Anna Egan Smucker has been writing children’s books for over twenty years. She currently teaches writing workshops for children and adults and lives in West Virginia. Her new book, Brother Giovanni’s Little Reward, tells the origin story of the pretzel — and here she shares the origin story for her main character, the jovial Brother Giovanni.
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One day (it might have been April 26th, National Pretzel Day) I came upon a few sentences describing the origin of the pretzel. It went something like this:
Most sources say the pretzel was invented around 610 A.D. by a monk in either northern Italy or southern France who twisted leftover bread dough into arms crossed in prayer. He gave it as a little reward (pretiola in Latin) to children who learned their prayers. As the years went by, the pretiola became known in Austria and Germany as bretzel. When it crossed the ocean to America it became known as the pretzel.
As I was reading those words, I could easily imagine that monk twisting dough into those little praying arms to use as tasty rewards. Could the invention of the pretzel be a great idea for a picture book? Possibly. As I was working on other projects at the time, those few sentences went into my bulging “Idea File.” Over the next several months, I kept remembering that story idea and thought it just might be something I could develop into a picture book manuscript.
To write the story I had to first create the character of the monk who was the baker. I knew he would be a fantastic baker, a sweet kindly man I named Brother Giovanni . . . eventually.
At first I had named my main character Brother Jim, but as I got to know him better, to imagine him as a kind, friendly monk and a terrific baker in a monastery in northern Italy, that name obviously didn’t fit him. My father’s name was John, as is my brother’s. And the Italian for John is that wonderful sounding name Giovanni. (Don’t you just love to say that name?) It was perfect.
To make the story interesting, Brother Giovanni would have to face (and overcome!) several challenges. So when he was given the job of teaching rambunctious children their prayers, he would not have a clue about how to do that. He was a baker, not a teacher.
Then to add to his problems, I gave him a deadline — a new bishop would be arriving within a few weeks. This new bishop would expect the children to have learned their prayers. Poor Brother Giovanni!
There were some challenges the story itself had to overcome, too. When I was first trying to structure the story I experimented with trying to make it fit the format of the cumulative nursery rhyme, “This is the House that Jack Built.”
This is the monastery, the tiny monastery
in the snow-covered Alps where the children
were not learning their prayers.
This is the monk, Brother Jim (now Brother Giovanni, of course),
who was a good baker, but not
a good teacher in the tiny monastery
in the snow-covered Alps
where the children
were not learning their prayers.
After writing one more stanza I could see that idea just wasn’t going to work. Bor-ing!
In yet another version, I gave Brother Giovanni a treasured pet — a parrot he called Paulo. At the time, it seemed very important to the story. Important, that is, until a trusted reader said, “What’s with the parrot?”
It wasn’t until several revisions later I happened to write
Slap it flat.
Knead the dough
Just like that.
And that was the spark, the bounce, the fun that the story needed.
That joy-filled process of making dough was also just the spark Brother Giovanni himself needed to solve the problem in front of him.
One day, exhausted and frustrated, he mixes way too much dough for the monastery’s bread. Not knowing how on earth he can make the children want to learn, he bends his head in prayer. Looking down at his crossed arms, a perfectly wonderful idea comes to him. He rolls the dough, twists it into the shape of little praying arms, showers them with salt, pops them into his oven, and when they come out, smelling so heavenly, he tells the children if they work hard and learn their prayers, they will each have one of those delicious little rewards (pretiolas).
Needless to say, the children learn their prayers, the bishop is very pleased, and at the celebration that follows, the featured food is Brother Giovanni’s pretiolas.
After all those revisions, the story came into focus, and with the magic of Amanda Hall’s glorious illustrations Brother Giovanni came alive!