Gingerbread Houses Have Historical and Literary Connections

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CH Patisserie, a bakery in downtown Sioux Falls, S.D., displays this wonderful–and very large–gingerbread house. (Photos by Deb Watley)

Gingerbread houses are a fun, wintery decoration. Yet, they are also a fascinating bit of food craft, architecture, artistry, history, and literary tradition.

In the 1500s–in what’s now Germany–the Brothers Grimm story of Hansel and Gretel featured an edible house. The story may have come first, or the gingerbread houses may have been an inspiration for the story. But, the story and the making of gingerbread houses seem to be linked.

Gingerbread dates back thousands of years ago. The ginger root was grown in China. But, a couple thousand years before Christ was born, the Greeks were using ginger to make gingerbread. This would have been a hard-style of gingerbread they used in religious ceremonies.

By the 11th Century, Europeans were making gingerbread shaped like people, animals, flowers, etc. Gingerbread was a festival food. In fact, some of the festivals were called gingerbread fairs.

Americans have adopted the hard-type of gingerbread for cookies and houses, but Americans also historically had a cake-like version of gingerbread. Both George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, and Laura Ingalls Wilder were known for their cake-like gingerbread.

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The Laura Ingalls Wilder Country Cookbook contains Laura’s gingerbread recipe.

But why are the houses a winter tradition? I’m not sure, except of course, the frosting looks like snow, and the candies and gingerbread epitomize the sweets we eat at Christmas.

There is one other reason of a very practical nature alluded to in the book, The Gingerbread Architect by Susan Matheson and Lauren Chairman. The hard gingerbread stays hard in the dryer air of winter and furnaces (in the northern hemisphere). In a humid environment, the gingerbread would soften, and the houses wouldn’t be able to hold their shapes.

Sources and more info:

The History of Gingerbread (and a recipe)

Gingerbread: History, Traditions and Where to See the World’s Sweetest Artwork

A Brief History of Gingerbread

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One of my kids’ favorite winter/Christmas picture books.

Do you like to eat gingerbread? Have you ever made gingerbread people and/or houses? What other literary and/or historical links are there to gingerbread houses?

Primary Resource: Thanksgiving Proclamation by Pres. George Washington, Oct. 3, 1789

By the President of the United States of America. a Proclamation.

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor—and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks—for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation—for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war—for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed—for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted—for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions—to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually—to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed—to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord—To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us—and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New-York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

Go: Washington

Happy Thanksgiving! See you in a couple weeks!

Unexpected Book Find: THE WORLD OF LITTLE HOUSE

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Recently I was in one of my local book stores looking for several particular books. I didn’t find them.

Instead I found a book I didn’t know existed–and that I’m loving!

The World of Little House by Carolyn Strom Collins and Christina Wyss Ericksson caught my attention as I browsed the children’s history and biography sections.

It uses colorful illustrations by Garth Williams and original ones by Deborah Maze, including maps, diagrams of the various Little Houses, recipes, activities, and lots of information about Laura’s life and the world of the 19th Century pioneers.

One fun (or slightly gross?) fact I learned is that the pioneer women ironed everything, including undergarments, not just for appearance sake, but also for hygiene. You see, the heat from the ironing would eliminate insects and germs that washing alone didn’t do.

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Another fun thing I learned was that Ma once made a square Thanksgiving Day pie. I was taken aback–a square pie? Why not? Ma used the pan she had available, and that was her square pan she normally used for baking two bread loaves at a time.

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I also liked the timeline at the end of the book that put events of Laura’s life in perspective with events happening in the United States.

This is a wonderful book for any Laura fans or anyone wanting to learn more about the daily life of pioneers.

What was your last unexpected book find?

Bookish British Vacation: Book Stores & Historic Library

My recent trip to Britain had a decidedly bookish flair.

We visited some sights made famous by C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, as well as some places with Harry Potter connections.

But, we also visited many book stores. Some were historic book stores that sell new books. Some were modern book stores connected with big companies. Some were small stores that sold used (and often rare and collectible) books.

Photos by Bruce and Deb Watley

In Oxford, we visited Blackwell’s Book Shop. Our family joke is that it is like the Tardis–bigger on the inside. This historic store has it all–new books, old books, and lots of academic books.

