Top 100 Children’s Novels #73: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson
My mom read this to us (my sister and I, and sometimes all the kids at church while we were waiting in costume for our own Christmas pageant) every Christmas, and we’d crack up every year. I read part of it to my class during my one year of classroom teaching, and I still remember one of my more difficult students exclaiming, about the Herdmans, “Man, they were REALLY bad!” – Libby Gorman
People should read this every Christmas. Laugh out loud. Be thankful the Herdmans don’t live in your town. – Kristi Hazelrigg
Or come to your library after school for that matter. It is with the greatest of pleasure that I welcome them to this list, though. In this, Robinson’s surprising Christmas classic, she somehow managed to do the impossible. She made an original Christmas story that was honestly real, human and touching. The difficulty in making a book like this cannot be stressed enough. If you want proof you need only sit and wait for the holidays to roll around and for 500+ new Christmas stories to roll into bookstores and libraries, amusing briefly, lasting almost never. That’s where Robinson is different. Her book lasted and lasted and lasted and remains pretty much the top Christmas chapter book for kids out there outside of A Christmas Carol.
In The New York Times Parent’s Guide to the Best Books for Children, editor Eden Ross Lipson describes the book in this way: “What is the true meaning of Christms? When the ramshackle, chaotic, impossible Herdman children are cast in the annual Christmas pageant, some important lessons are learned all around the community. This could have been treacle, but it’s told so deftly it has become a classic. Good to read aloud.”
It pretty much as the best opening of any book out there too. Pay attention to the tone.
“The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken-down toolhouse.
The toolhouse burned right down to the ground, and I think that surprised the Herdmans. They set fire to things all the time, but that was the first time they managed to burn down a whole building.
I guess it was an accident. I don’t suppose they woke up that morning and said to one another, ‘Let’s go burn down Fred Shoemaker’s toolhouse’ … but maybe they did. After all, it was a Saturday, and not much going on.”
God, if we could bottle writing like that . . .
As a child I know that on a personal level I identified strongly with the book’s nameless main character. I couldn’t tell you her name or what she looked like or even much of what she did. But the way she would stand back and try to avoid any and all trouble and confrontation with the Herdmans resonated.
I do find myself wondering, if this book were written today would the Herdmans still be allowed to smoke cigars? I know they didn’t in the recent picture book version of this story, but I still wonder.
Peter Sieruta at Collecting Children’s Books is the best person to talk to when it comes to the history of any and all books for kids. As you can see from this post, he even knows the true origins of this story. Says he, “This short novel had its origins as an even shorter story called ‘The Christmas Pageant,’ which appeared in McCall’s Magazine.”
There was a made for TV movie circa 1986, I’m sad to report. I mean, you just can’t film this book. It takes everything away. Odder still the casting of Loretta Swit (remember M*A*S*H?) in it for a little star power. Oh me, oh my.
And check out the covers! It’s very interesting to watch how they zeroed in on Gladys as the best possible gal to have on the jacket.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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