When learning a story yourself or teaching storytelling to others, the key is not in recalling it word for word but finding the essence of the narrative. To me this is what knowing it by heart means. If the bare bones of the tale are timeless, if it has appeal across cultures to people regardless of their age, it will remain as long as there is memory.
It was December, and Marshall's class had
heard stories about runaway gingerbread
men all week long.
Marshall is far too sensible to believe a single word in any of these stories. Anyone knows gingerbread men can't run. They are cookies, plain and simple. Cookies are to be eaten.
Today is the day his class is making their own gingerbread men. Marshall is eager to begin, acting as the chief mixer of dough. After the cookies are cut, the decorating begins in earnest. Marshall adds extra raisins so his man has six eyes and a nifty silver ball belt. Mrs. Gray checks and re-checks the oven door to make sure no cookies can escape.
The students minus Marshall are delirious with glee when the timer chimes and the opened oven reveals the cookies have vanished. To make it even more exciting the gingerbread men have left not one but four clues. The chase is on! They are led up high, down low, and from the classroom into the gym and back again.
Marshall is sure there is a logical explanation. Gingerbread men can't leave clues. Certainly there is a reason the writing is so sloppy on the notes. Certainly there is a reason he spies a single silver ball on the floor. Certainly there is a reason he discovers hundreds of gingerbread footprints. Could the answer be magic? Marshall takes a leap of faith. Will you?
The blend of unseen narrator with dialogue by Marshall, his classmates and Mrs. Gray, their teacher, along with the gingerbread clues are skillfully composed by Hallie Durand. She understands the atmosphere in school classrooms and the conversations to be heard on a daily basis. Disbelief, excitement, positive support, mutual respect, curiosity, teamwork and riddles resolved are so lively you expect to hear someone speaking at any moment. The beat of the G-men hints heightens the story's cadence. Here is a sample.
If you can find us, we'll be your snack,
But if you can't, we're never coming back.
We ran from the oven, we were bored and hot,
Now we're hiding in a big, black___.
Caldecott Medalist and two-time Caldecott Honor winner, David Small's illustrations are smile-inducing from dust jacket and book case to the closing endpapers. Animated typography on the front jacket and case with Marshall jumping through the "O" to capture his runaway cookie announces the spirited story to follow. On the back Small has a wanted poster for the missing G-man looking somewhat like a recipe card. His descriptions, height, weight, eyes, taste, last seen and warning, are hilarious. The opening and closing endpapers are created in shades of a cool wintry blue with abstract snowflakes scattered from edge to edge. The only difference between the two is a small circular image on the left at the end. It's of Marshall and that's all I am going to say.
No space is wasted by Small as he begins the story on the two-page illustration for the title. Marshall and his classmates are seated on the story circle rug as Mrs. Gray reads a gingerbread man book aloud. The verso and the first page visual zooms in on a perplexed Marshall. Rendered in pen and ink, ink wash, watercolor and colored pencil each page is a blend of varied illustration sizes and text. The design and layout flow flawlessly.
The care given to detail is exquisite; the snowflake pattern on the endpapers is duplicated on Mrs. Gray's smock which in turn matches the snowflakes hanging from the classroom ceiling, in each setting fine lines outline objects placed within different colored washes allowing for the characters' and the action to draw our attention. The facial expressions, the shift in perspective and red lines used to focus on specific elements are pure perfection.
One of my favorite illustrations (in addition to the last two pages and the closing endpapers) is when Mrs. Gray opens the oven to find it empty. She is wearing a completely shocked look. Marshall's nine classmates are jumping for joy. He is standing in stunned suspicious silence. Small has used a light gingerbread-colored wash to emphasize the classroom area but then has it frame his characters. This is definitely a picture packed with emotion.
Every time I read this book I begin and end with a smile. In fact I never stop page after page. Catch That Cookie! written by Hallie Durand with pictures by David Small will have you sniffing the air for a whiff of spice and molasses. You might want to have cookies handy when reading this aloud or even silently to yourself. Get ready for a chorus of read it again when you close the cover.
To explore the other works of Hallie Durand and David Small please follow the links to their websites embedded in their names. Here is a link to an interesting article, The History of Gingerbread, which includes a recipe. I have created a Padlet of other books for you to use. (The link is here.) If you know of more, please leave the titles in the comments.