by Linda Booth Sweeney
Book Title: The Gingerbread Boy
Book author: Paul Galdone
Publisher: Clarion Books, New York
Format: picture book
Age range: 3 and up
Systems Thinking Concepts:
Reinforcing feedback, escalation, limits to growth
A Quick Look at the Story
This popular children’s book, first published in 1975, has long delighted children with the short-lived adventures of a gingerbread cookie that comes to life. Escaping from the hot oven, the Gingerbread Boy taunts his baker-parents: “You can’t catch me! I’m the Gingerbread Boy, I am! I am!” With that impish jeer, the chase is on, and young readers are hooked. Children align themselves with the fast and mischievous Gingerbread Boy and celebrate his every escape. After outwitting the baker, he escapes from a hungry cow, a horse and a group of men threshing wheat. As his escapes become more daring, his haughtiness grows too:
“By this time the little Gingerbread Boy was very proud of himself. He strutted, he danced, he pranced!
He thought no one on earth could catch him.”
Young readers squirm, knowing that the Gingerbread Boy’s boastfulness will eventually encounter a limit. When the Gingerbread Boy’s speed meets the cunning of the fox, the latter prevails. Pretending to rescue the Gingerbread Boy from the hoard of chasers eager to eat the tasty cookie, the fox offers the Gingerbread Boy a ride across a river. Before he knows it, the Gingerbread Boy is standing on the fox’s nose and then in one SNIP and another SNAP, the fox gulps him down.
A simple but effective way to begin with this story is to ask students to talk about the story. “What happens in this story? How does the Gingerbread Boy act or behave?”
Some students will likely respond that the Gingerbread Boy “escapes” or that he is “fast.” You may need to coax the dynamic out of these responses. For example: “He takes risks” is a more static way of describing the behavior of the Gingerbread Boy than saying “he takes more and more risks.” If we look at the story, we see that along with his increasingly risky behavior comes a swollen sense of pride, as evidenced by his ever-growing boasts.
Students who have some familiarity with graphing will then be able to select key elements of the story (e.g., the Gingerbread Boy’s pride) and create simple behavior-over-time (BOT) graphs, as in Figure 1.
After graphing the dynamics, students can look at the set of interrelationships that shaped the pattern of behavior they just graphed. For example, we see the trail of the Gingerbread Boy’s successful escapes leading to his growing confidence/pride in his ability to escape, leading to additional successful escapes.
Students may trace a simple reinforcing dynamic in place here (Figure 2): as the Gingerbread Boy continues to successfully escape, his pride and confidence increase. As his pride and confidence increases, he attempts additional daring escapes.
As with most reinforcing dynamics though, there is a limit. For example, in the wild, the growth of an elk herd is limited by the amount of food available. The new community swimming pool is great fun, until the word gets out and it becomes overcrowded. Often when a family works harder to produce more income, they have less time to enjoy that additional income. Through the story of the prideful Gingerbread Boy, we can help young readers to explore growth dynamics (i.e., more and more pride) and potential limits (i.e., the Gingerbread Boy having to trust the fox to help him escape across the river).
Questions to Ask:
What happens in the story of The Gingerbread Boy?
How does the Gingerbread Boy’s behavior change throughout the story?
Are there any build-ups or accumulations in this story? If so, who or what accumulates?
What patterns do you see in this story?
What causes the pattern in this story to change? What is the limit here?
Where else do you see/have you seen a similar kind of reinforcing pattern?
Partner Stories and Activities:
Stories about escalation make good partner stories here. I would suggest laying out simple to more sophisticated examples of the escalation dynamic in well-known children stories. For example:
- Simple: The Three Little Pigs (any version) or Why? By Nikolai Popov , a wordless story of a frog and a mouse who find an unprovoked attack by one quickly escalates into a full-scale conflict.
- Medium: Dr. Seuss’s The Butter Battle Book tells of the escalating feud between two neighborhood groups, the Zooks and the Yooks; Phil Ramsey’s Billibonk and the Thornpatch has escalation of attacks by elephants and mice. Both of these stories are reviewed in When A Butterfly Sneezes.
Sophisticated: Frindle by Andrew Clements describes an escalation between a student and a teacher; Robert Kimmel Smith’s The War With Grandpa also features an escalation dynamic between a grandson and his grandfather.
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