Friday, December 26, 2014

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever - Barbara Robinson

Summary: The Herdmans are the worst kids in the history of the world. They lie, steal, smoke cigars, swear, and hit little kids. So no one is prepared when this outlaw family invades church one Sunday and decides to take over the annual Christmas pageant.

None of the Herdmans has ever heard the Christmas story before. Their interpretation of the tale -- the Wise Men are a bunch of dirty spies and Herod needs a good beating -- has a lot of people up in arms. But it will make this year's pageant the most unusual anyone has seen and, just possibly, the best one ever.

(image from BarnesandNoble.com, summary from Goodreads.com)

My Summary: I randomly selected this from my child's book order to read with her now that she likes chapter books. The description was probably one sentence long, but I figured I knew what the story was about - something unconventional happens at the annual Christmas pageant that make audience members view Christmas through new eyes. I wasn't wrong, but I was pleasantly surprised by the discussions this book sparked with my five-year-old. 

Every year the Christmas pageant is the same. The same children always play the same roles--no one makes a more pious Mary than Alice Wendelken and who better to play Joseph than the pastor's son? This particular year, the regular director of the Christmas pageant must pass the buck because of a broken leg. The narrator's mother is handed the responsibility. (Side note--though this book is narrated in first person, nothing about this narrator is ever revealed. Name, gender, age...all a big question mark. While I suppose this information wasn't necessary--the story was successfully told without it--it still bugs me.)

The Herdmans are the worst kids in town and everybody knows it. The substitute pageant director doesn't quite know what to do when they audition for the Christmas pageant and no one else does. It's obvious that the "regulars" have been bullied into silence, but with everyone else refusing to participate, the director has to cast the Herdmans. The first rehearsal is a disaster. Instead of learning their lines, the Herdmans set everything back by asking what an inn is and why Joseph didn't beat up the innkeeper to get the Son of God a real room? 

The "villains" of the story become more complex as the reader understands that they have never heard details about the real Christmas story before. Their awful behavior becomes more excusable as the reader realizes they've never been taught differently. As their ignorant minds process the Christmas story for the first time, the reader gets to experience the Christmas story for the first time, too, in a way that's hard to imagine. Imogene Herdman's portrayal of Mary may be less pious and a little more rowdy than Alice Wendelken's, but perhaps it was more accurate. Maybe after all she'd been through, Mary would be a little more protective of her infant son, maybe she'd have a smudge of dirt on her face, and maybe she'd truly question the usability of fancy tree sap as a gift. 

The story wasn't too surprising as an adult reader but for my five-year-old, it opened her eyes. This is probably the first story she has been exposed to where the "bad guys" of the book didn't end up as the bad guys. It played on her empathy and understanding for others. The King Herod story line was something my daughter latched onto as well. It's not an aspect of the Christmas story often told. This book sparked a lot of "offline" discussions--mainly about King Herod, bullying, and judging people's behavior based on their knowledge of right and wrong, not our knowledge. 

It was a delightful experience. The exposition was witty. I am sure most of it was beyond the understanding of my five-year-old. Still, it held her attention and made her think and ask questions more than any book we have yet read. 

For the sensitive reader: This book has about three swear words in it that I changed when reading aloud to my child. There is significant emphasis on King Herod's plans to kill the Christ child. 

My rating: Four stars. I've probably have given the story itself 3, but the enlightening discussions with my daughter that came from this book raised it a notch.  

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