The Gingerbread Man Story Structure

The Gingerbread Man Little Golden Book

Yesterday I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Now for some mentor texts to help kids learn how it works. Picture books are perfect for this purpose, no matter the age of the student because they are brief. In ten minutes you get an excellent overview of a complete and satisfying story. As my first example this month I’ll use The Gingerbread Man, because almost everyone has access to this folktale in one form or another.

For comparison you might take Julia Donaldson’s Stick Man, which I have already analysed in detail. Donaldson is a master at remixing old stories into rhyming texts for a contemporary audience. Stick Man is a remix of The Gingerbread Man.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE GINGERBREAD MAN

The Gingerbread Boy

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

In stories this isn’t always obvious, but it is in this one. The main character is The Gingerbread Man! We see him the most, we want him to succeed in getting away and he is in every single scene.

Next question before moving on: What is The Gingerbread Man’s great shortcoming?

Well, he’s a bit of a show off, isn’t he. He’s also a bit naive. Fresh out of the oven, he doesn’t realise that fairytale foxes are wily. If only he’d read a few fairytales he’d know what we already know about foxes in picture books!

WHAT DOES THE GINGERBREAD MAN WANT?

Freedom.

The Gingerbread Man, illustrated by Gerald Rose
illustrated by Gerald Rose

Or does he?

What he really wants is to prove how fast he is at running. Over and over again he says, “You can’t catch me!” His haughtiness eventually catches up with him. It’s like he’s taunting everyone to catch him. If he’d just run without all that singing, he wouldn’t have drawn attention to himself and he would’ve probably got away.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

The Gingerbread Man is a classic example of mythical structure. This has nothing to do with being an actual myth. A myth is a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events. The Gingerbread Man is a pretty old tale, but it’s not a myth. I’m talking about how many more modern stories borrow the plot from those old myths.

I’ve written about mythic structure here. Basically, your main character goes on a journey, meets a bunch of characters — some helpful, some mean — ends up fighting a big big struggle then returns home again a changed character. Or if he can’t make it home, he finds a new home. That’s mythic structure. It’s still very popular. The Lion King, Diary of a Wimpy Kid The Long Haul and Beauty and the Beast all have mythic structure. Or you might have seen The Incredible Journey, or Where The Red Fern Grows. In all of these stories the main character goes on a journey.

In fact, any boardgame where you need to go from square to square to reach a goal is making use of mythic structure. Along your ‘route’ you’ll slide down snakes (opponents), be helped by ladders (mentors), go back three squares, go forward two squares and so on.

Gingerbread Man Game

The Gingerbread Man also goes on a journey, though he has no idea where he’s going. He’s just running. Everyone he meets wants to eat him (we assume), so everyone is his enemy. (It’s partly his own fault for being so delicious!) Usually in a mythic structure our main character encounters ‘helpers’ or ‘mentors’, but The Gingerbread is such an annoying character he doesn’t meet any of those.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

The Gingerbread Man, Illustrations by Bonnie & Bill Rutherford, 1963
Illustration by Bonnie & Bill Rutherford, 1963

Sometimes other characters have more plans than the main character. In this story, the old lady had a reasonably complicated plan to bake and decorate a gingerbread man, then to eat him.

But this is not about her.

The Gingerbread Man demonstrates that plans don’t have to be complicated. It’s true that in most stories plans are a BIT more complicated than JUST RUN REALLY FAST. It is also true that in most stories original plans don’t work and they need to be modified. This is a simple tale, known as a ‘cumulative’ story. Another example is There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly. Young kids love these stories and they are great for language development. The adult co-reader is left reading the same sentences over and over. That’s what happens here, too. Fortunately, it’s pretty fun to say, “Run, run as fast as you can! You can’t catch me, I’m The Gingerbread Man!” If that wasn’t catchy this story wouldn’t have entered mainstream culture. So if you’re going to write a cumulative story like this one, make sure you’ve written something run to read aloud.

tl;dr: The Gingerbread Man plans to run. Until he is free, I suppose.

BIG BIG STRUGGLE

Gingerbread Man fox

The fox!

Notice the nice lead up? The Gingerbread Man sits first on the fox’s tail. The fox slowly coaxes him towards his nose and then SNAP!

WHAT DOES THE GINGERBREAD MAN LEARN?

Well, he’s dead so he doesn’t learn anything.

The Gingerbread Man is therefore a tragedy.

BUT! If he had lived another day, he would have learned not to hitch rides from foxes, and if he did hitch a ride from a fox, he’d know not to sit on the fox’s SNOUT.

