[Review + Chat + Giveaway] Elisa Kleven on The Horribly Hungry Gingerbread Boy

Though there are runaway pancakes, latkes, matzo balls, rice cakes, tortillas, and dumplings, when it comes to fleet-footed fleeing food, no one can top the gingerbread man.

As a scrumptious treat, he’s been around for centuries. Did you know Her Royal Gingerness Queen Elizabeth I is credited with the first man-shaped cookie? She liked to give important guests gingerbread likenesses of themselves. ๐Ÿ™‚

As a beloved cumulative folktale, The Gingerbread Man first appeared in print in late 19th century America. This cheeky rascal has been on the run and taunting his pursuers ever since!

Still, for as many times as you’ve read his story, have you ever felt sorry for him or wondered what could have happened if there hadn’t been a wily fox to snatch him up?

Well, for her brand new picture book, The Horribly Hungry Gingerbread Boy: A San Francisco Story (Heyday, 2016), award winning author/illustrator Elisa Kleven cooked up a tantalizing tale with a happy ending just for our favorite spicy scamp.

When Shirley bakes herself a gingerbread treat to bring to school, the last thing she expects is for him to leap out of her lunchbox and begin gobbling everything in sight. A wild chase ensues — on foot and by cable car — through iconic San Francisco neighborhoods including the Mission, Chinatown, North Beach, and Fisherman’s Wharf. Will Shirley be able to catch the gingerbread boy before he eats up the whole city?

This riotous romp told in rollicking rhyme is fun, magical, heartwarming, and like all of Elisa’s books, visually stunning. She has transformed San Francisco (already a beautiful city with its eclectic architecture, rolling hills, and bustling multi-ethnic population), into a luminous, jewel-like confection bursting with candy colors and enchanting vistas, some softened with a layer of “whipped-cream fog.” Resplendent with intricate detail, Elisa’s pictures invite readers to revel in this sumptuous feast for the eyes.

Pages teem with activity and flabbergasted onlookers as the gingerbread boy wreaks havoc wherever he goes, raiding, robbing and devouring everything in sight:

Shirley tried to chase him down, but off he ran around the town, raiding markets, robbing shops, snatching plums and lollipops, gobbling grapes and gooey noodles, grabbing bones away from poodles, guzzling shakes and munching steaks, crunching crabs and clams and cakes.

Despite being deliciously naughty, the gingerbread boy is also adorable and endearing. I was taken with him the moment he jumped out of Shirley’s lunchbox with that impish smile on his face, and felt a sweet, liberating sense of child-like abandon as he thumbed his nose, stuck out his tongue, perched atop a cable car, and soared over the Golden Gate Bridge.

Lombard Street

As he grew bigger, bolder and braggier, I thought of the expansive imagination of children, their full-out love of play, their intense, unfiltered emotions. This story reaches well beyond the comeuppance of the classic tale, addressing larger themes not only of friendship, but of responsibility, empathy, and the rewards of fostering community (I love the pictures of Shirley and the gingerbread boy sharing their freshly baked treats with the diverse residents of the town). And has there ever been a more whimsical, beautifully crafted love letter to the City by the Bay?

Shirley and the gingerbread boy share their cookies with the neighborhood.

I love Shirley’s independent spirit and her larger role in the story. She baked the gingerbread boy, and in the end, she’s the one who reins him in and sets him straight (“You’re so puffed up, I think you’ll pop! . . . I only wish you’d be polite and stop to think before you bite.”).

The gingerbread boy himself has been lovingly humanized, no longer the flat stock character we’ve come to expect, but someone with relatable emotions. His “eat or be eaten” ravenous rampage is prompted not only by a survival instinct, but by hurt feelings and an attempt to retaliate. How would you feel if upon first meeting someone, they took a bite of your thumb?

It’s a touching moment when he realizes Shirley wants to play with rather than eat him, and their singular friendship will make every reader wish they could have their very own life-size gingerbread boy. ๐Ÿ™‚

As a longtime fan of Elisa’s work, I’m pleased and honored to welcome her to Alphabet Soup today to tell us more about adapting the tale, creating the gorgeous illustrations, and baking spicy gingerbread treats in her early years.

She’s also sharing lots of yummy interior spreads and reference photos that’ll make you horribly hungry for San Francisco’s delectable offerings. Put on your best bibs and enjoy!

