Monday, December 7, 2009

Can't Catch Me!

Once upon a time there was a little old woman and a little old man. The little old woman thought she'd make a gingerbread man. She rolled out the dough, and cut out the shape, and she put raisins for his eyes, and peppermints for his teeth, and put icing on his head for the hair.Mmmm. Gingerbread. After last month's turkey leftover/stone soup frugality I bet some of us are ready to welcome the pleasures of December, a month known for its joyful exuberance and sugar-plum overindulgence. And what's more pleasurable than biting into hot gingerbread persons fresh from the oven? Well, several things, but gingerbread is still very, very yummy.

Gingerbread was in its heyday in the Middle Ages where, in Nuremberg, Germany, the "gingerbread capitol of the world," gingerbread was elevated to an art form. Back then they actually had a Gingerbread Guild. Only those bakers who were members of the guild were allowed to produce gingerbread. Sweet job--except that the only way you could get into the guild was to marry a guild member's daughter. Hmm. Not fair. Well, at least you didn't need to be a guild member to eat the stuff, and that's the best part anyway. Just ask the fox at the end of the classic tale, "The Gingerbread Man." (Is that a spoiler, mentioning the fox? He eats the cookie at the end, you see.)

Anyway, what better way to talk about December, the holiday month, than by dissecting gingerbread man picture book covers?

I daresay some of you will remember this version of the little fellow, with his curiously rouged cheeks and that roguish tilt of the eyebrows, from the days of your youth. It's a Whitman Giant Tell-a-Tale Book by Bonnie and Bill Rutherford (1963). I like this one. The surprise and despair of the old woman and old man is evident. That hat! You can practically feel the breeze that whisked it off the old fellow's head. Also, the way the couple is set way back so that they appear proportionally smaller than G-bread Man himself really gives us the sense that they will never catch him. This cover promises a lively story inside.
Run, run, fast as you can! Can't catch me, I'm the gingerbread man!
And away he ran!
With that in mind, this cover of a version by Eric Kimmel, illustrated by Megan Lloyd (Holiday House, 1993), seems less successful. No one is chasing him--he seems to be out for a jaunty stroll, or maybe a march, judging by the way his leg is raised so high. Also, what's with his head? No neck? No nose? (How does he smell? Terrible.) Frankly, if the little old woman and little old man had spent more time making him shapely and giving him a fancier wardrobe maybe he would have stuck around. Here, Fox, you can have this one.

I just love this Richard Egielski version (HarperCollins, 1997). I know the little fellow's not very realistic from a baked-good point of view, but the style! It's so Art Deco--s0 Chrysler Building. And the way his leg is bent, as if leaping. AND he's somehow suspended above the city (Yes, it's New York; he's being chased by hungry New Yorkers)--he's like, superhuman! Super-gingerbreadmanly! I'm wondering though. Is he a bit too light? Undercooked, as it were? And why is he a boy and not a man? I wish I had a copy here to check and see what happens to the rhyme when it's a gingerbread boy instead of man. Run, run, fast as a . . . goy, toy, hoi-polloi? Can't catch me, I'm the gingerbread boy.
Run, run, fast as you can! Can't catch me, I'm the gingerbread man!
And away he ran!
This is the retelling by Jim Aylesworth in 1998 (Scholastic), illustrated by Barbara McClintock. It has an old fashioned feel, and a bit of a Nuremberg feel to it, too--the Gingerbread Guild Nuremberg stuff, I mean, not the trials, geez. So German! He's wearing lederhosen for goshsakes! There aren't any wildly upset oldies in the background chasing him, but this fellow does seem to be actually running away, and gleefully so.
Run, run, fast as you can! Can't catch me, I'm the gingerbread man!
And away he ran!
The Gingerbread Man by Estelle Cork (Child's Play Int'l, 2007) This is a paperback lift-the-flap book, and it comes with a CD. Meh. Not up to the usual trade book quality we typically focus on. But the cover is outstanding, in my humble opinion. Even though the little G-bread fellow isn't given top billing size-wise, the idea of bringing in the hungry fox is intriguing. And subversive. The villain (or is he the hero? When I think about it, maybe the fox is the hero because he takes care of the naughty runaway once and for all?) has a prominent place on this cover. Love the way his foxy tail mirrors the shape of his jaw. Also, the line-up of characters winding back into the hills behind them gives the composition some depth and is a nice way of bringing in the other elements of this cumulative tale.

Here's another Gingerbread Boy, from the classic version by Caldecott illustrator Paul Galdone (Clarion, 1975). G-bread fills the frame, with his lo-o-o-ong legs and wide stride. This Gingerbread Boy is moving fast. I tried to get a copy from my library branch this week to ferret out how "boy" worked with the rhyme--but it was checked out. I think that this is the one a lot of people remember reading as kids.

What kind of surprises me is the lack of recent versions out there--especially considering that the Gingerbread Boy story is in the public domain. There are, however, several more recent "fractured" versions, or take-offs on the idea of a runaway food product:

The Matzo Ball Boy by Lisa Shulman, illustrated by Rosanne Litzinger (Dutton, 2005), and Stop That Pickle! by Peter Armour, illustrator: Andrew Shachat (Houghton Mifflin, 1993, 2005) are shown here.

There are several retold versions out there from other cultures, too. I could have gone on and on. There are gingerbread girls, gingerbread babies, gingerbread mice, gingerbread pirates, gingerbread rabbits, gingerbread cowboys, and gingerbread superheroes available for your reading pleasure as well. Like the Matzo ball and pickle books, there are picture books about runaway pancakes, matzohs (the crackers this time), tortillas, dreidels, ice cubes, and rice cakes.

But, I ask you, during December, this wonderful month of guilty pleasures, who wants to catch a runaway rice cake?

Extra: I think those types of people with the odd trait of actually liking spending time in the kitchen would be expecting a recipe right now. This one looks good. Let me know how they turn out. As for me, I'll be buying mine at the bakery down on Elgin Street.


  1. I love seeing all these covers for the same tale, Carol!! Now I have to go to the library and see what happens with that boy/toy rhyme. Actually, no, I'm just going to stay very still and consider what happens to a runaway ice cube. No one even has to follow him or chase him; instead, he just melts...?A flawed narrative arc, I think. Or am I not far enough outside the box. Very Zen? Very existential?

  2. Yeah! Maybe he is sometimes called a boy because in certain versions the elderly couple are childless and bake him in order to have a child. But the rhyme -- can't catch me, I'm the gingerbread man! -- is the best part when you're listening to this as a kid.

  3. im sorry for my previous comment, i meant to write here on your latest post not on your previous one!
    eeek! im so lame :((
    so sorry, again!

    hope you dont mind if i visit this inspiring blog some time?