Except that’s not really what the story’s about, right? That’s the most surface level of the messages.

Don’t be cocky. That’s what The Gingerbread Man would’ve learnt. And that is hopefully what we learn, as readers. We might think we’re the fastest runners in the whole world, but there’s always someone who can outwit us.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

Gingerbread Man card Found at Etsy
Found at Etsy

Well, he’s dead.

BUT NORMALLY characters aren’t dead at the end of the story. So we get to see our heroes sitting around the fire enjoying wolf stew (like in The Three Little Pigs) or reunited with their father (in Hansel and Gretel).

I haven’t yet seen a picture book version of The Gingerbread Man who has been pooped out. There he is, sitting like a Hersheys chocolate, propped up on a clump of grass.

I haven’t seen that, but I’d like to.

Run, run, as fast as you can!

I recently looked into The Magic Porridge Pot (a.k.a. Sweet Porridge), part of a whole category of folk tales about pots of overflowing food. Related, there is another category of folk tales about food that runs away. In the West, the most famous of those would have to be The Gingerbread Man, but have you also heard of The Fleeing Pancake? Best name for a folk tale ever.

Also in this category we have:

  • The Bear Ate Them Up
  • The Bun
  • The Fate of Mr. Jack Sparrow
  • The Gingerbread Boy
  • Johnny-Cake
  • The Johnny Cake Boy
  • The Little Cake
  • The Pancake
  • The Runaway Pancake
  • The Thick, Fat Pancake
  • The Wee Bannock

As you can see, bread-like products are more likely to run off than, say, meat. I find this comforting. That said, the Hungarian version stars ‘head cheese’. I’m not sure what to think of that. Sometimes the gingerbread isn’t actually fashioned into the form of a toilet symbol, either — sometimes it’s just a ball of dough.


A Performance Tale

What makes ‘The Gingerbread Man’ such an enduring classic? This is a great example of a tale that’s satisfying to read aloud, or rather, to perform. First we have the arc phrase, repeated and easily remembered: Run, run, as fast as you can! This is even a phrase that can be used in other circumstances, like in a game of chase.

Then the teller has the chance to snap their arms like a crocodile at the climax. This is very similar to the way Little Red Riding Hood was originally designed to be performed, when the wolf gobbles up Little Red Riding Hood. Listeners enjoy the frisson of excitement, knowing that the death is imminent, able to enjoy the same tale over and over again. Another tale that works like this is The Little Red Hen, with much repetition and a climax that can be performed.

The Gingerbread Man is meant for performance but first made it into print in 1875, in a magazine.

Disneyfication Of The Ending

As a testament to just how far modern adults will go in protecting our children from bad endings, many versions of this tale avoid the original ending, the one in which the gingerbread is dismembered — first a quarter, then a half of him, then only his head is left… This despite him being… a food product. I suspect the amelioration of the ending happened once the gingerbread started looking more and more humanlike, aided by print, due to accompanying illustrations.

The Gingerbread Boy Well Loved Tales

Gingerbread People In Modern Stories

Jon Sciezka wrote The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales which was published in 1992 and is now a picturebook well-known for its postmodernism. The Stinky Cheese Man is a retelling of The Gingerbread Man but with a gross out factor. (The cheese man runs away from everyone fearing they will eat him, when really everyone just wants to get away from his smell.)

The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales is the ultimate exercise in metafiction to the point where it parodies metafiction itself.

Playing with Picturebooks: Postmodernism and the Postmodernesque by Cherie Allan

220px-The_Stinky_Cheese_Man_Book_Cover

For a comparison between this book and one from the other king of postmodern picturebooks (yes, Anthony Browne), see Voices of the Stinky Cheese Man: A Comparison Study of Two Postmodern Picture Books  by Voicu Mihnea Simandan.

You may have also heard of an American author called Stephen King. King also wrote a riff on the Gingerbread tale called The Gingerbread Girl. It’s long enough to be considered a novella and was included in the short story collection Just After Sunset (2008). 

This is the audiobook cover.
This is the audiobook cover.

Gingerbread Men and Feminism

As you can see from this cover, another faceless woman whose body is the main grab, both for the baddie in the story but also for the reader.

In my middle age I have grown somewhat weary of stories with:

  1. Women who have child loss as a reason for psychological trauma (see also Gravity, Sandra Bullock’s character)
  2. Women in ‘fridges’ (or in the boots of cars)
  3. Exercise induced anorexia nervosa re-visioned as kickass strength.

