Gingerbread Alphabets and Books: “Useful Knowledge by the Pound”


The front board of Neues Pfefferkuchen-ABC fuer artige Kinder. (Stuttgart: Lowes Verlag Ferdinand Carl, ca. 1907) Cotsen 72959.

After a really aggravating day, there probably isn’t a teacher alive who hasn’t wished that the human mind absorbed knowledge like a sponge soaks up water.  Crafty teachers devise strategies that just might make learning this or that easy and supportive publishers have been known to design children’s books that look like rewards for cooperating.  One of my favorites is the book above, whose binding looks like a tasty big cookie topped with split almond halves.  Its title?  Die neue Pfefferkuchen-ABC, which can be loosely translated as The New Gingerbread ABC (“pfefferkuchen” being another name for “lebkuchen,” the German spiced honeycakes topped with chocolate icing traditional at Christmas time).


The plate for the letter B in Neues Pfefferkuchen-ABC.

It’s an old ruse in many cultures to associate sweets with mastery of the letters of the alphabet.  For example, Alberto Manguel describes a medieval Jewish initiation rite in which the teacher wrote a passage from the Bible on a slate and read it aloud to his pupil. The boy repeated them and if he did it correctly, was allowed to eat the holy words once the slate was spread with honey as a reward (thanks to Lissa Paul for this anecdote).


The frontispiece to The Renowned History of Giles Gingerbread: A Little Boy who lived upon Learning. (London: Printed for T. Carnan, 1782). Cotsen 6712.

A time-honored way of encouraging literacy in early modern England was to offer letters or hornbooks made of gingerbread as an inducement to learn their ABCs more quickly.   Above Gaffer Gingerbread invites children to spend their pocket money wisely on cakes that will “feed the Little Folks, who are good,/ At once with Learning and with Food.”


A mold for a cookie hornbook and a cast from it. The letters could easily be cut apart into little tiles for spelling practice. The letterforms suggest that the mold is probably not more than one hundred years old.

At home, the conscientious  gaffer took charge of inspiring his own little reluctant learner Giles, which was not all that difficult.   By profession a gingerbread baker, the gaffer made his son a special gilt-covered, sugary,  spicy “book” and presented it to him.


While the gaffer’s presentation of a table of two-letter syllables was novel, the truth is that any primer then contained such a chart, which helped children take a critical first step in learning to recognize and sound out combinations of letters.  The eighteenth-century references to gingerbread letters, alphabets and books I’ve found didn’t offer any evidence that such a thing was actually available.   Size may not have been the issue, as gingerbread kings and queens enjoyed at fairs could be quite large and detailed.  The real test was perhaps carving the letters deeply enough in the mold so that they would emerge from the oven sharp and legible.  Using a very stiff dough with no eggs or butter would have helped.

giles-with-bookHere Giles is shown with a hornbook in hand nowhere as large as the print of the one his father was supposed to have made for him.  Another curious discovery I made researching this post was that Cotsen’s 1782 edition of Giles Gingerbread doesn’t have the diagram of the gingerbread syllabary.  The 1782 edition is not missing any text, which wouldn’t be all that surprising for such a famous steadyseller (it was first published around 1765 by John Newbery, the stepfather of Carnan, the publisher of the Cotsen copy). The syllabary present in the earliest known edition of Giles Gingerbread circa 1766 in the British Library, which can be accessed via Eighteenth-Century Collections On-line.   Very few copies of any edition of Giles Gingerbread survive, having been read (not eaten) to pieces, so it is difficult to determine when and why the syllabary was dropped.

It was probably just a bit of complicated typesetting that could be dispensed with.  But it is amusing to imagine that children who had read Giles Gingerbread pestered their parents for hornbook just like it and the beleaguered publisher removed the offending passage to keep peace with gingerbread and pastry bakers all over Great Britain!


An antique mold for a gingerbread hornbook that looks something like the one Giles is holding.


Tales of Tremendous Vegetables


The hero of Jan Le Witt’s The Vegetabull.

Inanimate and oddly shaped edible objects, vegetables star in far fewer stories for children than anything with legs, antennae, feathers or fur.  In honor of the Thanksgiving weekend, I’ve dug up a handful of interesting vege-tales, one new, one old and twice retold.  Gratins and buttery purees are not the inevitable ends of a gigantic vegetable, so their stories can be relished by meat-eaters and vegetarians.

