Four middle grades kids discuss The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: what stands out in this funny, modern Christmas classic?
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. HarperCollins, 2005 (reprint; originally 1972). 128 pages.
Reading Level: Middle grades, ages 8-10
Recommended For: Family read aloud (note cautions below)
One of the delights of my job is reading great books and discussing them with my co-workers. Those discussions enrich my understanding and delight in most of the books we discuss.
Megan and I have discussed The Best Christmas Pageant Ever on numerous occasions. We both think the humor, the characterization, and the scandalous elements combine to give a terrific picture of the gospel: Jesus came into this world to save sinners! And, those who are in Christ are new creations! And the story of Christmas is a startling, arresting moment in the history of time: the infinite, all-powerful God came to earth as a human baby…and was born in a feeding trough and announced by angels and visited by wise men! If the Herdmans don’t help us see this, we have missed the point.
But it’s one thing to have these discussions as adults, as “professional readers.” Do our kids pick up on the same things? What do they think about this funny book? We decided to ask them. After all, our children have read/heard this book a couple of times in their short lives. Below is an email “discussion” four of our children had this week. We have done some minor editing to aid the flow, but left their words as intact as we could. We followed their answers with some thoughts of our own, but we did not take part in their official discussion.
Question #1: Why do you like The Best Christmas Pageant Ever? (For instance, is it funny? Do you like the characters? Do you like the “message”? Etc.)
Henry (age 10): It’s ironic because the Herdmans are the worst kids in the world and they get the most important parts in the Christmas pageant.
Elizabeth (age 12): I think it is funny, especially when Gladys shouts, “Shazam! Out of the black night an angel swoops!” and it’s funny that the Herdmans want to rewrite the whole pageant and hang Herod for a finish.
William (age 10): I really like the part where Gladys yells, “Hey! Unto you a child is born!” and then hits them. It shows how bad the Herdmans are. Plus, they want to burn/hang/murder/destroy/anything-that-means-a-bloody-gruesome-end to Herod.
David (age 10): I’m with Elizabeth. But I do like how they want to put a gruesome end to Herod.
Megan: How about the blessing of service in spite of reluctance? The mother didn’t seem to realize the full impact of taking the impossible challenge of running the pageant–on the Herdmans or on her daughter. But God uses it anyway!
Question #2: Which character changes the most during the story? Why do you think so?
Henry: The Herdmans, because they gave their ham to the baby instead of a bunch of perfume.
Elizabeth: Imogene. Because she starts out blackmailing kids to get stuff. She smokes, hits, and yells. But at the end she is crying because she finds out about the true meaning of Christmas.
William: Imogene–she finds out what Christmas means.
David: I’m with all three!
Betsy: Imogene changes the most outwardly, but the narrator is more likely to mirror the reader: realizing slowly through the Herdmans’ actions how marvelous and astounding the Incarnation is!
Question #3: Are you more like Imogene, an “outward sinner” who is amazed, astounded, and awed by the startling story of Christmas… or the narrator, a church-goer who’s heard the Christmas story so much by now that she forgets to be amazed by this startling story?
Henry: Both. I kind of forget the meaning of everything, and I’m still an outward sinner.
Elizabeth: the narrator
David: Well, normally, I’m like the narrator at first, but when I read the book I thought about it a bit more. I started to understand it a bit more. When you think about it, if you don’t understand part of the story, someone will answer and help you know the story, and you’ll understand it even more.
Betsy: When I asked this question to my kids orally, all paused before answering. We ended up having a fantastic discussion about it: why don’t we feel outrage at Herod like the Herdmans do? Why aren’t we shocked that Jesus, the King of Kings, was lying in an animal feeding trough? If you ask no other question, do ask this one of your kids!
Question #4: Why do you think the author includes such obvious “sins” as Imogene swearing in church, smoking in church, and Gladys’s bullying? Could she have left those out and the story been as good or meaningful?
Henry: To truly bring out the meaning of their repentance. No, she couldn’t have left those out, and the story wouldn’t have been as good.
Elizabeth: I agree with Henry.
William: They wouldn’t have gone through such a change, so, yes I agree.
David: To help you totally understand (without a doubt) that they’re sinners and how much they change.
Megan: Imogene Herdman as Mary is about as unexpected as the Samaritan woman at the well being assigned that role.
Betsy: After all, Jesus came into this world to save sinners. Children are very concrete thinkers–the Herdmans are a nice, tangible picture of “sin.” And their turnaround is evident.
Question #5: Did this story make YOU hear the story of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in a new light? Did you notice anything about that first Christmas that you hadn’t thought of before?
Henry: No, I already knew that Herod had died in his bed from old age.
Elizabeth: Not really.
William: Slightly. After you read it, you realize how strange it must be to hear the story for the first time. I mean, a king trying to kill a poor, little baby who was just born? Angels appearing out of nowhere and singing? A king who “should” have a more gruesome end than old age?
David: I absolutely agree with William, only I personally agree with the Herdmans–I think that Herod should have more of a gruesome end than old age. I mean after all he’s done? If you read a dictionary then you would see a picture of Herod by the description of “EVIL.”
Betsy: Every time! The description of Imogene and Ralph entering as Mary and Joseph gets me every time: they look like refugees on the nightly news. I’m sure that’s closer to the real truth than the beatific images we love to look at in Christmas books.
If you’ve read the book, try asking your own kids these questions–their oral answers will be more voluble than written answers (if our kids are any indication!). Let us know if you do and what they say!
Cautions note: There are some cautions with this book: if you haven’t read it, do know that not only does Imogene swear in church, the actual words are in the text (profanity; not 4-letter words). Additionally, there is one comment about the Herdmans only talking about “sex” (which is an untrue accusation… but some kids may ask you want that means).