to play it. You can also e-mail the cards, but because they're 1 to 1.5 MBs in size, they might take a long time to download.

* "Christmas Ornament Workshop" is a delightful program from Kittyhawk Software, the company that last year put out "The Greatest Paper Airplanes."

The software allows you to choose from a variety of ornaments--such as a Santa, a star--that you can make to decorate your tree or mantel. Once chosen, you print out a sheet that has detailed fold lines on it and follow the on-screen demonstration to make the ornament. Think of it as Christmas origami.

All three programs are available in Window and Macintosh versions. "The Polar Express" and "QuickCards" each list for $29.95. "Christmas Ornament Workshop" lists for $19.95. All are likely to be discounted in stores or through mail order.

* Cyburbia's e-mail address is

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