Last night my daughter chose the story “The Gingerbread Man” for one of her bedtime stories. She gets two stories a night and we let her choose for herself, which can be interesting. Sometimes we’ll read the same story for five or six nights in a row but then she’ll suddenly start picking others. Anyway, last night’s choice was out of a book of nursery rhymes and fairy tales, and she told us “I want this one. The ginger man.”
If you don’t know the story, it goes like this. A baker bakes a gingerbread man and sets the cookie sheet on a windowsill to cool. The gingerbread man comes to life, jumps up and runs away, taunting the baker with the line “Run, run as fast as you can! You can’t catch me I’m the Gingerbread Man!” The gingerbread man runs through the town and various townspeople join the chase, but the gingerbread man runs on, mocking each in turn, until he comes to a stream he cannot cross. In the internal logic of the story, the gingerbread man can’t get wet because he will crumble. A wolf is waiting by the stream and offers to help by giving the gingerbread man a ride on his back. The gingerbread man agrees and off they set, but of course soon the gingerbread man is getting wet. The wolf suggests that the gingerbread man climb onto his head, and then his nose, and then into his mouth, which of course is the end of the gingerbread man when the wolf eats him up. And that’s the end of the story.
As we read this story to my daughter I was trying to work out what the moral of the story is. Perhaps that if you are a gingerbread man you’re just going to get eaten in the end, no matter what you do? Or, less pessimistically but more cynically, perhaps it is better to be clever and con people than to openly chase after what you want? I’m really not quite sure, to be honest, and it worries me a little. I’d like to be able to come up with some useful lesson or moral out of this rather shocking tale, because my daughter is starting to use the stories we read to her and the movies she watches in her pretend play. She is starting to ask the question “why?” (although it is not yet her favorite word) and to link ideas together: this happens because that happened. She's thinking in sentences now, and sometimes in paragraphs.
It’s fascinating to see and hear this, to listen in as she talks to her toys and narrates her imaginary games, assigning roles and lines to everyone around her. At the age of not quite three, my daughter is starting to tell her own stories. And I know that what she’s really doing is starting to tell the story of herself. So I’m concerned about the building blocks we are handing her for this work. As she begins to construct the stories that will guide her life, that will help her know who she is and what she values and how to live in this big crazy wonderful scary fascinating world, I want to make sure we’re giving her the best possible materials.