NEW YORK — Barbara Robinson, a children’s author whose beloved and irreverent novel “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” describes how a church play is hijacked by a Scripture-ignorant and all-around troublesome set of six siblings, died Tuesday at her home in Berwyn, Pa. She was 85.
The cause was cancer, said her daughter Marjorie Pinto-Leite.
“The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world,” the book, published in 1972, begins. “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 make a mess of the play — why not tell Herod where the baby Jesus is? — but they also make it meaningful. They are so poor that they associate the Three Wise Men with visitors from the welfare department.
“Imogene Herdman, the girl Godzilla, plays Mary in the Christmas pageant, and suddenly the audience sees what it must have been like for ‘the real Holy Family, stuck away in a barn by people who didn’t much care what happened to them,’” Hazel Rochman wrote in The New York Times in 1994 in a review of sequels to three popular children’s novels from 1972. “And then, in a scene so gentle it’s almost unbearable, awful old Imogene, her veil ‘crookedy,’ the baby doll slung up over her shoulder, hears ‘Silent Night,’ and she cries and cries and glimpses the mystery. No one can add to that.”
Ms. Robinson adapted the novel into the screenplay for a 1983 television movie that starred Loretta Swit as the pageant’s director. But the story found a much larger and more enduring audience in her adaptation of it as a play. Since the early 1980s it has been performed at Christmastime in churches, classrooms, and children’s theaters across the country.
She was born Barbara Jean Webb on Oct. 24, 1927, in Portsmouth, Ohio. She was an only child. Her father, Theodore, died when she was 3. Her mother, Grace, taught school, and she grew up surrounded by an extended family of cousins, aunts, and uncles. Ms. Robinson wrote poems from an early age and earned a bachelor’s degree in theater at Allegheny College.
She wrote dozens of short stories for McCall’s, Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, and Redbook before she published “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” an expanded version of a story she wrote for McCall’s in 1971.
The Herdmans also starred in “The Best School Year Ever,” which Ms. Robinson wrote in 1994, and “The Best Halloween Ever,” 10 years later. She also wrote “My Brother Louis Measures Worms and Other Louis Stories,” published in 1988.
In addition to Pinto-Leite, she leaves another daughter, Carolyn Robinson, and three grandchildren. Her husband of 45 years, John F. Robinson, died in 1995.
Pinto-Leite said she did not believe the Herdmans were based on a specific family from her mother’s youth. Nor were they modeled on her own children, who were young when Ms. Robinson was at her publishing peak.
“They came from her very, very vivid imagination,” Pinto-Leite said. “My memory as a kid is coming into the house and seeing her standing at the island in the kitchen, typing away at her typewriter. To me, that was just Mom.”