February 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Barbara Robinson, ‘Best Christmas Pageant Author,’ Dies at 85

Barbara Robinson, author of the popular children’s novel The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (Harper, 1972), died on July 9, 2013. She was 85. The book, which many fans now consider to be a holiday classic, was named an ALA Notable Children’s book and received the Georgia Children’s Book Award, the Indiana’s Young Hoosier Book Award, and Minnesota’s Maud Hart Lovelace Book Award. In 2012, it was also included in SLJ’s Top Hundred Children’s Novels list.

Best Christmas, a story that first appeared in McCall’s Magazine, starred an unlikely family of children, the Herdmans, who take over a church Christmas pageant (mainly because they heard snacks were served). In the end, the children give an unconventional and surprisingly touching interpretation of the Christmas story. “The Herdmans bring a chaotic sincerity and authenticity to the evening that is truly moving,” said School Library Journal in its review.

In the United Kingdom, the book is known as The Worst Kids in the World (Red Fox, 1996). Robinson went on to write two sequels featuring the Herdmans, The Best School Year Ever (Harper, 1994) and The Best Halloween Ever (HarperCollins, 2004).

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever has sold over 800,000 copies and was adapted into a play, first performed in Seattle at the Children’s Theater in 1982. ABC television also produced a television movie of the story in 1983 starring Loretta Swit, for which Robinson wrote the screenplay. Elaine Stritch read the audio version of the book.

In 2012 the book was named the No. 73 Top Children’s Novel in the YA list compiled by SLJ blogger Betsy Bird, based upon recommendations from her readers.

The original 1972 cover.

“She made an original Christmas story that was honestly real, human and touching,” Bird said in her entry. “Her book lasted and lasted and lasted and remains pretty much the top Christmas chapter book for kids out there outside of A Christmas Carol.”

Catherine Balkin, former executive at Harper and founder of Balkin Buddies, which arranges author visits to schools and libraries, says Robinson was “funny, charming, and kind.” Balkin also notes that, “Barbara spent many years going around the country visiting schools and talking to students. This well-loved author will be missed by a great many students, including those who are now adults.”

Robinson was born in Portsmouth, Ohio on October 12, 1927, to Theodore L. and Grace Mooney Webb.  After her father’s death when she was three years old, her mother, a teacher, raised her alone.

She attended Allegheny College, from which she received an honorary doctorate of letters later in life.  In 1949, she married John F. Robinson of Berwyn, PA.

After college, Robinson worked as a librarian in Sewickley, PA. One of her earliest published works is Across from Indian Shore (Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, 1962).

Robinson is survived by two daughters, Carolyn and Marjorie, and three grandchildren: Tomas, Marcos, and Lucas.

Rocco Staino About Rocco Staino

Rocco Staino @RoccoA is the retired director of the Keefe Library of the North Salem School District in New York. He is now a contributing editor for School Library Journal and also writes for the Huffington Post.