Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

TPIB: Extreme Gingerbread Challenge

Sugar + a festive spirit + teens = program success in my book.  This is the third year in a row I’ve hosted a “Gingerbread Challenge” and though each year plays out a little differently, every program has been a fun one.

How much fun?  THIS much fun!

This can be adapted to run any time of year – you could do haunted houses at Halloween, beach shacks in the summertime, or make it a green home design for Earth Day.  Our library is part of a community wide holiday event, so our program happens just before this event, then those teens who want to do so enter their confection in a contest.  We display the houses and let visitors vote on their favorite.  The winner gets a small gift card donated by a local ice cream shop.

The kids visiting the library LOVED seeing what the “big kids” did.  This is a great way to show your community how valuable, creative, and engaged the teens in your library are. 

Building and decorating gingerbread houses isn’t a new or revolutionary idea for a program, but here are some tricks I’ve learned along the way.
Forego gingerbread; buy graham crackers.
Buy name brand, and buy them soon before you use them.  This is not something to buy on sale months before your program because stale crackers mean crumbly crackers, and that’s no fun.  A regular sized box of Honey Maid graham crackers has three packages of 9 crackers each.  Family sized boxes have more packages, but I have had bad luck getting fresh unbroken crackers in family sized boxes.
To make a traditional house shape, you need six crackers: two cut for a gabled front and back, two for sides, and two for the roof.  So one box of Honey Maids is enough for four houses, plus a little left over, IF all of the crackers are unbroken.  Plan accordingly and plan for extra.

How to cut the graham cracker.  Use a serrated knife and a sawing motion; don’t press too hard or it will crack.

Check labels, do some advance work

Food allergies can be a big issue.  One package of gumdrops was made on machinery that also processes peanuts, another brand was not. With any food related program, I send an email to participants ahead of time.  In most cases, for middle schoolers, I find it’s actually their parents that receive the email.  In it, I describe the program and request that they contact me if they have any food allergies or other issues that I should be aware of.  When I set out the decorations, I used a different color of bowl for items that mentioned common allergens on the packaging.  I save all of the packaging in case a teen needs to check on an item.

The blue bowls on the foil means the package mentioned common allergens.

This looks like frosting, but it’s really glue
Aside from actual glue, the best thing to use for building the structure is royal icing.  And it’s not cheap.  I make the royal icing for my programs, using cartons of pasteurized egg whites and powdered sugar.  I preload Ziploc bags that teens can then snip a corner from and use as piping bags. Many libraries have a policy against providing homemade treats at programs, and for good reason.  Whenever I do this, I remind the teens this has raw egg in it – it doesn’t taste great – and it’s the GLUE for your house.  It’s not meant to eat.  Do some of them still eat it?  Yeah, but for real – it doesn’t taste that great.  Buy a can of frosting for each table to use for the decorating.  Bring food coloring and little paper cups for mixing additional colors.

The best way to get the frosting into the bags: scoop some up on a curved spatula, shove it into an open bag, then use your hand to squeeze the frosting off the spatula as you remove it from the bag.  Push the air out and seal the bag.  Store in the fridge till you’re ready to use it.

You can’t do it all
Ask everyone to bring a cookie sheet or tray to carry their creation home.  The first year I gave them Styrofoam plates and it was just not quite good enough.  Have some cardboard boxes on hand that you can cut apart and make trays out of if someone forgets.  Cover the trays with foil.

Consider your setup
The first year I did this, each participant got a plate with all of the pieces precut and ready to assemble.  Although there were additional graham crackers on the table if they wanted to build something other than the classic design, everyone’s house was identically shaped.  In subsequent years, I put all of the supplies on a main table, demo how the angled pieces work to support the roof, and let them have at it.  This results in a little more chaos and a lot more creativity.

Traditional style

Environmentally friendly house (wind turbines were my favorite part)

Zombies invade gingerbreadland

Plan cleanup time  
Give yourself at least half an hour after the end of the program to clean up, and don’t even think about running this program without paper or plastic covering the tables!  Even tidy teens will generate mess here.

Less is more
If your budget doesn’t allow for buying out the candy store (and whose does?) force your teens’ creativity by providing a limited number of decorations.  It’s fun whether you just have gum drops and coconut or if you’ve got a wide variety of options.

My favorite decorations
There are lots of great lists out there with decoration suggestions, but these are my favorites.  If I were going bare bones, the ones marked with an asterisk are the ones I would use.

*Skittles (cheaper than M&Ms)
Licorice – red and black/brown
Ice cream cones – make great trees
*Coconut for snow
Frosted mini-wheats
*Pretzel sticks

Other supplies you’ll need
Table covers
Ziploc bags (buy freezer quality bags)
canned frosting
pasturized egg whites and powdered sugar to make royal icing
serrated knife
cutting board
a pan or plate for graham cracker pieces
spoons or plastic knives for stirring colors
plates, bowls, or cups for gathering toppings
paper towels
water & cups – kids will eat the sweet stuff and get thirsty!

The total cost of supplies for this program, for sixteen people, was $132, though I could’ve been more economical with the toppings or asked participants to each bring something and done it for less.  Dollar stores are a great place to find a lot of the toppings.

Do you do this program?  Any ideas on streamlining it or making it more fun or different?



  1. We do an annual gingerbread program, but it is marketed more for families and younger kids, and most of the designs are pretty traditional. I love this ramped-up idea for the teens!

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