Barbara Robinson, a children’s author who spun an endearing holiday tale of six rowdy siblings who take over a church pageant and learn to celebrate Christmas, died July 9 at her home in Berwyn, Pa. She was 85 and had cancer.
Her daughter, Marjorie Pinto-Leite, confirmed her death.
Robinson originally wrote “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” as a short story for McCall’s magazine. She expanded it into a 1972 novel, which sold more than 3.3 million copies. Building on the novel’s popularity, she wrote a screenplay for a 1983 TV movie version starring Loretta Swit and a stage adaptation that has become a Christmastime classic for community theaters.
The novel’s comic tone was evident in the opening lines: “The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken-down toolhouse.”
The Herdmans had never heard the New Testament Christmas story, but they hijack the annual pageant in their town and make a mess of it. Of course, it all turns out all right, and goodness and mercy win out.
“Although there is a touch of sentiment at the end … the story otherwise romps through the festive preparations with comic relish,” said a review in the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.
Robinson was drawn to children’s stories, she said on her website, because “there’s no greater audience than boys and girls who read books and demand that those books be the most exciting, the most mysterious, the most touching, the funniest … the best.”
Her other books include “My Brother Louis Measures Worms: And Other Louis Stories” (1988), “The Best School Year Ever” (1994) and “The Best Halloween Ever” (2004).
“I grew up in a small town — a big piece of luck, I think, for any writer,” Robinson once said. “It lets you observe, at close and daily range, almost every kind of human behavior.”
That small town was Portsmouth, Ohio, where she was born Oct. 24, 1927. Her father died when she was 3. Her mother was a schoolteacher who encouraged her feeling that “reading was the only way to fill up every scrap of loose time you could snatch.”
She graduated from Allegheny College in 1948 and a year later married John F. Robinson, with whom she had two children. Her daughters, Carolyn Robinson and Marjorie Pinto-Leite, survive her, along with three grandchildren.
She began writing when she was young, starting with poems and moving on to plays and stories, and had more than 50 stories published in McCall’s, Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping and Redbook.
“As a children’s author, I’ve been blessed in many ways,” Robinson said in an interview with the biographical publication Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults. “First, because I stumbled into this field from a career as a magazine short story writer, so I came with no preconceived notions about writing for children, as opposed to simply writing good stories; and then a great set of characters scrambled into my head — the Herdmans … and they have, in a way, shaped my career.”
Readers often asked Robinson whether the Herdmans really existed.
“I made the kids up,” she told the Houston Chronicle in 2011. “Though children and teachers tell me they know all about them. I grew up in a small southern Ohio river town, and my mother taught school there for 49 years, so I’m sure I’d picked up a lot about kids along the way. One little boy told me that I had the Herdmans do ‘all the things I wanted to do and couldn’t’ — which may be part of the story’s appeal. But they’re the kind of kids who are not really bone-bad. There’s always a little redeeming something there.”