Experienced readers know, surely, that this particular woman in this particular story is going to overpower the bad man. We forget about all the fictional, faceless, female victims who have come before and are encouraged to rejoice that evil has been overcome… until we read the exact same kind of story again, with a different baddie man and a different but equally good-looking young white woman. This tale has been done too many times to be making any sort of statement, but I predict a defence of this particular version would be that, in using ‘The Gingerbread Man’ folktale as an allusion, King is making deliberate use of the female as a food. But because faceless female victims are consumed so very regularly in fiction, I don’t buy any feminist ‘strong female character’ arguments.

In many versions of the original tale, the little old woman has actually created a live action version of a gingerbread boy to stand in as a surrogate child, as she cannot have her own. Because of course if a woman cannot have her own children she cannot possibly have a fulfilled existence in her own right.

The Gingerbread Man As A Crime Story

The Gingerbread Man has been a popular allusion in modern crime shows. (The folk tale is basically a crime story after all — it should not be legal for properly purchased food products to run off.) Gingerbread is a comfort food associated strongly with the home and hearth, and with family get-togethers. So by pairing these images with crime writers can create ironic juxtaposition. We may eventually get to the point, though, where gingerbread functions much like playgrounds,  ice cream vans and clowns for most viewers.

There’s a 1998 film called The Gingerbread Man. It’s a legal thriller but I don’t watch anything that gets less than 6.0 on IMDb so let’s not dwell on that. The Gingerdead Man, however, looks even better, at 3.4.

The Gingerbread Man is also recast as a mass murdering villain in Jasper Fforde’s The Fourth Bear.

The_Fourth_Bear

Header image by Mark Muhlberger

The Magic Porridge Pot And Famine

The Magic Porridge Pot is also known as Sweet Porridge and goes by various similar titles.

Sweet Porridge

There is a motif common in European folktales: A cooking pot that will not cease overflowing. Although this story is obviously a response to famine, I think it’s also a response to a general childhood way of thinking in which you’re not sure when things that start are going to stop. Although there were no flush toilets back in the middle ages, I still remember being wary of flushing toilets when I was a kid, never completely sure if a flushing toilet would overflow, or if a fast-running tap would ever turn off, for instance.

I am more familiar with the English title ‘The (Magic) Porridge Pot’ and you probably are too, but this fairytale was originally called ‘Sweet Porridge’ in German. Apparently it is originally Swedish.

Various Versions Of The Magic Porridge Pot

Several different Ladybird versions of this tale can be found on our shelves. They are interesting to compare because the style of illustration is so different. Most of the big children’s book titles have produced a version of The Magic Porridge Pot. Here’s an Usborne version, with its bright colours and lively black outline work:

the-magic-porrdge-pot-picture-book

Ladybird produced its own version in the same illustrative style:

the-magic-porridge-pot-ladybird-book-favourite-tales-gloss-hardback-1993-5-p

Not just one, actually! Here we have a more subtle, watercolour style for the distant background but the cartoonish style of the characters is very similar:

the-magic-porridge-pot-ladybird-book-well-loved-tales-series-606d-gloss-hardback-1989-3395-p

Just for contrast, this takes the cake for the ugliest children’s book cover I’ve ever seen. I don’t know what they were thinking but what the actual? Is this a Magic Eye type thing? Or the underbelly of a snake?

ugly porridge pot cover

Here’s an illustration from a more recent version of this story which appeared in a children’s magazine in 2015. The style of the characters reminds me of Japanese manga characters. It could almost be a still from a Hayao Miyazaki anime:

by Ariane Delrieu
by Ariane Delrieu

Back to the earlier versions, I’m not sure what that thing is on the mother’s head, is it a towel because she has washed her hair, or a very big bow?

The Magic Porridge pot towel on head

In any case, these characters look like recognisable people. The cartoon characters can be pretty much anyone white, but these two look like they’ve been based on real human models. This one’s similar, though she looks like a more generic beautiful white woman:

97c875ba0922f0054e9dc75599969c5f

Now to my own 1971 Ladybird edition, which I like the most. It is illustrated by Londoner Robert Lumley, born 1920.

This woman looks like a specific person, doesn’t she?

vintage-ladybird-book-the-magic-porridge-pot-well-loved-tales-606d-gloss-hardback-1989-6030-p

This version is part of the ‘realistically illustrated’ series, all by Robert Lumley, in the decade between 1964 and 1974.