“Die Ruebentante” –or Aunty Root–is a story I’ve wanted to feature in a post for a long time.   Its creator, Max Froelich, seems to be unknown except for the work he published in Heim der Jugend: Ein Jahrbuch fuer Kinder und Eltern (1905).  It is a cautionary tale in two frames about a generously proportioned lady turnip of a certain age, who goes for a walk in her slippers on a moonlit night.  In the dark she trips over two potatoes and tumbles down into the mud, unaware that the moon has witnessed the whole ridiculous episode.  The moral? No midnight strolls for root vegetables with spindly legs and tiny feet shod in slippers.


Aunty Root’s luxuriant trailing leaves make a nice contrast to the elaborate border of carrot greens. Max Froehlich, “Die Ruebentante,” on page 285 in Heim der Jugend, edited by Adolf Cronbach and H. H. Ewers. (Berlin: Siegfried Cronbach, 1905) Cotsen 12147.

For a vegetable of stupendous girth and length that inspires shock, awe, and veneration, see Vladimir Radunsky’s The Mighty Asparagus (2004), a picture book for three- to eight-year-olds.   As the recipient of a New York Times’ Best Illustrated Children’s Book Award, the judges must not have thought it very likely that parents would have to fend off questions like,  “Why does a giant asparagus make the little king nervous?”  or “Why does queen hug the asparagus?” or “Why does the princess want to eat the yucky asparagus?”  On the other hand, all the nudge-nudge, wink, winks will be over the children’s heads, but will help keep the adult reader awake.  Likewise the good-natured liberties taken with the paintings of Piero della Francesca, Andrea Mantegna, Perugino, and several other Renaissance artists …   Here is the fold-out plate showing the full grandeur of the asparagus.


The fold-out plate folded (panels 1 and 4). Vladimir Radunsky, The Mighty Asparagus. (New York: Silver Whistle/ Harcourt, 2004) Promised gift.


Panels 2 and 3.


Panel 4.


Panels 5 and 6, in which the musicians sing the ballad of the asparagus.

The Mighty Asparagus is, of course, a fractured version of the venerable folk tale of the turnip and Brian Alderson’s telling illustrated by Fritz Wegner is one of the most enjoyable  of the many versions.  A poor farmer finds himself the proud cultivator of the most prodigious, round, unblemished specimen ever seen in those parts.  Such a “right champion turnip” can only be fit for a king, so once the farmer and his family manage to pull it out of the ground and heave it onto a wagon, off they go to the castle.  The king is so impressed with this “most champion turnip” that he fills the farmer’s cart full of gold.


Page [15] in Brian Alderson, The Tale of the Turnip. Illustrated by Fritz Wegner. (Cambridge: Candlewick Press, 1999) Cotsen 53048. Inscribed by the author to Lloyd E. Cotsen.

Now when the rich squire gets wind of his neighbor’s good luck, he is so consumed with jealousy that he must take the finest horse in his stable, who is worth more than a thousand turnips, and present it to the king, confident of receiving an even bigger and better reward.  The squire gets his money’s worth in turnips all right, as the new owner of the right champion vegetable.

With badgers in bright Russian folklorist costumes, Jan Brett gives her picture book of “The Turnip” a new twist.  By eliminating the greedy resentful neighbor, she focuses instead on the communal effort of pulling the turnip out of the frozen field.  The successful conclusion of this Herculean labor is celebrated with singing and dancing.


Cover design for Jan Brett, The Turnip. (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2015). Cotsen in process 7374091.

Taking a hint from Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo, Mother Badger grabs her griddle and gets down to making a mountain of turnip pancakes to warm everyone up.  It seems unlikely that a savory Chinese or Korean turnip pancake was on the menu, so I like to imagine that she whipped up a kind of latkes, made from half grated potato and half grated turnip, which would taste equally good with butter and syrup or sour cream and smoked fish.  If you are still feeling hungry after Thursday’s overindulgence, there are recipes for either kind of turnip pancake on the Internet.

7374091page30The holiday season is officially declared open!