The Best Christmas Pageant Ever Book Review

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever - Book Cover
How the Worst Chrismas Pageant Ever Becomes The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. HarperCollins

How does the worst Christmas pageant ever turn into the best Christmas pageant ever?  In what has become a Christmas classic, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever explores the idea that everyone, including those who aren’t exactly lovable, has some sort of worth, and that accepting them can bring great results. The publisher recommends this humorous, yet thought-provoking, 128-page story by Barbara Robinson for ages 8 to 12. It is also a good read aloud for that age range and a little younger.

Summary of the Story

The Herdman kids are the worst kids in town -- a fact that everyone knows, From the oldest, Ralph and Imogene, down through the boys, Leroy, Claude, and Ollie, to the youngest and meanest, Gladys, the Herdmans are trouble. They burn down buildings (granted, only a neglected shed), they find out the weight of everyone in school to blackmail the overweight kids, they smoke in bathrooms and pierce each other’s ears with ice picks. The progeny of an absent father and a disinterested mother, they are the sort of kids parents want their children to avoid.

Our nameless narrator and her brother have been stuck in class at school with the Herdmans and have looked at church as a respite from the chaos that the Herdmans bring. Then, one December, our narrator’s brother, Charlie, gets mad at Leroy Herdman and tells him that they get treats at church -- all the treats they want -- every Sunday.

So, naturally, the next week the Herdmans show up in church looking for their share. Of course, there are no treats, and they seem disillusioned and clueless about what going to church entails. They don’t even know what a pageant is. Everyone assumes that their attendance was a one-time deal, and that will be the extent of the Herdmans and church.

In the meantime, the woman who usually runs the Christmas pageant ends up in the hospital, and the job of executing the pageant has fallen to the narrator’s mother. It becomes her responsibility to deal with the Herdmans when they show up for the pre-pageant meeting and end up taking over the main roles in the Nativity story.

Ralph and Imogene are Joseph and Mary; Leroy, Claude, and Ollie are the Wise Men; and in an ironic twist, the smallest and meanest Herdman, Gladys, is the Angel of the Lord. Everyone, especially our narrator’s friend Alice (who usually plays Mary), is convinced that this will be the Worst Christmas Pageant Ever.

And it certainly seems that way: There is a myriad of complaints, the rehearsals are a disaster, and the Herdmans have no knowledge of the Christmas story -- none at all. They get defensive about Joseph and Mary ending up in a stable and about the fact that Herod wants to kill the baby Jesus, and Gladys terrifies the shepherds.

No one wants to be a part of the whole debacle. No one will volunteer their baby to be Baby Jesus. And at the dress rehearsal, the firefighters end up being called, mostly because Imogene had been smoking in the bathroom again, but also because the women in the kitchen got distracted and burned all the apple crisp. Overall, it doesn’t look good for the pageant performance night.

On the evening of the pageant, the whole town turns up, just to see what the Herdmans will do. In the end, nothing drastic or awful happens, but rather they find small ways to re-interpret the Christmas story: Imogene holds the baby over her shoulder instead of cradling it in her arms; the Wise Men bring a Christmas ham; they never leave the stage, sitting there staring at the baby and taking in the moment.

In the end, something shocking happens -- Imogene cries. Through what everyone expected to be the worst Christmas pageant ever, the audience catches a glimpse of the real meaning of Christmas. In fact, according to our narrator, it turns out to be the best Christmas pageant the church has ever had.

Awards and Recognition

  • The Best Christmas Pageant Ever was awarded several state children's choice awards and recognition.
  • Georgia - Georgia Children’s Book Award
  • Indiana - Young Hoosier Book Award
  • Minnesota - Maud Hart Lovelace Book Award
  • The Notable Children’s Book List, ALSC / ALA
  • Library of Congress Children’s Books

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever on Stage and Screen

The book has been adapted as a play and has been popular with school and church groups, as these scenes from the Huntsville, Alabama Grissom High School production illustrate. Robinson's screenplay of the book was turned into a TV movie in 1983. 

Review and Recommendation

The prose is simplistic, which is understandable considering the age range this chapter book is written for, but the story is timeless. Not only is it fun to read (who isn't intrigued by the proverbial train wreck storyline?), but there is much to discuss when the book is over. There may be some issues for parents about children being exposed to another child smoking, and the general misbehavior of the Herdmans, but aside from that, it’s a harmless, sweet Christmas story. (HarperCollins, 2005 paperback reprint edition, ISBN: 9780064402750)

About the Author, Barbara Robinson

Barbara Webb Robinson was a librarian before she began writing. According to Robinson, she began writing as a child and never lost her enthusiasm for it, also becoming interested in the theater. She attended Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. Robinson had several dozen short stories published in women's magazines and newspapers and also wrote poetry. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, first published in 1972, turned out to be Robinson's most popular book. Others titles by Robinson include My Brother Louis Measures Worms and two more books featuring the Herdmans: The Best School Year Ever and The Best Halloween Ever

Edited 11/2/15 by Elizabeth Kennedy

Sources: Pennsylvania Center for the Book, HarperCollins