In London, we walked down Charing Cross Road and found a concentration of book stores, including Foyles, Henry Pordes Books, Any Amount of Books, and Francis Edwards Antiquarian Booksellers (now Quinto and Francis Edwards).

Hatchards on Piccadilly was on my must-see list. It opened in 1797 and is the oldest book store in London.

We also toured the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It’s earliest origins in that location reach back to the 15th Century. During the Reformation, however, many of its books were removed and some destroyed. Thomas Bodley is credited with saving and re-invorgating the library in 1598 (with it opening in 1602). Although the many universities in Oxford have a library, the Bodleian Library is the library for the whole Oxford system. It now includes multiple separate libraries and buildings.

We were allowed to take photos in some of the gathering rooms at the Bodleian Library, but not in the collections rooms.

Do you take bookish vacations? To where? What are your favorite book stores and libraries?

 

 

 

 

 

London Residence is Ben Franklin’s Only Surviving Home

 

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36 Craven Street, London–Photos by Bruce & Deb Watley

Earlier this fall my husband and I traveled to London for vacation. One of my sightseeing must-do’s in London was to tour 36 Craven Street, the only surviving residence of Benjamin Franklin, one of the United States’ Founding Fathers.

Part of the reason I wanted to see this home was because I’m teaching a high school literature class this fall, and we were reading Ben Franklin’s autobiography the same month I was in London.

Franklin was born in Boston in 1706 and moved to Philadelphia when still a kid. Although, he lived in Philadelphia most of the rest of his life, he lived in London for a short time as a young man learning more about the printing trade; in London from 1757-75 as the representative of several of the American colonies’ to the British government in London; and then later during the American Revolution when he represented the Americans’ interests to the French in Paris.

When Franklin arrived in Britain in 1757, he thought he’d be there for less than a year. However, he stayed until 1775 trying to broker some sort of peace between the American colonies and Britain.

Although he wasn’t successful in bringing peace, he did make lots of friends, conducted scientific experiments, and wrote many letters and articles.

During most of his pre-Revolution time in London, he rented his lodging from Margaret Stevenson 36 Craven Street, and this home became the unofficial first American embassy in Britain.

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This is the historical plaque on the outside of 36 Craven Street.

 

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This is the central hallway of the home, running from the front door to the back of the house.

After Franklin went back to Philadelphia, the house continued as a boarding house, and later a hotel and office space. By the time The Friends of Benjamin Franklin House obtained the house about twenty years or so ago, it had even been lived in by squatters. This cloud had a silver lining because the squatters didn’t destroy the house, nor did they do any remodeling, so many of the house’s architectural features of Franklin’s time were still there.

The house was originally built in about 1730, and it’s located between the Thames River and Trafalgar Square.

Now visitors can tour the house, noting its architecture, or they can participate in a multi-media historical experience that focuses on Franklin’s time in London and connections with the house.

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The historical experience included “Polly Hewson.” Polly was the daughter of Franklin’s landlady.

An interesting story is that when the home was obtained by the preservationists, human bones were found in what would have been the back garden while Franklin lived there. Archaeologists were brought in, and they determined that these remains were from the private anatomy school run by Mrs. Stevenson’s son-in-law.

I enjoyed the tour! It was interesting to walk in the same rooms Franklin did, and intriguing to think this small home housed him, Mrs. Stevenson and her extended family, as well as servants. It’s a simple home, yet Franklin was such a multi-faceted person. He was interested in science, business, music, literature, politics, and medicine.

For more information, see Benjamin Franklin House.

What was the latest place you visited that had a historical connection? What do historic homes reveal about the personalities of historic people? Have you ever been to 36 Craven Street? What do you know about Benjamin Franklin?

My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: MORNING GIRL by Michael Dorris

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

For this month’s book for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge, I read Morning Girl by Michael Dorris. Morning Girl won the 1993 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction.

This very short novel could be considered a chapter book for young, independent readers–probably second and third graders. The two, young protagonists, Morning Girl and Star Boy, are siblings who live with their parents on a tropical island. The two children see their world in different ways and alternately love and pester each other.

I don’t do traditional book reviews in this series of articles about the Scott O’Dell Award books. Instead, I share at least one history lesson and one writing lesson I learned because of each book. This article is an exception. I will not have a history lesson this time, and you’ll see why not.

