When reading books to children, there is more to think about than just taking the closest version from the shelf. The following is a brief comparison of picture books of the Gingerbread Man Folktale
Children delight in this folk tale for the chase. Vicariously, they are the runaway. “Catch me, chase me,” my granddaughter shouts to me before she races across the grass. I chose nine picture books. My criteria: I liked them and they were readily available at my local public library.
My favorite traditional version is Paul Galdone’s, The Gingerbread Boy (Clarion, 1975). It has the best simple direct rhythms and the fastest-paced chase. The cookie is pictured running off the page in the bottom right corner, giving the chase a directional movement from left to right, which follows the natural turning of pages. After the little old lady and the little old man, there is a cow, horse, threshers, and mowers. The last two occupations will stump modern children. The tale’s simple direct refrain delights until the last word. “Run! Run! Run!/Catch me if you can!/You can’t catch me!/I’m the Gingerbread Boy.” Urgh! Why didn’t Galdone use the rhyming word man? Of course, the cookie meets his end with the crafty fox. “…he went the way of every single gingerbread boy that ever came out of an oven.” That line is a subtle reminder that the main character wasn’t really a boy, only a gingerbread cookie.
Galdone probably turns over in his grave every time I read his story aloud, because I substitute man for boy. It rhymes.
Another version with the same title (Knopf,1987) uses boy in the title, but the refrain is the traditional rhyme, “Run! Run! As fast as you can! You can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man!” (emphasis, mine.) This refrain with can rhyming with man rolls off the tongue easily. The illustrations by Scott Cook are painterly and impressionistic. It is less suitable for using with groups because the details are more blurry. Great fun lies in the exaggerated steps of some characters and in a cow in a pink bonnet. Unfortunately, I found the end a little creepy. The Gingerbread boy cries out as he’s being eaten, “I’m one quarter gone!” etc.
Richard Egielski’s version of the Gingerbread Boy (Harper Collins, 1997) shows a Gumby-like cookie with a striped shirt, coveralls, shoes, and hair. He looks more like a boy than a cookie. In the refrain, Egielski uses the traditional rhyme with man. With a younger couple doing the baking and a modern city setting, the cookie meets a rat, construction workers, some musicians, a policeman on a horse, before he meets a fox in Central Park and “she opened her mouth. . . and the Gingerbread Boy was all gone.” The illustrations are delightful. I especially love the cookie waving from the back of the subway train as the others scramble down the steps. A fun reworking especially for New Yorkers.
Carol Jones’s version of The Gingerbread Man (Houghton, 2002) comes with a recipe at the end. There are die cut circles that let the reader peek at what’s coming. After the little old man and woman, the cookie meets Humpty Dumpty, Little Boy Blue, the Old Woman in the Shoe, the Grand Old Duke of York, Little Miss Muffet, and the fox. The logic of an egg wanting to eat a cookie fails me. But then we’re talking about a story of a runaway cookie. The story doesn’t finish the tale but leaves it to the reader’s imagination. “. . . the hungry fox tossed the gingerbread man into the air, and . . . ” That’s the end. The cookie is smiling and doing the splits over the fox’s slightly opened mouth. I found the unresolved ending unsatisfying. Why didn’t she show (or tell of) the fox eating the cookie? Would some children think he got away? Or in some child’s mind would the tale end in blood and guts, rather than crumbs?
Jim Aylesworthy tells The Gingerbread Man (Scholastic, 1998) with Barbara McClintock’s illustrations of a cookie in hat, jacket vest, and pants. He looks more like a little boy than a cookie. They use the traditional rhyme, “Run! Run! Fast as you can! You can’t catch me! I’m the Gingerbread Man.” Aylesworthy augments this rhyme with some of his own. “No! No! /I won’t come back!/ I’d rather run/ Than be your snack!” In addition to the man and woman, he runs from the butcher, a cow in a dress and apron, a muddy old sow in a skirt, shawl, and scarf before he meets the hard-of-hearing fox, who didn’t leave a single crumb. The characters have exaggerated expressions, but the momentum slows when the illustrations switch the direction of the chase.
Eric Kimmel’s versions of the Gingerbread Man (Holiday House, 1993) addresses the sensitive child who is sad that the cookie was eaten (or perhaps that the chase was over.) “But don’t be sad, for that wasn’t the end of the gingerbread man.” This does seem like quibbling to me for the cookie in the story has gone down the gullet of the fox. “For gingerbread men return, it’s said, /When someone bakes some gingerbread.” And that is true. The chasers in this story are the man and woman, a sow, a dog, a cow and horse before the fox. The chase is not the most important element here. The illustrator, Megan Lloyd, devotes seven lovely full-page spreads to the journey with the fox. The fox’s luscious tail, the riverbank, ripples in the water slow the pace of the chase as the inevitable end of the cookie approaches. For young, sensitive readers, this is a good introduction to the folktale.
Jan Brett’s two, Gingerbread Friends (Putnam, 2008) and Gingerbread Baby (Putnam, 1999), are not the same story at all. Baby is the closer of the two, having some of the elements of a chase but a more involved story line about a little boy building a gingerbread house. Her signature busy illustrations with borders are fun to explore with older children.
The Gingerbread Girl (Dutton, 2006) by Lisa Campbell Ernst does not require reading a traditional version first, but I think it adds to the fun. The beginning recaps “the sad story of the Gingerbread Boy.” This is the story of his younger, wiser sister, who runs from the old lady and man, farmers, a pig, an artist, a cow and calf, a dog walker, children at recess before she meets the fox. The group races in sepia tones from left to right and grow bigger as more characters are added. This smart cookie’s refrain is “I’ll run and I’ll run/ With a leap and a twirl./ You can’t catch me,/I’m the Gingerbread Girl!” Her dress is all candy and her hair licorice whips. In a power-woman move, she triple loops a strand of her leathery licorice hair around the fox’s snout. The crowd follows the girl home, the old man and woman are never lonely again, and eventually the girl teaches the fox some manners. This is a nice twist, although the cautionary tale element is missing.
Confession time: I read my granddaughter (age 3) the Galdone version. She loved the chase, although she did spend some time munching up things pretending she was a fox. (Much to her parents’ dismay.) This is the version I have used in story times in many libraries because the pictures are good for group viewing. I would never use this story for the youngest listeners.
I also read her the Kimmel version. She liked that too. “The fox was pretty.”
The one I purchased for her was The Gingerbread Girl. I made her a felt Gingerbread Girl for a Christmas tree ornament, with a loop in the back for a candy cane, similar to the Gingerbread Man her daddy made for me when he was little.