*ย ย ย  *ย ย ย  *


What is your earliest memory of reading The Gingerbread Man and making gingerbread people?

I first encountered The Gingerbread Man in preschool. I loved looking at pictures of the cookie-child coming to life, jumping off the baking pan, and running out into the world. But the story’s elements of loss and death unsettled me. I felt sorry for the little old woman and man, whose only child ran away. And I felt especially bad for the Gingerbread Man, who entrusted his life to the tricky fox, only to be betrayed by him. Like most children, I rooted for the Gingerbread Boy, so the ending felt pretty brutal.

My mom never baked cookies (though she did make beautiful birthday cakes). But I began to bake in earnest at around age nine, and you can see some of the gingerbread houses I made at twelve and thirteen, when my mother’s terminal illness and the heavy sadness in my home made me long for houses of prettiness and sweetness.

Gingerbread House made in early adolescence.

Why did you want to write an alternate ending for this beloved folktale, and why did you choose San Francisco for the setting?

I think that I wanted to give the story the happy ending I craved as a very young child. And I wanted to make the Gingerbread Boy’s creator — in this case, the small girl Shirley — more of a participant in the story, allowing her to enjoy a hard won friendship with her runaway cookie-boy.

San Francisco building with exquisite gingerbread touches.

As for the setting: San Francisco is, to me, an edible looking city. Even in the most run down areas, you will come across an amazing piece of gingerbread architecture — the city’s signature, whimsically decorated Victorian buildings and houses. And the frequent fog has a way of softening and hushing the city like whipped cream, or snow (or cream of wheat, as it were, in the story, though that doesn’t seem as appealing).

Gingerbread house

Also, I grew up seeing the Gingerbread Boy in a bucolic setting and I thought it would be a nice change to put him in a city.ย  When my editor at Heyday Books, a publisher which focuses on California stories and history, showed an interest in the story, the San Francisco setting seemed natural. I never get tired of San Francisco, and am always discovering new corners and facets of it.

What was the most challenging part of working on this project? Which part of the process did you like best?

Working with a small, local, non-profit press like Heyday was refreshing and fun.

My editor, Molly Woodward, is very smart and kind, and it was a total pleasure to bounce ideas back and forth with her, and with the wonderful art director and designer, too.

The most challenging part of the project was the rather tight deadline — I kind of hit the ground running and created the dummy, a lot of detailed pictures, and lots of textual back matter in the course of about five months (I like to have about seven months to work on a book.)

Why did you decide to write the story in rhyme? Did you go through many revisions?

I love rhyme and rhythm.ย  It’s a challenge to create a story in rhyme and can lead to some unexpected but fun word choices. Putting a narrative in rhyme is like creating a puzzle I must solve.

And yes, I always seem to go through many revisions.

If you had just one day to share the city with a first-time child visitor, where would you take him/her?

My favorite place in San Francisco is the neighborhood of North Beach (shown on page 15 of the book), which is next door to Chinatown, another area I love. There is life, liveliness, quirky beauty, good food everywhere, and hilly streets to climb. And presiding over everything is Coit Tower, on Telegraph Hill, from which you can take in spectacular views of the city and its gorgeous natural surroundings, and which is painted on the inside with fascinating WPA Era murals.

Coit Tower, North Beach


Golden Gate Park is a lush oasis of gardens and enchanting little lakes, with an aquarium, bike paths, a herd of buffalo, windmills, museums, and a carousel.

Japanese Tea Garden, Golden Gate Park


Conservancy of Flowers, Golden Gate Park

And of course the Golden Gate Bridge is amazing from any angle, so I’d definitely take a child there.

Your paintings of the city are gorgeous and incredibly detailed. Did you mainly use your own photos as references? Did you do any onsite sketching?

It’s fun to photograph a place I intend to illustrate, so yes, I use mostly my own photos — which are bad artistically but good enough for reference. I like drawing natural shapes more than buildings (and it’s hard for me to draw outside, in a bustling urban neighborhood), so I didn’t do much onsite sketching, except at Golden Gate Park and Land’s End.

Whatโ€™s your favorite spread from the book? Could you please tell us a little about how you made it?

