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Top 100 Children’s Novels #73: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson

#73 The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson (1972)
27 points

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 Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth 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.


  1. My seventh grade teacher read this one to the class. I absolutely adored it, and when my children were born, I eagerly awaited the time they would be old enough for me to read it to them. I simply adore this book.

  2. Love this, and I could have easily included it in my list. It’s definitely one of the best Christmas stories written for children. One of my childhood favorites. I think I was like the narrator as well (definitely not Alice, although I knew a girl–and her mother–very much like her!).

    As an adult–and children’s Sunday School teacher–I look at the narrator’s mother in an entirely new and appreciate light. If a group of children like the Hendersons ever wanted to participate in our activities, I hope I would react the way the mother did–to understand and look at the Christmas story from their perspective–and from the narrator’s perspective as well. The scene in which the narrator reimagines the journey to Bethlehem when she sees Imogene and her brother (sorry–cannot remember who plays Joseph…was it Ralph?) arrive bewildered and out of sorts….and the wise men arriving with the gifts (well, ham in this case) and relaxing a bit (when they were supposed to leave according to the directions….of course they wouldn’t just hand over the gifts and be on their way…they would want to rest for a bit!) is just beautiful. This and the Nativity scene in Ramona and Her Father are the most beautiful, honest, realistic, and non-preachy depictions of Christmas that I’ve ever found. Just remarkable. They never fail to move me.

  3. (should be appreciative–not appreciate….it’s early Saturday morning, despite the time stamp)

  4. Oh, wow. And the Herdmans. Why did I say Hendersons? Yikes.

    • Elizabeth Bird says

      On the plus side you just gave me a great idea for a fiction mash-up: It’s Harry Potter meets The Best Christmas Pageant Ever in . . . wait for it . . . “Harry and the Herdmans”.

  5. Best Christmas BOOK ever. The end.

  6. ChrisinNY says

    ^^^It truly is the best Christmas book ever. I loved it so much (even though I was “too old” for it when it came out) that I tracked down that original short story back in the day before the Internet. (Remember the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature?)

  7. Such a good story. I remember thinking, the first time I read it as a kid, that I wasn’t going to like it. And then by the end, I was all choked up and fighting back tears.

  8. just found out the author died several days back. i had a btit of a lump in my throat. i wish i could find the illustration from the early eighties (or late seventies) of imogene smoking in the john. man, that cracked me up, especially those earrings. great blog post.


  1. […] and Minnesota’s Maud Hart Lovelace Book Award. In 2012, it was also included in SLJ’s Top Hundred Children’s Novels […]