The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (The Herdmans #1)The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Summary (from Goodreads)

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.

My Review

It was a tradition to read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever almost every year when I was growing up. I have great memories of my older sister and my mom reading it to me. I remember my mom tearing up as she read the last chapter. But it had been probably close to 20 years since I had read the book (or had it read to me). Then pulling out boxes of Christmas decor this year I saw that bright red cover with Gladys Herdman as the Angel on it. All the good memories and feelings came flooding back and I just knew I had to read it to my 9 year old and almost 8 year old.

I wondered as we began if it would keep their interest. It is over 40 years old now. But age didn’t matter in this case. My girls were engaged from the start. They experienced all the shock and laughter that I remember experiencing as I read about the escapades of those naughty Herdmans. I was impressed by the genius of the writing that present characters, setting, and plot that could take place in the 70’s when it was written just as easily as it could take place today. The only aspect that dated the book at all was that the Herdmans read books at the library instead of looking online to learn about King Herod. 🙂

Teaching 3rd grade this year has given me the chance to interact with a lot of kids besides my own children, and it was amazing how “real” the characters and dialogue are. Every child character in the book reminded me of a student in my class (including the Herdmans).

I guess that’s why the tears flowed freely for me this year through that last chapter. The Herdmans weren’t just characters. They each had faces for me this year, faces of students that I see every day, students who just like the Herdmans suffer hunger and neglect but do the best they can with what they have and know. Reading of the change that occurred for the Herdmans gives me hope that real children in the world can have experiences that change them for the better if we all do our part to teach and reach out to them.

I also appreciated the reminder of the “Truth” of the Christmas Story. The Herdmans give a poignant picture; they make it easy to see that a true portrayal of the Holy Family would be of poor and weary travelers, likely disheveled and slightly anxious. Circumstances couldn’t have been less ideal for having a new baby. A Stable for heaven’s sake! And yet with the Christ child’s arrival the “imperfections” became meaningful and even perfect. The birth of our Savior made that stable sacred and all who visited treated it so. Just a reenactment of the Savior’s birth brought sanctity to the unruly Herdmans. And so it is with our lives. When Jesus Christ is allowed in he turns us from stables to temples. Even the hardest of hearts can be touched, even Imogene Herdman’s, and through hers – ours.

Such powerful messages to be packed into a short and sweet 80 pages. And they are powerful because they are not preached. Instead the author presents ideas, observations, and situations with plenty of detail and reality, but also with openness that allows us to visualize and make our own judgment.

Truly a classic. Merry Christmas! and “Hey! Unto you a child is born!”

Age Recommendation: 8 and older would understand the content best. While the genre is children’s literature I highly recommend this one to adults too.

Appropriateness: There are a few swear words (from the Herdmans), some mention of underwear and the word sex appears. None of it is inappropriate for the purpose and audience.  It is in fact vital to the telling of this funny and engaging story.

Book Club Discussion: Besides the Christmas theme and the fresh look at the Christmas Story, this book also provides a platform to discuss troubled children and families, how we can help them, and how we should and shouldn’t judge others.

Other Book Recommendations: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Skinnybones by Barbara Park, The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson, Stepping on the Cracks by Mary Downing Hahn, and Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff.

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The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Summary (adapted from Goodreads)

Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten. The Fault in Our Stars attempts to explore the funny, thrilling, and tragic business of being alive and in love.

My Review

After all of the praise I had heard and read for The Fault in Our Stars I expected to cry, laugh, and love the characters, and be wrapped up in the story. I expected smart prose and to have some greater insight about life, love, and terminal illness. I was expecting one of those books that you think about for days and ponder on the wisdom, one of those books that you never forget and that you tell everyone they just “have to read it.”

