Barbara Robinson,
illustrated by Judith Gwyn Brown,
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
(Harper & Row, 1972)

Everyone agrees that the Herdmans are horrible. There are six of them, each worse than the last; they curse, smoke cigars (even the girls), bully their classmates and terrorize their teachers. Thus far, Beth Bradley has managed to avoid them. But that changes when her mother is put in charge of the church Christmas pageant, and the Herdmans decide to get involved. Suddenly, Beth can't turn around without bumping into a Herdman.

Imogene Herdman decides that she will be Mary, and no one is willing to tell her no. Her brothers and her sister take the rest of the main parts: Joseph, the Wise Men and the Angel of the Lord. Beth's mother carries on grimly in the face of this unexpected turn in her cast, and the night of the pageant arrives. To everyone's surprise, the Herdmans pull it off. True, it's in their own style -- the youngest, Gladys, the Angel of the Lord, announces, "Hey! Unto you a child is born!" and the Wise Men present the ham from their charity food basket rather than frankincense and myrrh -- but for Beth, the pageant is a revelation of the meaning of Christmas and of the Christmas story. She says, "But as far as I'm concerned, Mary is always going to look a lot like Imogene Herdman -- sort of nervous and bewildered, but ready to clobber anyone who laid a hand on her baby." For all concerned, it is indeed the best Christmas pageant ever.

Robinson's gentle humorous tale is also an object lesson, demonstrating how everyone has let the Herdman children down: their father abandoned them; their mother works double shifts at the shoe factory; their teachers pass them along in school regardless of whether they've learned anything; and the rest of the adults, looking down from their comfortable and secure lives, promote the idea of the Herdmans as irredeemable savages, particularly to their children. But Imogene and her siblings are not completely out of reach, and the pageant is a small step toward bringing them into their community.

The brief book with Judith Gwyn Brown's expressive line drawings is a fast read and would easily make a super family Christmas tradition. It's going to be one in my family.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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