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Posts Tagged ‘Best Christmas Pageant Ever

BarbaraRobinson“The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world,” begins The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, published in 1972. With that line, Barbara Robinson introduced readers to one of the most memorable families in children’s literature. Robinson started out as a short story writer and wrote about the Herdmans originally as a story for a McCalls magazine. With the success of the story came a full-length children’s book, a play, a movie, two sequels, and most recently a picture book.

Robinson died yesterday at her home in Pennsylvania. She was 85. According to her family, the cause was cancer.

She grew up in a southern Ohio river town and credits that small town atmosphere with affecting most of her writings. In her profile at her website, Robinson writes: “I had the benefit, as well, of a wide variety of aunts and uncles and cousins, plus the extended family so common to small-town life–the neighbors, friends, teachers, bus drivers, mailmen, local heroes and local neer-do-wells, and even a local blacksmith . . . great stuff to feed the imagination.” She began writing at an early age and never stopped.

I had the pleasure of hearing Barbara Robinson speak about the creation of her three Herdmans novels at the 2011 Plum Creek Literacy Festival. She told not only of how her first book began as a short story, but also of how the others came about because of reader demand. The Best School Year Ever was even inspired by students. Apparently, tor months, Robinson had recorded ideas on index cards for a sequel. Then upon a return visit to a school, one boy asked, “When are you going to finish it?” Robinson admitted to having all these funny ideas but nothing to tie them together. The boy told her, “You need them to be in school, because that’s our job.” The Best School Year Ever won the Nebraska Golden Sower award and is perhaps even more popular among kids than her first book.

At this festival, Robinson alluded to plans for a fourth Herdmans book, perhaps where they attend camp. Sadly, it seems was never completed. The literary world is richer though for the stories which Robinson has left behind.

“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.


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


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


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?

After preparing my last few round-ups, I decided they took too much time to do during my teaching year. For that reason, I had planned to limit them to vacations. However, there is also something crazily fun about reading several books in one week. And so, once again this weekend, I plan to prepare a round-up of books. I’ll review all three Best Ever books. Save the date: October 2!

Cover of "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever...

Cover of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

“The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world.”

Who recognizes this line from a famous children’s book? The book of course is The Best Christmas Pageant Ever! Did you know that this book originated as a short story? Its author Barbara Robinson actually started out as a short story writer. Did you know since the novel’s publication The Best Christmas Pageant has also been turned into a play, a movie, and (most recently) a picture book? If you didn’t know all this, check out my write-up of Barbara Robinson and other authors whom I met this past Saturday at Plum Creek Literacy Festival.

After typing up my notes from the festival, I started searching online for other biographical info about Barbara Robinson. Turns out, not much exists beyond the info I included in my report. So, this week, instead of author info, I’ll  feature a teaser each day from Barbara Robinson’s three books about the Herdmans. For those of you who are already dedicated fans, and so are maybe familiar with the lines, did you know Barbara Robinson is working on a fourth book about the Herdmans? It might be about summer camp, but might be about school again, or…. perhaps, you should drop her a line with some suggestions.

“I couldn’t understand the Herdmans. You would have thought the Christmas story came right out of the F.B. I. files, they got so involved in it–wanted a bloody end to Herod, worried about Mary having her baby in a barn, and called the Wise Men a bunch of dirty spies. And they left the first rehearsal arguing about whether Joseph should have set fire to the inn, or just chased the innkeeper into the next country.”

The above quote is from The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Having discovered it during my childhood (the book was first published in 1972), I reread it yesterday for the umpteenth time. Clocking in at eighty pages, it was a quick read. The Herdmans make an unusual holy family!

“…. they got thrown out of the new Laundromat the very day it opened. They planned to wash their cat in one of the machines, but they didn’t know it would cost money, so they just dropped him in and went off to locate some quarters.” Of course, the cat didn’t like it in the washing machine, and it made so much noise hissing and spitting and scratching that the manager went in to see what was wrong.”

The above quote is from The Best School Year Ever. According to Barbara Robinson, she struggled most with writing this book but it’s probably also the most-loved by students. Incidentally, when she thought up the idea of having the Herdmans throw a cat into the washing machine at the laundromat, adults thought it would be a bad example but kids knew that only the Herdmans would do such a dastardly deed.

“So there really wasn’t any last straw, but by the time school finally started, so many people were mad at the Herdmans for so many reasons you knew something was going to happen. ‘It’s got to stop!’ the mayor said … but nobody knew that ‘it’ was going to be Halloween.”

The above quote is from The Best Halloween Ever. The mayor has decided to cancel Halloween. Can you imagine a year without one of our special occasions such as Valentine’s, Easter, Thanksgiving, Halloween, or Christmas? Can you imagine a family so terrible that you’d rather give up one of those holidays than have them around? The principal of Woodrow Wilson decides to hold Halloween at school, but with parents and without treats. How will the students have any fun? How do they end up having the best Halloween?

This weekend, I’ll review all three Best Ever books by Barbara Robinson. Save the date: October 2!

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