So my expectations were pretty high. Did the book meet them? The short answer – Nope. It wasn’t a horrible book. I gave it 2 stars and actually debated giving it 3, so I even kind of liked it. I settled on 2 stars because while I liked aspects of it, as a whole it left me unfulfilled. The fact that it got so much hype, undeserved hyped in my opinion, probably affected my rating too. If I had just been expecting an average purely entertaining young adult romance book rather than a life-changer it may have made it to 3 stars.

I can kind of understand where the hype comes from for this book. Having the story told from the perspective of a 17 year old with cancer provides the opportunity to give some personal and unique insight into what it is “really” like for those with cancer and for their family and friends.
It’s a kinda cute romance with characters that are kinda funny…. but also kind of annoying and inconsistent.

I did not like all of the swearing. Here are these teenage kids that are definitely more mature than their peers and who appear to be above average intelligence as well. And yet they can’t think of any more intelligent ways to express themselves than through profanities. For me it made their likability take a nose dive. Such harsh language just made them prickly, not people I wanted to open my heart and mind to. At one point the teens are faced with a self-indulgent, crass, and outright rude adult, and they are shocked and offended. I, on the other hand, thought the teenagers’ language throughout the book was just as crude, making them just as unlikable as the rude guy. It made their dialogue inconsistent too. One minute they are quoting Shakespeare and eloquently discussing the meaning of life, and then next minute they can’t think of any better way to express themselves than to use the same swear word they had used a zillion times already. Ugh.

Where the book really failed me though was in trying too hard. Reading blog posts from my friends as they have battled with disease and terminal illness themselves or with family members is WAY more inspiring, sincere, realistic, and impactful than reading the several hundred pages of metaphor and philosophical rambling for which John Green is getting paid insane amounts of money. There are a lot of ponderings and discussions from the characters about the purpose of life and their place in it. They wonder what the best way is in which to live life especially when it’s full of so much suffering for you and those around you? Is it better to live big and die big? To leave a heroic legacy? Or is the quiet life, trying to minimize the damage and pain you cause to others the better legacy? What is required to “matter” in the universe? I would say these are all pretty natural concerns for anyone and especially for those who live with the pain of disease and the knowledge that death is close. But as the title of the book indicates, this book is not really about answering these questions. It’s about showcasing “the fault in our stars,” or in other words, “life isn’t fair.”

It’s true – life isn’t fair, and a story of two kids with cancer falling in love definitely gives an effective situation in which to drive that point home. I have read several reviews of the book that praise how uplifting and inspiring it is to see the characters still choose to live and love despite the unfair fate that they know awaits. Unfortunately, I didn’t see the characters’ actions and choices in the same light.

The book is humorous and the characters are not totally bleak and depressing despite the tragedy they live with. They do have their moments of honest and understandable misery, and also their moments of bravery, selflessness, and of course love. Yet, somehow overall they came across as flat and kind of boring. I never could figure the teenagers out. They were exceptionally wise and yet exceptionally full of attitude. They pondered all kinds of deep “life” questions and yet they never could make commitment to the type of person they wanted to be or the life they wanted to lead. They were uninteresting fence-sitters and the events of the story didn’t bring out any new facets to them or develop their character in any way. The author makes it a point to neither glorify or vilify cancer patients in the book, so I guess it makes sense that the characters are unremarkable. Some reviewers call this portraying the characters as “normal,” but without character development I just call it dull.

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Age Recommendation: 16 and older.  The theme of cancer, the language, and the sexual content is definitely not for young readers.

Appropriateness: There was a very noticeable amount of profanity which deterred from the book.  Teenage characters have sex and while it is not graphic in description it happens.  Sex is discussed a few times by teenagers. The open way in which cancer and death are discussed may be disturbing to some. It also could lead to some interesting discussion in a book club setting about life, death, love, and suffering; pretty much all of the important stuff.

Book Recommendations: Obviously I didn’t love this book, but whether you agreed with me or not I do think you might like these books (or at least find them interesting): The Book Thief by Marcus Zuzak, Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt, Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson, and Everything on a Waffle by Polly Horvath