Henry is a little boy who loves books. He doesn’t read them, however; he eats them. He eats all kinds of books, but red ones are his favourite. The more books he eats, the cleverer he becomes. He wants to become the cleverest person in the world, so he eats three or four books at a time. Eventually, of course, Henry starts to feel ill. What’s more, he has been eating books so quickly that the things he has been learning get mixed up.
All sorts of experts tell Henry that he must give up eating books. At first he feels sad, but then he picks up a half-eaten book and starts to read it. He enjoys it so much that he realises he could become the cleverest person in the world by reading book after book. So this is what he does, but every so often he can’t resist nibbling the corner of a page.
Oliver Jeffers has created a totally original story in The Incredible Book Eating Boy. It is highly imaginative and full of humour that both adults and children will appreciate. The illustration on the title page of Henry with a pile of seven books cramming his wide-open jaw gives a taste of what is to come. Further on, Henry juggles with books and catches one in his mouth. He imagines taking part in a quiz show and being adorned with a huge gold medal for being the smartest person on Earth. It’s the stuff of dreams.
The text of The Incredible Book Eating Boy looks as though it has come from an old typewriter, and occasionally hand-written words are inserted. While this sounds a little strange, it does in fact suit the eccentric style of the book. The text is superimposed on the illustrations, and sometimes the background is a little dark. Most pages have only a small amount of text, so young children who do not have a huge attention span will not get bored. The adult readers and slightly older children, however, will get quite a bit of amusement from the little extras that Jeffers has included. When Henry is eating so many books that information in his brain is getting confused, for example, Jeffers gives the example 2 + 6 = elephant.
Oliver Jeffers’ illustrations for The Incredible Book Eating Boy are unusual to say the least. Backgrounds are predominantly beige or brown and look as though they have been painted on pages of old notebooks. Sometimes ruled lines and squares are visible. Most of the characters are illustrated in a much more colourful way than the backgrounds, so the overall effect is not too dismal. Apart from the colour, however, the drawings are quirky and amusing. Jeffers shows Henry with letters getting mixed up inside his brain, and then presents a picture of him with a bulging tummy crammed full of books. In two of the illustrations, enormous books with faces, arms and legs confront Henry; one of them chases him and threatens to eat him. The final mention that Henry still nibbles pages from time to time is brought home by the fact that the bottom corner of the last page actually has a piece missing from it.
While The Incredible Book Eating Boy may not be the ideal choice for young children who are obsessed with princesses or fairies, its originality and humour will appeal to many listeners and readers. As a read-aloud picture book, three and a half might be a suitable starting age. For independent reading, children up to at least eight years of age are likely to enjoy the story as it is not a childish one. Jeffers has come up with a book that young readers are sure to remember and want to read to their own children when they grow up. It is definitely worth borrowing a copy from the library, but the chances are most families will want a copy of their own to keep.
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