Pages 14 and 15, my favorite spread, were, like all the other pictures, made with a combination of watercolor, colored pencil, ink and scraps of paper I collect — everything from decorative Florentine stationery to a photo of the San Francisco Chronicle which I collaged in.

Reference photo of Chinatown’s Dragon Gate


Dragon Gate sketch
Dragon Gate final art (favorite spread, page 14)


Reference photo of Transamerica Pyramid, North Beach


Final art, Transamerica Pyramid, City Lights Bookstore, North Beach (favorite spread, page 15)

Although youโ€™re a long time Bay Area resident, did you learn anything new or surprising about San Francisco from making this book?

I discovered that there was a labyrinth at Land’s End, which is where the city ends and meets the Pacific Ocean on one side and the outer part of the Bay on the other. The labyrinth is made of stones which form a concentric circle, and was created by Eduardo Aguilera, who says that his work’s theme is “peace, love, and enlightenment.” (Fittingly, Shirley and her Gingerbread boy reconcile at this spot.)

Reference photo of Land’s End



I also learned that the design for the iconic Transamerica Pyramid Building was inspired by the way that light filters down through tall trees in the forest. Who knew that this angular, commercial structure sprang from such an organic and even ethereal phenomenon?

Is Shirley based on someone you know?ย 

My neighbor across the street is a strong, forthright little girl who loves cooking and baking and looks like Shirley.

And Shirley embodies all the children (and makers) out there who don’t let their creations get away from them, holding on to their visions and dreams.

Is the recipe for gingerbread people included in the book the one you made with your own children?

No, this is a vegan recipe I fiddled with, though it can also be made with butter.

Elisa’s daughter Mia making gingerbread cookies at age 3.

What do you hope kids will take away from your story? Is there anything else youโ€™d like us to know about the book?

I hope children will have a good time with it, and that it will satisfy some inner appetite for magic.ย  And although there are many versions of The Gingerbread Boy, I hope that readers of my retelling might look at the story in a new light.ย I hope it might even help them feel more empathy towards their fellow creatures.

Launch Party craft at Laurel Bookstore (Oakland, CA).


Laurel Bookstore Launch Party


Elisa’s students showing off their gingerbread products.

Within the rules of story making, The Gingerbread Boy is a “person”, after all, as sentient and alive as any human character or ย anthropomorphized animal. Since he has a mouth, why wouldn’t he, too, feel hunger? And since he wants to live, why wouldn’t he get angry about being regarded as food, especially by his own creator? Feeling threatened, he threatens others.ย  But I always like happy endings and peaceful solutions, and so he and Shirley become friends, vowing to live and let live — and enjoying a fun evening of cookie baking together, as well as a new adventure out on the town the following morning.

One more thing I’d like to mention about the book: although there is some controversy about THE FIVE CHINESE BROTHERS, as a child I loved the tale, and found it fascinating. My image of the hungry gingerbread boy swallowing San Francisco Bay was inspired by the picture of the Chinese brother swallowing the sea (I didn’t realize that until I started drawing, and then the image of the brother came back to me).

*ย ย  *ย ย  *


written and illustrated by Elisa Kleven
published by Heyday Books, September 2016
Picture Book for ages 4-8, 40 pp.
*Includes Author’s Note, Recipe for Gingerbread People, an Annotated List of San Francisco Landmarks, and very cool mini gingerbread boy patterned endpapers. ๐Ÿ™‚

โ™ฅ Visit Elisa Kleven’s Official Website. See her Events Page for a complete list of upcoming appearances. She also has some beautiful prints for sale here.

โ™ฅ Signed copies of The Horribly Hungry Gingerbread Boy are available from these indie booksellers:



For a chance to win a brand new copy of The Horribly Hungry Gingerbread Boy, simply leave a comment at this post no later than midnight (EST) Wednesday, September 14, 2016. Extra entries for sharing about the giveaway via social media (please mention in your comment). You may also enter by sending an email with GINGERBREAD in the subject line to: readermail (at) jamakimrattigan (dot) com. Giveaway open to U.S. residents only, please. Winner will be announced next Friday. Good Luck!



poetry fridayThe lovely and talented Amy Ludwig VanDerwater is hosting the Poetry Friday Roundup at The Poem Farm. Jump on the next cable car and check out the full menu of poetic goodness being shared in the blogosphere this week!


wkendcookingiconThis post is also being linked to Beth Fish Read’s Weekend Cooking, where all are invited to share their food-related posts. Put on your best bibs and come join the fun!