Ladybird Books 1970s

The most hilarious thing about the illustrations in these books is that they look very much ‘posed for’ and staged. “Imagine this pot on the table is overflowing,” says the artist, taking a reference photo. “Now, look surprised!”

overflowing porridge

“Look a different kind of surprised!”

Porridge Pot staged actors

“Imagine the pot is magical!”

Ladybird version 1971 Porridge Pot

(I’m assuming the emaciated mouse wearing pants and holding a mini plate was not posed for.)

I know I sound critical of this realistic style of illustration in these Lumley Ladybirds, but really they’re my favourite versions. While the illustrations do lack more realistic movements that can be better achieved via a cartoonish style (see the illustrations of Australian Emma Quay, especially Rudie Nudie, for a great example of characters in movement), the illustrations here are very much of a time and place — specifically old world German — which is harder to achieve in a highly cartoonish style.

“Now, you just stand over there in the background. Don’t move…”

Cook little pot cook

The addition of wild animals in the frame make these photorealistic illustrations seem more ‘picturebook-like’. In the picture above, an interested rabbit.

Here we still have some off-kilter perspective — I suspect there was no reference photo for this one, or perhaps the illustrator specialises in portraits — but it absolutely does the job of conveying the quaintness of the town.

Porridge Pot town aerial view

Food In Fairytales

Food is a regular component of fairy tales that have medieval oral antecedents. Famine was a frequent and devastating feature of life in Europe in the Middle Ages and deprivation inevitably shapes fantasies and desires. The magic world of fairy tales often promised rich, sweet, and plentiful food.

Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

STARVATION IN THE MEDIEVAL ERA

In medieval times when crops failed the poor were forced to live on: “horsse corne, beanes, peason, otes, tares & lintels.”

William Harrison’s A Description of England, 1577

horsse-corne = corn grown for horses

peason = an obsolete plural for peas

tares = any of several weedy plants that grow in grain fields

lintels = ‘lentils’ is the modern spelling

During the period 1437 to 1439, for example, “when there was a succession of wet summers and harvests were ruined, the peasantry was reduced to eating such herbs and roots as they could gather from the hedgerows, and thousands died“. The scenario in “The Sweet Porridge” reflects similarly desperate circumstances; the girl’s mother is a widow, so the earning capacity of the husband/father figure has been lost and the girl is presumably searching for something edible in the woods. It is not hard to understand how such persistent hunger and hopeless conditions could lead to a fantasy such as a magic porridge pot. It is not so much what is eaten that is at issue when you are starving but that there should be sufficient of whatever there is to eat. Good, sweet porridge, and plenty of it, could fulfill that desire. “The Sweet Porridge” is thus a story that relies upon habitual and chronic hunger as a driving force.

Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

In fact, even those who lived in castles couldn’t afford to withstand a famine back then, at least in what’s now known as The Great Famine (1315-1317). The human population in Europe was exceeding the ability for land to provide food, except in years with bumper crops. Other impacts of starvation:

  • Sometimes elderly people would sacrifice eating in order to let the younger ones pull through.
  • Some churchgoers started to  realise that no amount of prayer would provide food and church attendance dropped during times of famine.
  • The Black Death actually helped fixed the starvation crisis, since the population was greatly reduced. But famine was still a great threat.
  • Most people would go through 3-4 famines in their lifetimes during the middle ages.

In the Middle Ages, rich people ate what today could best be compared to Sally Fallon and Mary Enig’s Nourishing Traditions diet, with plenty of meat, poultry and saturated fats, with fermented grains and unpasteurised dairy products. But poor people ate whatever they could get their hands on, with porridge being cheap, along with bread made from barley and rye. Poor people drank ale, similar to beer. Barley was eaten at every meal. The poor drank water and mixed it with honey if they could. This is not so different from what poor people eat today: grain products and lots of fructose.

Compare and Contrast With The Magic Porridge Pot

When it comes to food fantasy in folk tales, Hansel and Gretel is the stand-out example, to the point you can’t now put a witch in a forest without the audience thinking of this famous tale.

Versions of The Magic Porridge Pot story can also be found in other cultures. For example West Kalimantan (Indonesia) has a folktale called Why Rice Grains Are So Small.

Tomie dePaola wrote a tale called Strega Nona, published in 1975, a modern version of The Magic Porridge Pot in which there is an overflowing magic pasta pot. This is probably dePaola’s best known work. It is set in Italy, of course. dePaola created the character of Strega Nona (Grandma Witch) himself, even though she sounds like she’s borrowed from folklore.