Today a newcomer takes the floor in Anne Barry’s classroom. “The Gingerbread Baby,” by author and illustrator Jan Brett, is a beautifully illustrated book that puts a twist on the classic story of the gingerbread man who jumps out of the oven and runs away. Although the book arrived several months ago, Barry waited until the holiday season to present it to her students.
The 18 1st-graders in attendance settle into chairs they’ve pulled into the classroom library. Barry takes a seat on a desk, facing them, and holds up “The Gingerbread Baby.”
Being chosen for “read aloud” in Room 104 at Jungman Elementary School is a little like winning a Pulitzer Prize: A book’s got to be good to get it, and getting it brings an avalanche of readers. Barry chose “The Gingerbread Baby” for its challenging vocabulary, masterful illustrations and well-told story. She’s sure it will be a hit.
“The gingerbread boy!” the children call out, recognizing the picture on the cover. Teacher and students read the title together, and Barry begins the story. Her dramatic facial expressions and vocal timbre demand the children’s attention. And she adds to the suspense—and engages young minds—by pausing to ask questions.
Threatened by a goat, the gingerbread baby finds himself in a bind. “How many think he’ll get caught?” Barry asks. “[Let’s see a] show of hands.”
Several hands shoot up.
When the gingerbread baby escapes, Darion Newell cannot contain his approval. “Cool!” he exclaims.
The gingerbread baby is fast, and Juan Infante identifies with his speed. “That’s how I am,” he announces.
Barry encourages student interjections as part of her teaching strategy. “It…has to be extremely interactive; I share my authority and let them talk,” she explains. “Then lots happens, and sometimes it’s comments student-to-student. I’m not the director, I’m a facilitator.” She says that the boys, for whom extended focus is often harder, especially benefit from the interactive component.
Throughout the story, Barry pauses to explain difficult words and to ask for quick predictions.
When the gingerbread baby is trapped, the students excitedly debate how he will extricate himself.
“He can get on the roof!” one offers.
“No, he can run straight!” counters another.
When the gingerbread baby finally shows up dancing in the gingerbread house, Jaylen Brown starts to sway in his seat, chanting “Party, party!”
“Shhh!” scolds Joshua Reynolds, straining forward in his seat to hear the last lines of the story.
As Barry closes the book, Juan realizes that there will be fierce competition to take the book home. “We gotta pick names,” he says seriously.
At home with Jaylen
The next day, Jaylen Brown, a big boy with a gentle demeanor, gets to take the book the home. As usual, he and his cousin and classmate Darion stop first at the home of their grandmother, a lovingly stern taskmaster.
“Grandma’s hard on homework. Grandma’s really hard on homework,” says Lenora Johnson, 61, referring to herself.
Jaylen and Darion first pull out reading and math worksheets; Johnson checks answers as they progress. Next, she tells them to take out their library books.
“Who is it by?” Johnson asks Jaylen as he places “The Gingerbread Baby” on the table. “You might not be able to read it, but point.” Jaylen succeeds in reading “Jan” but falters on the last name. “Okay, come on. Let’s try to break this down,” Grandma encourages.
Jaylen knows the simple words but struggles with those that are more complex. When he stops at a word, Grandma gives clues (“Something you eat cereal out of”) or helps him sound out the letters (“Come on with an ‘S,’ sssssssssss!”). She also encourages him to look at the pictures for clues. When he doesn’t know a word that Johnson thinks he should know, she has him add it to a practice list in his notebook. Later, he will write it out five times.
The book’s text, dense and difficult for most 1st-graders, makes reading slow going, but Johnson patiently helps Jaylen through the first two pages, pausing after the first with questions about how the gingerbread baby came to be. They work on the book for about 15 minutes, absorbed in their effort as Darion looks on and occasionally mouths a smug answer. Johnson rewards Jaylen by reading the book right back to him.
“One day Grandma’s gonna make some gingerbread,” she tells him, as she closes the book.