*Interior spreads posted by permission of the publisher, text and illustrations copyright ยฉ 2016 Elisa Kleven, published by Heyday Books. All rights reserved.

*Personal photos copyright ยฉ 2016 Elisa Kleven.

Copyright ยฉ 2016 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.


94 thoughts on “[Review + Chat + Giveaway] Elisa Kleven on The Horribly Hungry Gingerbread Boy

  1. San Francisco is the city of my birth! How COOL that this book is set there. I have fond and frightening memories of that bridge at the Japanese Tea Garden. As a child I was scared to climb it but my mom would insist so she could get a picture. Now, as an adult, that bridge doesn’t seem so high up and steep. LOL Congrats on a wonderful book!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What an extensive and wonderful interview. Thank you both for your generous time in discussing The Hungry Gingerbread Boy. I too, fell in love with books and stories about China when I was about six. The books and stories are not appropriate …. but the rhythm and rhyme and sense of great adventure drew me in. I eventually traveled to China. So, I totally get what you mean by that image of the brother swallowing the sea becoming an important part of your background knowledge! We’ve been a fan since Sun Bread and can’t wait to get our hands on this book too!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sun Bread is one of my faves too! How interesting that you’ve been to China and was fascinated early on by Chinese stories. I loved The Five Chinese Brothers as a child and remember my teacher reading it to us. Yes, today it’s considered politically incorrect, but generations enjoyed the story for what it is, a good story. It was one of the few books featuring Asian characters that I encountered, and regardless of what anybody says, I’m glad it was part of my childhood. Better something politically incorrect than nothing at all. Besides, I knew those brothers were in a book and not from real life. Maybe we’re not giving children enough credit to know the difference sometimes?


    1. Glad you enjoyed the interview, Matt. Elisa was so generous with her time and sharing of photos and such. I love her books so this was a real treat for me!


  3. I like the detail of the illustrations, and that the main characters make their peace in a labyrinth. Nice touch! Also, the gingerbread houses Elisa made as a teen are impressive!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, her gingerbread houses are amazing! A born artist, through and through. I could barely manage snickerdoodles at that age. ๐Ÿ™‚


  4. This looks adorable! I love how it takes place in SF. I am definitely buying a copy for our friends who’ll be moving there next month. Thanks for sharing, Jama & congrats, Elisa!! (BTW, that’s my sister’s name ๐Ÿ™‚ )

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How cool that your sister’s name is Elisa too, Maria! Your parents chose well in naming their offspring. ๐Ÿ™‚ What a perfect gift for your friends. San Fran is one of my fave cities (in the top 3 along with London and NYC).


  5. I’ve had the pleasure of more than one trip to San Francisco, love seeing some favorite places in this wonderful book. The idea is one that children will love, and the details on the pages are simply amazing, like the favorite Sun Bread. Thanks for the review and the time with Elisa, Jama!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What a fun story! I keep thinking that I’ll work on a fractured fairy tale. I guess I need to just do it!


  7. Wonderful post! I love this personable new gingerbread boy and the tie-in to San Francisco. All the old and new pictures are great. Congratulations on your new book, Elisa! Terrific job on the post, Jama!


  8. What a lively and beautiful book…plus, a strong girl as the main character. It’s a winner in my book! Thank you, too, for that informative interview – I always love hearing from writers about their process.


  9. I love Elisa’s work and am excited that she has a new book out – and about San Francisco to boot! My preschool kids will love to see sights that they know from across the bay.


  10. OMG, you have no idea how much I want this book!! My son still LOVES gingerbread men stories, even though he’s in 7th grade, and the SF setting is home. [Well, not that I grew up IN the city, but near it. And this is my SF gingerbread house. (My great-grandma’s house, now a museum.) ] But, seriously, I think this is the most exciting picture book I’ve seen in awhile, and I’ve seen some pretty awesome books.

    Apologies for being MIA lately – we moved at the beginning of Aug and I haven’t had a chance to read LJ at all until now.


