The Christmas Pageant, by Jacqueline Rogers (1989)
I didn’t realize when I picked this book up that the author/illustrator is the woman who provides the cover art for the new Ramona reprints and for Calvin Coconut (a series I discovered in the school library recently). The style is very different from those books–much more realistic–but it’s clear that she has varied talent!
This book shows the story of the dress rehearsal and performance of a rural Christmas pageant (performed in a barn surrounded by snowy hills and not much else!), and the text represents the contents of the pageant (matching up with the scene the pictures illustrate), including songs with sheet music! The picture story begins with final preparations of costumes and set pieces. From there, we see the angel Gabriel making his announcements to Mary and then Joseph (while set work continues in the background). Then Joseph pulls a wagon (with a donkey cut-out taped to the front and Mary perched on a box inside) across the stage, and we see the toddler (a little girl, according to the cast list on the title pages) who is playing Baby Jesus pestering an innkeeper behind the inn set while another child leads some real animals into the barn for the performance. Mary and Joseph have some trouble keeping the “baby” in the manger once she sees the cow and sheep on stage, and one of the sheep chews on a shepherd’s head covering while the angel appears to proclaim the birth. Then an angel choir (with appropriately mixed behavior) sings as the shepherds make their way to the stable (where Jesus sucks on a pacifier and tries to pull off the head covering of another shepherd). The real program begins at this point of the illustrations as the costumed wise men (one carrying the camel cut-out) trek through the snow on the country road leading to the barn where cars fill the plowed out area that is serving as a parking lot. They track snow across the stage while the audience looks on with pride. The faux Jesus has actually fallen asleep for this evening performance, and Mary and Joseph smile as they place her in the stage manger. Then all the cast gathers around the sleeping child for the final song (“Joy to the World”) and curtain call. As the performers and their families file out of the barn after the performance, snow is falling, delighting the children.
With as much charm as a real performance of a Christmas pageant, the text of the book could actually be used as the basis for a production (with directors reminded by the illustrations of what pitfalls exist with child performers!). It is not verbatim text from the Bible, but it summarizes and condenses much like any Christmas pageant would (and, like most pageants and nativity sets, features the wise men–inaccurately–at the birth for the purpose of seamlessly including their part of the account.) The characters in the illustrations are actually based on real people, credited by the author/illustrator on the page facing the title page. While the director’s hairstyle, outfit, and glasses might give away the 1989 publication date, it’s not jarring (or prevalent) enough to distract from the art, and the kids look like any kids from any time in the late 20th to early 21st century. (The biggest hint of the publication date might actually be that none of the audience is holding up a cell phone to record the performance!) This book would make a great read-aloud for preschoolers, and readers in middle elementary grades could probably handle it independently.