During a recent trip to the post office, our 4-year-old son introduced himself to a little girl near his own age. Within five minutes of meeting, he was kissing her and inviting her over to play. Always an extrovert, it was time for him to learn some social boundaries. I picked up a copy of The Gingerbread Man from the library and settled in for some classic story time.
I figured the tale of the energetic, rebellious cookie who ran away from the people who could help him, stopping only to trust the conniving hungry fox, was a good place to start. Though not a perfect analogy — little girls in the post office are rarely a threat to one's safety — my hope was that he would develop a healthy distrust of strangers.
As the story goes, the gingerbread man accepts a fox's offer to ferry him across the river in order to escape the farmer, the farmer's wife and all their farm animals running after him. Nearing the end of his ride on the fox's back, the little cookie trusts the fox one more time, moving up to his snout to avoid getting wet. And true to form, the fox throws his head back, opens his jaws and swallows the cookie whole. Betrayed!
Just when I hoped our son was catching the moral — regardless of what they promise, foxes will be true to their nature and loyal to their stomachs — I noticed we weren't at the end of the story. Not yet. I turned the page and there it was, the words that qualified this book as a "retelling" for modern ears.
The story went on:
"But don't be sad, for that wasn't the end of the gingerbread man.
The gingerbread man has gone away, But he'll be back some other day. For gingerbread men return, it's said. When someone bakes some gingerbread."
In other words, it's OK that the cookie trusted the wily fox because gingerbread rejuvenates itself every time the farmer's wife bakes cookies.
Not only did the fox betray the cookie, but the book betrayed me. I wanted my son to ask hard questions like "What happened to the gingerbread man?" "Why did the fox eat him?" "How will he get out of the fox's mouth?" My whole reason for choosing this story was to gently show my son the need for caution when dealing with people you've just met. I wanted him to understand that trust is something you must earn.
Whoever published this book wanted to blunt the edges. But in doing so, he silenced the tough questions.