    1. Hi Debbie! Are you saying your great-grandma lived in the Haas-Lilienthal House?! If so, holy macaroni! Talk about the queen of all victorians! That’s cool that Two still loves gingerbread man stories. ๐Ÿ™‚


  11. I totally love Elisa Kleven. Two of my favorites are the Paper Princess and B is for Bethlehem. I’ve always loved The Gingerbread Man. These illustrations make me swoon. I’m putting the book on my Christmas wish list now. I also love The Seven Chinese Brothers (great to see the connection Elsa made) from the story to her illustration.


  12. Your posts remind me of the podcast The Yarn — through interviews (and in your case, through visuals), you “unravel” a book for your audience. Fascinating. (If you don’t listen to The Yarn yet, it’s time to start!)


  13. Ooooooh I LOVE the artwork and the retelling of this story. I’m so impressed with Elisa’s skills, even when young. And I agree that San Fran is a great setting for the Gingerbread Boy — so many places to run to! Great interview too.


    1. Yes, aren’t her gingerbread houses amazing?

      There’s so much detail in each of her pictures — they’re like a treasure hunt with little surprises everywhere. I like that she included a fox in a couple of the spreads too. Nice of her not to leave him out :).


  14. Oh my goodness Jama! I will be putting in an order for a signed copy of this book immediately. I love your use of descriptive delicious words in the review and the lovely interview. I especially appreciate Elisa’s wanting the story to have a happy ending. A favorite vacation of all time was the time my late husband and I spent in San Francisco. I still have pearls acquired on Pier 39 by picking out an oyster in water. They have been placed in a necklace now.


    1. What a lovely memento of your vacation, Margie! I have fond memories of visiting SF too, but it’s been too long and I need to go there again. Glad you decided to order the book — you will love it!!


    1. This story is for all of us who wished for a happy ending for the gingerbread boy as well as his creator. Delectable spin on the classic tale. ๐Ÿ™‚


  15. He may be from San Francisco but there’s no “soudough” in that sweet character! Wonderful post!


  16. I just had an over-extended lunch with a theatre-teacher friend and she told me how one of her two year old students cried buckets when she read aloud Gingerbread Man – this could be a good alternative to the original tale. ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for this lovely feature, dearest Jama.


  17. Once again a great review from you. I adore gingerbread. This book is quite darling with all of its illustrations. It is a great way to introduce children to a city. I bought a similar book about Paris and Leonardo for my nephews. Have a wonderful day.


  18. Thank you, Jama, for so much detail–both in your book review and your interview. I’ve only been to San Francisco once, but it was a lovely visit. I can see why anyone who knows the city would love this book.


  19. Love the look of the book. I have never been to San Francisco, and probably never will (unless I win the lottery, but first I’d have to buy a ticket), so a virtual trip, such as you presented here, is a real treat!


  20. Jama,

    Great post! I am a big admirer of Elisa Kleven’s picture books. I am also the fortunate owner of a piece of her original art–the snowflake that she created for the 2007 Robert’s Snow auction. This new book looks wonderful. I love San Francisco! I remember driving down Lombard Street with husband years ago. I hope I’ll be able to go back again one day.


  21. I so love the new slant on the Gingerbread Boy. He should have a friend after all these years of running!! Love the detail and color of the book, too. This one goes on my “Buy for Christmas” list.


  22. What a great post and interview! So happy I stumbled upon it. We just read another book she illustrated last night “Abuela” and wow, she really is an amazing artist. I love how she makes a city come alive for children with her imagination and beautiful, detailed art.


  23. What an exquisite book. I adore Elisa Kleven, and this whole celebration of an (edible!) city and a cookie and a favorite old story fills me with joy. And those childhood gingerbread houses are magical; you can see the artist in the child, and how true that we make what we need. How wise she was to make the pretty and sweet treats at that sad time. Thank you, once again, for filling heart and tummy. xx


  24. Hmm. A nice evening of baking cookies and reading with grandchildren this fall. We are on the other side of the country, so this is a nice peek into another part of our country!


    1. Sounds like the perfect evening to me — wonderful way to introduce your grandkids to SF while having a delicious fun time. ๐Ÿ™‚


  25. Love all versions of the Gingerbread Boy, love San Francisco, love Elisa Klaven’s illustrations. I can’t wait to gobble this book!


  26. Such a delightful post. The Gingerbread Boy is one of my favorite characters and this seems like such a fun retelling. And how wonderful to see Elisa’s early gingerbread creations. I’ll have to check out her book ๐Ÿ™‚


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