There's one thing to definitely be said about Jan Brett. She knows what she's good at and she doesn't stray from her particular brand of storytelling. If you've ever read a Jan Brett story then you're already familiar with her style. Each tale usually exists in a snow covered land, where vaguely European peasant-like people go about their daily lives. You're not going to read a Jan Brett that's set in the grimy suburbs of southern Philadelphia or the desert-like atmosphere of Bahrain. And that's fine. Here, with "The Gingerbread Baby", Brett has taken a classic fairy tale and given it a twist of an ending. The result is an effective retelling that should please even the most die-hard traditionalists.
First of all, the book explains EXACTLY why the Gingerbread Baby appears in the first place. In the original tale, a woman cooking the gingerbread merely opens the oven door and out pops the cocky cookie. In this story, however, a boy (Matti) and his mother are following the recipe found in a worn-looking cookbook. Though the recipe instructs to bake a gingerbread boy for a full eight minutes, "No more. No less. DO NOT peek", Matti cannot resist taking just a little glance at the yummy pastry man. Too late he realizes his mistake and the Gingerbread Baby (it's still too young to be a gingerbread boy, you see) leaps out to its freedom. The next few pages show the various modes of escape the creature uses to keep from being eaten by everyone from Matti's parents to dogs, goats, pigs, peasants, and a crafty fox. In the traditional story, the fox is the clever party that devours the Gingerbread Boy. Not so here. In an interesting twist, Matti bakes a gingerbread house for the naughty baby, and rescues his creation from the villagers by simply luring the Gingerbread creature into its home. The final panel shows the delighted Gingerbread Baby dancing about its little home safe and sound while Matti looks on.
Personally, I was rooting for the fox. But this ending will certainly please any parent who's child has seen "Shrek" fifty plus times over and cannot contemplate such a dire fate for the partying pastry. So while I feel the original tale had more kick and verve, I don't have any serious problems with this tale. Brett gives the Gingerbread Baby enough of a sense of humor to tie the braids of his female pursuers together as well as leaping onto an ice floe when danger comes ever nearer. Brett's illustrations are the real stars of the show, however. Very very few illustrators pay half as much detail to their entire books as Brett does to a single square inch of any page. Her pictures are as adept at displaying blue porcelain mixing bowls and copper pans and teapots as they are at flesh tones, fur, and wicker. When you see a person with braids you can almost count the hairs on their head, they're so individualized. Brett also excels at knitted objects. This is an illustrator who understands the nature of knitting. You can actually count the stitches on Matti's red sweater in this book. And look at the minute details in the clothing each character wears. Or the intricate scrollwork of their furniture. Or the different borders surrounding every page, or the tiles, or the oven, or.... It just goes on and on. There's no other illustrator like her. If you've a penchant for the kinds of kids books you can read over and over to the little ones that contains tiny details in every crack and corner, this is the book for you.