my review of picture book The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers

The Incredible Book-Eating Boy

by Oliver Jeffers

Penguin Group (April 2007)

ISBN-10: 0399247491, ISBN-13: 978-0399247491
(In Canada: HarperCollins Canada

ISBN-10: 0007182279, ISBN-13: 978-0007182275

In the UK: HarperCollins Children’s Books

ISBN-10: 0007182279, ISBN-13: 978-0007182275)

My rating: 5/5

Henry loved books.

But not like you and I love books, no. Not quite…

…Henry loved to EAT books.

It all began quite by mistake one afternoon when he wasn’t paying attention.

He wasn’t sure at first, and tried eating a single word, just to test.

Next, he tried a whole sentence and then the whole page.

Yes, Henry definitely liked them. By Wednesday, he had eaten a WHOLE book.

The Incredible Book Eating Boyby Oliver Jeffers, p. 1-3.
Do you love books? I sure do. And so does Henry. But Henry loves books so much that he literally eats them. Just a single word, at first, then a page, then an entire book. He starts eating many books at once, and as he eats them, he becomes smarter, which he loves. But soon he’s eating too many, too fast, which makes him feel sick. All his knowledge starts to get jumbled up because he didn’t have time to digest it properly. So finally he opens up a book, and instead of eating it, he reads it–and discovers he loves reading. And that reading makes him smart, too. Just more slowly. The Incredible Book-Eating Boy is a wonderfully creative, fun, and humorous fantasy that encourages books and reading. It’s the perfect gift for a book lover of any age. It makes me feel happy, reading it.

Jeffers (Lost and Found, How to Catch a Star) has a fantastic sense of pacing, shown from the initial page where the text set up tells us that Henry’s love for books is different then our own, but forces the reader to turn the page to find out why (by breaking the sentence up with elipses, then revealing the surprise (that Henry eats books) on the next page).

The text continues forward at a strong clip, moving from the initial instant interest and surprise, to increasing good feeling and excitement as Henry gains more knowledge and intelligence, to the crisis point when Henry starts getting muddled up, and on to the feel-good resolution where Henry begins to read, loves it, and realizes that he can become smart through reading (which encourages readers to realize the same). Jeffers’ text has the perfect amount of tension and humor, and it flows nicely; there is never anything unnecessary.

Jeffers brings in dialogue that adds richness to the story but doesn’t interrupt the flow, through hand-written speech in the illustrations. The dialogue is brief and believable. The story can be read without it, though it adds to the enjoyment. There are also some hand-written explanations, such as how Henry got smarter by eating the books. These explanations read more like side notes, and while funny, did not fit into the flow of text for me.

There is a lovely humor throughout the text that should appeal to both young and old readers, starting with the incredibleness of Henry actually eating books, continuing as Henry becomes smarter than even his teacher, and then grows nauseous from too much book eating.

I love all the double-layered meanings and fantastical metaphors used throughout the book–of Henry eating a book, which is often used to mean reading a book voraciously (I gulped that book down); of Henry gaining knowledge and intelligence through eating (reading) all those books; of Henry eating books too quickly, not savoring them, so that the knowledge started to get all jumbled–which is exactly what happens when you try to learn or read too many different things all at once. The metaphors with their bookish overtones delighted the reader in me.

Jeffers brings a funny twist into the ending that echoes the beginning, where, even after Henry learns to love to read, he occasionally takes a bite out of a book. This is told through a combination of the text (which tapers off, leaving readers to figure it out) and then the huge actual bite out of the back book cover, which is visible from the last page. The text and illustrations build on and add to each other; they are so meshed that one would not work without the other.

Both the text and the illustrations are wonderfully creative and full of a love of books. Readers may want to read the story many times–the first for the story, to know what happens, and then again, more slowly, to absorb the wonder of the illustrations.

Jeffers’ paint, pencil, and letraset illustrations created on the pages of old books are a real delight to pore through. They are unique, layered, and visually pleasing, and are so strong and creative that they really make the book stand out.

Every illustration has a background that ties in books, reading, or writing through the paper, book page, or book cover used, adding to the book-love feel of the story. Various types of paper and book covers are incorporated, from lined paper, newspaper, graph paper, pages from books and dictionaries, to covers from old books. Most pages are yellowed or browning, including the front matter, which brings the sense of old books. The text from the book pages used in the backgrounds is either painted over (so illegible), in another language, or a fine dense print (like a dictionary), so it’s clearly not part of the main text, yet still adds to the visual appeal. Sharp-eyed readers will enjoy finding all the ways that Jeffers has included books into the illustrations, such as the large faded book cover that almost fades into the background in the theater scene.

Jeffers’ love of words and books also shows up through his quirky illustration of the words and knowledge inside Henry’s head and whole books sitting inside Henry’s belly; through the mixed up words and letters that sit inside his head and come out after he eats too many books; through the way letters splash crazily out of a book that he puts into a blender; and through the books shoved into Henry’s mouth.

Jeffers’ uses a lot of white to highlight Henry’s face in every illustration, as well as the pages of books Henry eats, other objects, and some of the background, which creates a visual echo throughout the book. Characters are drawn in a quirky style, mixing both a flatness and a roundness together, and incorporating spindly arms and legs, creating a kid appeal and almost child-like drawings. Henry’s mouth is greatly exaggerated whenever he eats a book, which appeals to me. Henry always wears an orange or yellow shirt, which, along with the generous use of white in his face as highlights, makes him the visual focus of each illustration and makes him easily recognizable.

There is great humor in the illustrations, such as when we see Henry sitting at the table with his father and sister, a bowl of salad in the middle of the table, regular food on the two plates, and a book with a bite out of it on Henry’s plate, the book-bite speared on his fork. Or when Henry draws a mathematical equation involving a rocket on the chalkboard while his teacher sits slumped in her chair, staring. Or, sure to bring giggles to most children, the series of small drawings that show Henry feeling ill, then nauseous, then vomiting into a toilet from eating too many books too quickly.

The illustrations vary from one per page, to one per spread, to three illustrations per page in even horizontal divisions, as well as other sizes and shapes. This variation keeps the visual pace fresh, as does the changing color of backgrounds.

The design of the book itself is beautifully thought out and creative, with a bite (with teeth marks) cut right out of the back cover (both in the hardcover and paperback editions). There’s even humor on the back cover: “Disclaimer: Please do NOT try to eat this book at home” that both adds to the fun, and adds a real warning for any child who thinks they want to be like Henry once was.

The Incredible Book-Eating Boy promotes a love of books and reading in a fun, enjoyable, and humorous way. If you love books, know someone who loves books, or just want a fantastic picture book, run and get this book! You won’t regret it. I never tire of reading it, and have already bought myself another copy.

Highly recommended!

review by Cheryl Rainfield

Want more recommended books?
Go to Love of Words:
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2 Responses to “my review of picture book The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers”

  1. Julie Prince Says:

    I really enjoyed this review, and I’m glad you shared it. Thanks!

  2. Cheryl Says:

    Thank you, Julie; that is so lovely to hear! (beaming) I really appreciate your taking the time to say that.

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