About the book: Barbara Robinson’s story of a troubled family of kids who unexpectedly join the Christmas pageant at the young narrator’s church was serialized in McCall’s before being published as a book in 1971. It’s since become a standby of seasonal children’s entertainment, both in book form and as a play and a 1983 TV movie starring a nine-year-old Fairuza Balk.
The book holds up. It’s a well-structured story, with just enough detail to establish the characters surrounding the main plot — which, like Peanuts, takes place in Anywhere, U.S.A. The kid’s-eye viewpoint allows Robinson to outline the Herdmans’ circumstances without overanalyzing them: for young Beth, the Herdmans are just a fact of life. Her dawning empathy gives the story its heart.
Robinson also demonstrates a keen eye for the kind of warmly humorous incident that makes the book feel safe for Sunday School without feeling sanitized. While the climactic moment, when a character unexpectedly sheds tears, may seem saccharine, it’s a later passage — ones that kids might miss — that demonstrates why this quick, fun read continues to resonate and reveal surprising depths.
No matter how she herself was, Imogene liked the idea of the Mary in the picture — all pink and white and pure-looking, as if she never washed the dishes or cooked supper or did anything at all except have Jesus on Christmas Eve. 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.
Robinson’s later writing included two sequels about the Herdmans, but Best Christmas Ever remains her legacy. She died in 2013, at age 85.
About the audiobook: I listened to the C.J. Critt version because it was on sale — and no wonder it was on sale, since there’s another version narrated by Elaine Stritch. Critt is fine, but she’s not very funny, which is a major shortcoming when you’re narrating this novel. Try the Stritch version, but I dunno. Can’t we get an actual kid to narrate this book?
Most Christmasy moment: The book’s very end, after the pageant is over. “When we came out of the church that night it was cold and clear, with crunchy snow underfoot and bright, bright stars overhead. And I thought about the Angel of the Lord — Gladys, with her skinny legs and her dirty sneakers sticking out from under her robe.”
Least Christmasy moment: The Herdmans’ bullying. Beth turns the other cheek and her persecutors are ultimately redeemed, but we learn in vivid detail about what a rocky road it’s been for the kids who suffer at the hands of the Herdmans. Beth’s brother, we learn, “spent the whole second grade being black-and-blue because he had to sit next to Leroy Herdman.” Today, we can hope, Charlie wouldn’t have to wait for Leroy to find Christian redemption.