Johnson, who grew up in Chicago, says a lot of the books Jaylen brings home are new to her. “I’m going through a lot of books I would have liked to have read when I was as small as them.”
At home with Melissa
Two days later, Melissa Martinez, a tall girl whose open face regularly collapses into giggles, takes “The Gingerbread Baby” home. At Melissa’s, the book pays a laid-back visit, hanging out on the couch and floor with the kids and toys.
After changing clothes, Melissa plops on the couch and half-watches TV for a few minutes before opening her backpack and taking out “The Gingerbread Baby.” Starting at the back, she studies the flap on the final page, which opens to show our hero dancing in the gingerbread house. She then pages backwards to the beginning. Although she does not read the text, she peruses each page.
Her babysitter, a teenaged aunt, flips channels in the background and then decides to watch the end of “Bring it On.” Melissa looks back and forth from the book to the cavorting cheerleaders on screen; eventually the cheerleaders win out. As the movie finishes, Melissa briefly pages through “The Gingerbread Baby” again, but quickly puts it down.
Jesus Mejia, Melissa’s dad, walks in at about 5, and her mom, Imelda Martinez, arrives about a half hour later. The family speaks both English and Spanish at home.
Melissa brings her backpack to the kitchen table and takes out her homework. Martinez helps Melissa with her reading and math worksheets, although she notes that Melissa often finishes her homework before she gets home. Martinez says she helps Melissa with reading about twice a week.
Melissa says she prefers math to reading. “Sometimes I do like the book, but I don’t read it ’cause I get bored,” she says. She says that twice a week she reads the library books she brings home.
Although Melissa doesn’t read “The Gingerbread Baby” again that night, she says it is one of her favorite library books. What she likes best, she says, is the flap.
At home with Joshua
“I just want to eat this book,” announces Joshua Reynolds, contemplating “The Gingerbread Baby” through the Ziploc bag meant to protect it from the ravages of 1st-grade backpacks. An energetic boy with dark, shining eyes, he is sitting at his school desk waiting to be dismissed.
After the bell, Joshua goes first to nearby Dvorak Park, where he participates in a daily after-school program. During the three hours he spends there, he completes his reading and math worksheets, plays board games, romps on gymnastic mattresses, gets into a fight with his best friend, tears through a grueling round of tag and builds block towers. “The Gingerbread Baby” stays in his backpack.
Joshua struggles with reading, but books fascinate him. “I never read Mrs. Barry’s books,” he says, ” ’cause reading is hard.” Yet on the way home from Dvorak Park, he chatters non-stop about an owl book he loves, about “owls having babies and owls giving food to their kids and owls giving them frogs, and owls giving them worms and owls taking care of each other.”
Rosa Ramirez and her daughter, Veronica, who care for Joshua until his father arrives from work, say Joshua reads only occasionally. Tonight, though, he takes “The Gingerbread Baby” out of his backpack. “I can’t wait to taste those gingerbreads!” Joshua remarks, remembering Barry’s promise to bring gingerbread to class.
At first he quickly pages through the book, but soon he slows down to “read,” or tell the story in his own words. The pictures provide clues, but he remembers the story impressively, invoking plot-driven drama and whimsical detail in his telling. Engrossed, he “reads” the whole book, oblivious to the loud sitcom on the big TV just to his left.
“That’s a good book,” he declares, closing it. Then he lays it down and rests his head on it. “I got tired,” he says sleepily.
Joshua perks up again when his dad, Darren Reynolds, arrives, and he insists on “reading” the book to him, too. Mimicking Barry’s storytelling, he pauses to ask Reynolds, “OK, what you think he’s doing?” He turns to the reporter with a stern look. “Do NOT tell him!” he warns.
But if Joshua doesn’t yet read well, Barry has nevertheless succeeded in instilling a desire for books. “My friend Roberto, he always takes the shark book, and he ripped it,” Joshua comments late that evening. “And I was like, ‘Man, I wanted that!'”
Indeed, over the next several weeks, “The Gingerbread Baby” goes home with every other classmate. It was so popular, that students had to draw names until the end.