Montana State University

MSU reading experts recommend children's books to read, give over the holidays

December 20, 2007 -- Anne Pettinger, MSU News Service

Ann deOnis, MSU education professor and childhood reading specialist. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.)   High-Res Available

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With a long winter break, reading can be a good way to help children pass the time, and books are also popular holiday gifts. To help parents and gift-givers select among the thousands of available titles, Ann deOnis and Joyce Herbeck, education professors at Montana State University and childhood reading specialists, share some of their favorites.

"The Polar Express" (Houghton Mifflin Company, $18.95) by Chris Van Allsburg, tells the story of a boy who visits Santa by traveling on the Polar Express. Santa gives the boy the first gift of Christmas: a silver bell from the reindeer's harness. "This is a powerful story about believing in Christmas that everyone should read," deOnis said. It is especially appropriate for children in grades two and three.

"The Night Before Christmas" (Holiday House, Inc., $6.95) by Clement C. Moore, is arguably part of the United States Christmas tradition, de Onis said. A New Yorker wrote the poem in 1822, and then he shared it with his family on Christmas Eve. "There are many beautifully illustrated versions of this beloved poem, and one I like is illustrated by award-winning artist Tomie de Paolo," deOnis said. The book is particularly suited for children in grades two through four.

"The 12 Days of Christmas: A Pop-Up Celebration" (Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing, $26.95) by Robert Sabuda, uses paper pop-ups to bring to life the verses in the 12 Days of Christmas. The book is appropriate for all ages, deOnis said, though it might not be recommended for very young children because of the delicate paper constructions.

"Santa Calls" (HarperCollins Children's Books, $16.95) by William Joyce, is a Christmas tale about three children who fly to the glittering city of Toyland, the home of Santa and Mrs. Claus. While there, they fight crime and encounter the dark elves and their evil queen. deOnis said the book is suited to children in grades three through five.

"The Story of the Nutcracker Ballet" (Random House Children's Books, $3.99) by Deborah Hautzig, is the well-known story of a girl and her beloved Nutcracker who comes to life and escorts her to a magical kingdom. It's appropriate for children in grades two through four, deOnis said.

Herbeck recommends the following books for enjoyment throughout the year:

"Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale" (Hyperion Books for Children, $15.99) by Mo Willems. When Trixie and her dad go to the laundromat, Trixie's dearest treasure, Knuffle Bunny, is left behind. Trixie, in her toddler language, tries to explain, but her dad doesn't understand. Both children and adults will laugh at this picture book, Herbeck said, which is suitable for children in preschool through grade two.

"Rules" (Scholastic, Inc., $15.99) by Cynthia Lord, tells the story of Catherine, her younger brother, David, who is autistic, and Jason, a boy in a wheel chair whom Catherine meets during David's occupational therapy appointments. "This book has everything: humor, compassion, peer pressure, insight and social justice," Herbeck said, and is appropriate for children in grades three through eight.

"The House of the Scorpion" (Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing, $9.99) by Nancy Farmer, addresses issues of current relevance and will spark important discussion, Herbeck said. Matt, the main character of the book, is a clone, and even though those around him try to make him feel less than human, he rises above the cruelty and discovers his own self-worth. This mystery, science fiction and adventure story is good for students in grades five through 10, Herbeck said.

"Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue" (Hyperion Books for Children, $7.99) by Julius Lester, transports readers to Georgia in 1859 and the largest slave auction in U.S. history. Based on a true event, this book, in a play format, tells the story of the Butler plantation, where 429 slaves were sold to pay for the master's gambling debts. The book is suitable for students in grades five through 12.

"Al Capone Does My Shirts" (Penguin Young Readers Group, $6.99) by Gennifer Choldenko, is set on Alcatraz Island in 1935, with Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly close by. Moose Flanagan is not happy about moving to Alcatraz, but his father is an electrician and prison guard there, so he has no choice. Moose's mother devotes herself to trying to get Moose's autistic sister into a special school in San Francisco. Moose eventually tries to help out by appealing to the one person that he thinks can make things happen, even from a jail cell. "The vivid setting of this book is as powerful as Moose's compassion for his sister," Herbeck said. It is suitable for children in grades four through eight.

Ann deOnis, (406) 994-5793 or, or Joyce Herbeck, (406) 994-5792 or