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Writing Lessons:

Two protagonists–This novel has a couple structural things that make it unusual for early readers. First, Morning Girl has two protagonists who each tell their own stories in alternating chapters. I think this isn’t done much because young readers are still focusing on the skill of reading and just learning to connect with one major character. But, because this story isn’t complicated, I think it works.

Withholding important information–The second way this books is different from most books, for any age of children, is that Dorris withheld major information–the where and when of the story–until the very end.

I hate spoilers, so I won’t spoil the ending for you. However, this structure worked well for this first-person point-of-view story because the two main characters live a very small, sheltered life and have little concept of a larger world. The story is really about the children, and it feels complete. The younger readers probably won’t know the significance of the ending, but older readers may have an “ah-ha moment.”

Connecting the characters and the readers–Although many early readers will not be familiar with Morning Girl’s and Star Boy’s culture or way of life, they will readily connect with both characters because Dorris focused on something every young sibling understands–sibling and family relationships. The readers will quickly feel Morning Girl’s annoyance with Star Boy as well as Star Boy’s pleasure in annoying his sister. Dorris connected his characters’ world with his young readers’ world.

Imagery–Dorris did a wonderful job with Morning Girl and Star Boy describing their world to the readers in fresh and lyrically beautiful ways. Here are some examples:

“I don’t know how my brother came to see everything so upside down from me. For him, night is day, sleep is awake. It’s as though time is split between us, and we only pass by each other as sun rises or sets. Usually, for me, that’s enough.”

Can’t you just feel the sibling love?

“I closed my eye and concentrated on being a rock. I sank so deep into the ground that no digging stick could roll me from my hole. I became so hard that no tree or bush could take root on my surface. I slowed my thoughts until the quietness of the earth wrapped me in its heavy cotton.”

What other books for very early readers do you know of that have multiple point-of-view protagonists?

Join me Nov. 29 to discuss the 1990 award-winner, Shades of Gray by Carolyn Reeder.

British Kids’ Game Became International Sport Known as Cross Country

Notre Dame Cross Country Invitational

Photo by Phil Roeder [Flickr: Creative Commons]

All of my kids have been, or still are, harriers on their school cross country team. What’s a harrier? A long-distance runner who competes across open country.

Back in the very early 1800’s in England, school kids developed games that imitated the adult pastimes of hare hunts and steeplechases. The games became known as hare and hounds (harriers), as well as (the original) paper chase, where some of the kids would run ahead leaving a trail, such as pieces of paper, and other kids were the hunters. These games took place in the countryside, and the runners had to deal with things like hedges and streams.

The game caught on and became more organized. In 1877, England had its first national competition. Soon France and a few other European countries had joined the competitions.

Now, the races are often held in parks or golf courses, and the runners may run anywhere from 3 kilometers at the middle school level to 12 kilometers at the international level. Every course is different. Some are relatively flat; some are very hilly. It’s a fall sport, so at least in the upper Midwest, runners may run in extreme cold or heat, wind, and precipitation in various forms.

The runners compete at the individual level, but there is a team aspect, too. The runners receive points when they finish the race that corresponds to the place they come in. For example, the first finisher receives one point, the second receives two points, etc. The team with the lowest point total wins.

Cross Country has become an international sport, with the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) first World Cross Country Championship in 1973. According to the IAAF website, it has had world champions as young as 13 (female) and as old as 38 (male).

I was never a long-distance runner. Two miles were my longest track workouts. (By the way, track is a completely different sport.) I admire kids who discipline themselves, mentally and physically, enough to finish a cross country race. That’s quite an achievement!

Sports books are kind of sub-genre in children’s books, and many other kids’ books have characters who are athletes of some kind. But, I’ve only read two children’s books that have characters who are cross country runners: Wednesday Wars and First Boy, both by Gary D. Schmidt.

For more information about cross country:

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Running Times

International Association of Athletics Federation

(I originally posted this article Oct. 21, 2014. If you get the chance, go watch a high school cross country meet, but wear your running shoes. The spectators often do a good deal of walking and running, too.)

Are you or have you ever been a harrier? What other kids’ books have cross country athletes as characters?