Wednesday, December 07, 2011

The Herdman's Are Back! The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson

Our Christmas pageant was always the same--kids in bath robes and bedsheets...and everybody knows the story...

Everybody but the Herdmans.

The Herdmans, known universally as the horrible Herdmans--Ralph, Imogene, Leroy, Claude, Ollie, and Gladys--have certainly never darkened the door of the church before, but with their usual timing, they pick the day of the casting of the annual Christmas pageant to show up. Not content with heisting the contents of the collection box, they shove their way to the front of the assembled Sunday School kids and take over the major roles in the play.

"I'll be Mary, and Ralph, he'll be Joseph. Leroy, Claude, and Ollie'll be the Wise Men," bellowed Imogene.

Nobody dared to argue. Nobody ever won an argument with Imogene. The kids looked about nervously. There was only one major part left, the best one, one with only one short line to learn but with a chance to make a climactic appearance in the limelight--The Angel of the Lord.

"ME!" Gloria hollered. "I'll be that!

What is it?"

One hapless kid is picked to read the Nativity story to the Herdmans. They have a few, um, artistic suggestions to make to the pageant director.

"What good is some smelly oil? Let's bring pizza!" the prospective Wise Men agree.

No parishioner family is willing to volunteer their baby for the previously coveted role as the Christ Child, so Imogene brings an old, naked doll as a stand-in. And the rehearsals proceed. The pageant director is appalled with her actors, who apparently have no reverence for the beloved story and fight over every stage direction. Everyone doggedly slogs through the rowdy rehearsals, knowing for certain that this is going to be the worst Christmas pageant ever!

It's not nice to fool Mother Nature nor to fool around with a classic Christmas story such as Barbara Robinson's beloved novel, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, which, since its publication in 1972, has become standard Yuletide reading in English-speaking countries everywhere. It's been issued on film and CD, a staple of readlouds for classrooms and a required novel study in many systems, and the popular playscript for this story has itself become the "Christmas pageant" in churches and schools. But Harper's new 2011 version, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (Picture Book Edition), illustrated by Laura Cornell, does an excellent job of translating the novel into a picture book format accessible to preschool and primary school students. Missing, of course, is the first-person narrator, whose ruminations on the Herdmans misadventures are as humorous as their subjects are horrible, but the adapted text works well to build suspense for that moment when Angel Gloria steps into the spotlight to deliver her punchline to the assemblage:


The Wise Men just sat down, as if they had come a long way, and you didn't expect them just to hand over their ham and leave.

Somehow every wrong thing the Herdmans did seemed right and natural.

Imogene started to cry,

In the candlelight her face was all shiny with tears... as if Christmas had just come over her all at once.

Everyone agreed. It was the best Christmas pageant ever.

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