Allison's Book Bag

The “Best Ever” Books by Barbara Robinson

Posted on: October 2, 2011

“The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world.” No one in Beth Bradley’s town liked them. No teacher at Woodrow Wilson School wanted them in school. Yet young and old around the world love to read about them. For the most part, Barbara Robinson achieves the tricky balance in her Best Ever chapter books between writing about kids who are not enviously awful but who are entertainingly awful. She convinces us that the Herdmans are like that blonde-haired Dennis the Menace who never sets out to maliciously hurt anyone. Moreover, while all of these kids reap tons of trouble, they never create any permanent serious damage. This doesn’t excuse the Herdmans’ actions, nor does it mean we’d want them living next door, but it does allow us to laugh at their escapades.

THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER

My favorite story about the Herdmans remains the first: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. It best shows off Barbara Robinson’s strengths. For example, who wouldn’t want to keep reading after its famous introduction? Only after it does Robinson takes a step back to tell us who the Herdmans are. In another sign of her craftsmanship, rather than simply telling us how bad the Herdmans are, Robinson expounds upon one of their bad acts: the burning down of an old tool house. While not making light of fires, Robinson still manages to present it from the perspective of an eleven-year-old: “It was a terrific fire—two fire engines and two police cars and all the volunteer fireman and five dozen doughnuts.” Robinson also deftly juggles seriousness with humor: The fire chief gathered the kids together to give them a little talk about the dangers of playing with matches and gasoline. Of course, the only lesson the Herdmans learned was “wherever there’s a fire there will be free doughnuts sooner or later”. Within the next few chapters, we read about several more disasters involving the Herdmans—and learn that their father disappeared when the youngest was two years old (and no one blamed him), their mother works double shifts at the shoe factory (and no one blamed her either), their home is over a garage, and they own the meanest looking cat. Finally, before The Best Christmas Pageant risks slipping into a rut of episodes, Robinson throws out this hook: “We figured that they were headed straight for hell, by way of the state penitentiary … until they got themselves mixed up with the church, and my mother, and our Christmas pageant.” Clocking in at a mere eighty pages, The Best Christmas Pageant is a quick-paced chapter book filled with quirky anecdotes that left readers clamoring for more tales about the Herdmans.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read it.

How would you rate this book?

Cover of

Cover of The Best School Year Ever

THE BEST SCHOOL YEAR EVER

Twenty years later, Barbara Robinson responded with the sequel: The Best School Year Ever. Although kids apparently like it best, I noticed more flaws. When trying to write this sequel, Robinson struggled to find a focus. Then one boy suggested she put the Herdmans in school, because after all this is where students spend most of their time. The first chapter therefore starts at Woodrow Wilson School. The chapter is a rambling one, which picks up only when Miss Kemp assigns the class to study one another. Narrator Beth Bradley, about whom we learn only snippets, sits near the infamous Imogene Herdman who thinks that mice would make a better project than people. At the end of the year, each student will draw a name from a hat and give many compliments about that person. As a teacher, this doesn’t sound like a particularly realistic project. Still, I might have bought into it if Robinson had referred to it throughout the book and not just sporadically or as a tacked-on ending. The follow-up cat in the Laundromat incident seems out of place. Again though, I might have been more forgiving if the rest of the book had felt unified.  What really happens in the teachers’ lounge, the school talent show, or the compliments assignment could have provided the glue but none of them do. Then there’s my last problem with The Best School Year Ever. It’s hardest with this book for me to believe that youngest who have been kicked out of pretty much every place in town could have any redeemable qualities. Consequently, I felt as if I were reading more about the childhood of Jesse James rather than mere mischievous kids.

My rating? Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.

How would you rate this book?

Cover of

Cover of The Best Halloween Ever

THE BEST HALLOWEEN EVER

None of these faults kept me from checking out Robinson’s subsequent sequel: The Best Halloween Ever. I’m happy to report that here Robinson once again shines. Consider the opening line: “It was the principal’s idea, but it was the Herdman’s fault, according to my mother.” In the very next paragraph, we learn the scandalous facts that the Herdmans piled eight kids into a revolving door and put live guppies on a pizza. Then, horrors upon horrors, we learn that because of the Herdmans there isn’t going to be any Halloween. Who wouldn’t want to keep reading after that introduction? Then just like in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Robinson backs up to give us a little more insight into these kids. For example, they own a mean-spirited cat that they need to keep on a chain, which is what most people wanted to do to the Herdmans. The junk from their garage is scattered all over their lawn, but no one complains because everyone has moved far away from them. Oh, and one day they let all the kindergarten mice out of their cage and replaced them with guinea pigs. Although there really wasn’t any last straw, by the time school had started, “so many people were so mad at the Herdmans for so many reasons you knew something was going to happen.” True enough: The mayor cancelled Halloween. To find out what happens next, you’ll have to read The Best Halloween Ever.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

Robinson is working on a new entry in this wickedly funny series. She privileged the attendees of Plum Creek Literacy Festival with a reading of a sample chapter. She also teased us by saying that it might happen at summer camp but then again maybe she should send them back to school. Robinson has already visited a summer camp and plans to return again another year for research. Can she pull together a fourth book? I echo the comment of a visitor to Allison’s Book Bag: “Oh, I would love another Herdman book!” As for those of you who have yet to discover them, what are you waiting for? Get to your library! To everyone else I ask: Which is your favorite book and why?

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