Monday, December 10, 2012
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson
by Barbara Robinson, narrated by Elaine Stritch
HarperChildren's Audio, 2006 (novel originally published 1971)
This is a clear case, for me, of the narrator of an audiobook making a story. From the minute Elaine Stritch's delightful voice began this tale, I was hooked. I think I would have enjoyed this mildly if I'd read it myself, but having it read to me in a dry, wise, and perfectly-timed way elevated the experience.
The story is short: there is a family in town, the Herdmans, made up of six delinquent children and their absentee mother. We meet them through the eyes of our unnamed narrator after they have burned down a neighbour's toolshed and absconded with the donuts delivered for the firemen. These kids are notorious and nasty, bullies at school and general troublemakers everywhere else. So no one expects to see them at church (reasonably; they're only there because the narrator's little brother boasted there were refreshments) -- and no one expects them to be interested in the church's Christmas pageant. The pageant has been the same year, after year, after year... but with Herdmans in the starring roles, this year's pageant is going to be something else entirely.
I am not sure there is a whole lot of meat here for discussion with my parent-child book club. A number of the kids are in Christmas pageants of their own, so that will be fun to compare; and I'm going to be interested to hear what they have to say about the Herdmans. From an adult perspective, it's clear the Herdman kids have some serious behavioural issues, possibly stemming from poverty and neglect at home, and it's just as clear that they're not getting the kind of help they need from the adults in their lives. I'll want to hear what the kids have to say about that. The message of redemption will also be interesting to talk about even though the book ends before we find out of the Herdmans are really changed by their experience. And we can talk about how changing things unexpectedly can lead us to see things clearly, how it can lead us to understand things we've never understood before.
All this said, it's a funny book, and it's supposed to be funny. I want to look a little bit behind the funny, but I also want to leave the book intact for these kids to enjoy. It's a sweet story, religious (it's about a church Christmas pageant, after all) but not pushy, and extremely short. It ended so quickly and with so many unanswered questions on this adult reader's part. The build up to the pageant was pretty big, and the pageant itself felt a little bit anticlimactic. But I still thoroughly enjoyed myself, in large part thanks to Elaine Stritch. I can totally see myself borrowing this little gem of an audiobook every year around this time to get myself into the spirit of the season. If you've read the book or seen the TV movie but never listened to the audio, I highly recommend finding yourself a copy and having a listen. It won't take you long, and it's worth it.