So I grabbed this book off my shelf in my office this morning to do this week’s Picturebook Friday post. And then I remembered that I had actually written a paper on this book in my History of Publishing class in grad school. Lo and behold….I still have it! Well, it wasn’t really that long ago. So I thought I might as well just put it on here – if you aren’t up for reading the whole thing, I totally understand. To be honest, I started to edit the first paragraph before pasting it and then sort of got bored. I don’t remember what I got for a grade, though I’m sure it was an A (wink). I had the fabulous Anita Silvey as a professor and it was one of the best classes I’ve even taken, besides my writing courses.
Also, I emailed Oliver Jeffers to ask him some questions about the design of this book, and when I got a reply, you might have thought I just got an email from a boy I had a crush on (author crushes are very similar.) Check out his website it you get a chance. He is an amazing artist.
And so, without further ado…….
The Incredible Design of
The Incredible Book Eating Boy
Carol Goldenberg writes in her article The Design and Typography of Children’s Books, “Ironically, book design and typography are at their most successful when not immediately apparent to the reader. It can even be said that book design is a kind of ‘invisible art’”. The Incredible Book Eating Boy was written, illustrated and (as I found out directly from the author himself) designed by Oliver Jeffers. I’ve always loved this book, and I am a huge fan of all of Oliver Jeffers’ work. After taking a closer look, I was amazed at all of the unique design elements. The story follows a young boy named Henry who discovers a unique love of books – eating them – and what happens to him as a result. I read this to a 4th grade class for community reading day one year and they LOVED it. Though, while sitting on the floor, they probably couldn’t appreciate even half of the amazing design that makes this book so “incredible.” Yup. I went there.
The front and back of the book jacket have a unique color scheme; one that is very different from many recently published children’s book. The background is brown, and the display type uses a mixture of mostly whites, creams, reds, and oranges. These are also the same colors that make up the main character of Henry, who is pictured eating a stack of books in the bottom left corner of the front jacket. There are very faint cream swirls surrounding Henry, drawing subtle attention to him. While the brown would normally appear dull, the red and orange really pop when used in the display type, which is a mixture of different hand-drawn letters that look three dimensional. The jacket cover serves as a poster for the book and gives a description of what the book is about, with the unique display type doing most of the work. It has the feel of a carnival sideshow with a childlike simplicity created by Jeffers’ simple drawings and handwritten type.
The back jacket uses the same brown – which has a similar textured look as that of a paper grocery bag. The barcode appears fairly standard. The one spot illustration depicts a large book talking to Henry. The only text is located at the bottom right corner (mirroring the figure of Henry on the front) is a humorous disclaimer to “not eat this book at home,” and we assume from the positioning and mood of the spot illustration, that the large talking book is explaining the disclaimer to Henry. The back jacket actually serves as a connection between the front jacket and the story inside. It is a disclaimer to the title – i.e. this is a story about a book eating boy, but we warn you beforehand not to try this at home – and it also sums up the moral of the story, which is that books can give you enjoyment and make you smarter by reading them, not eating them. The talking book on the back of the jacket could also be explaining this moral to Henry and therefore serves as both the beginning and the ending of the story, making a full circle. The spine of the jacket also serves as a connecting piece and mirrors the display text, but with a gloss that makes the letters stand out. The same gloss is used on the front illustration of Henry, increasing the poster-quality of the jacket.
The actual cover of the book is very different than the book jacket. The binding appears to be a three-piece paper binding, and has held up well after being a heavily circulated library book. The vertical trim size is 9 x 11 ½ and it is also the standard thirty-two pages. The cover is a cream color, again with hand-written display text and a different illustration of Henry eating books. The effect is quieter than that of the book jacket and matches the mood of the overall story better. The text on the spine mirrors the text on the cover, interspersed with the cover illustration. The back cover has the same feel as the front cover. It also has the disclaimer from the back jacket, but in a slightly different hand-written text. What this back cover and back jacket flap do have in common though is perhaps one of the most unique design elements and also the most noticeable: the left bottom corner of the book jacket and cover are missing and it has been made to look as though someone has bitten it off. This element is also extended into the back endpaper of the book, and goes along with the end of the story, where the reader can see that Henry may not be completely cured of his book eating habits.
The front and back endpapers are both the same, minus the bitten-off corner of the back endpaper of course. They are a bright orange color, which is still in keeping with the color scheme, but gives the beginning and ending of the book a lighter feeling, as opposed to the darker, more mysterious book jacket. The jacket flaps are a cream color, a bit darker than that used for the book cover. The front jacket flap depicts a picture of Henry and few words about the book. The orange in Henry ties in with the orange endpapers. The back jacket flap shows a picture of Oliver Jeffers as a small boy, wearing a vest of brown, red, orange and cream which of course matches with the endpapers and the entire color scheme of the book.
As for the paper used in the book, it appears to be a good quality paper. It is not too thin and holds up well to page turns. The paper is matte, not glossy, which fits well with the color scheme and also adds to the retro/old book feeling. The quality of the paper also allows the texture of the paint and pastel, which Jeffers used to create the illustrations, to be clearly visible (though still in that wonderfully “invisible” way.) What is perhaps the most interesting design element of the book – yes, even more so than the cute bite mark – is the paper that Jeffers used to create the illustrations. As it is described on the copyright page, “The art for this book was created with paint, pastel and Letraset (ink) on pages from old books that libraries were getting rid of, the artist found, or people were throwing out.” Each illustration is done on an old piece of plain, lined or graph paper – many with type, handwriting, and scribbles still on them. The colors vary, but are generally of a duller, muted color scheme of browns, greens and creams. Some illustrations are done on two open pages of a discarded book, or in some cases, on the actual covers of old books. This gives the book a very unique collage-look.
Some of the pages are full bleed, while others show a white margin or a larger amount of white which allows for a shadow to appear under the thicker pieces of paper or books that Jeffers painted on. The gutter does not interfere with any of the illustration, and there is even a gutter crossover on one spread that makes the illustrations really stand out. The collage effect also gives the book at realistic quality, while Jeffers’ simple and childlike illustrations and diagrams ground the book, so to speak, in fiction/fantasy. Not only are these “found” papers used for the main illustrations, but they are also used for the title page, the copyright page, and even the book cover itself. While some illustrations seem to be randomly matched with the paper they are painted on, others appear to be deliberate.
Good examples of this deliberateness include Jeffers’ choice to use graph paper when using mathematical equations or the topic of math in general. Jeffers also uses a page from the dictionary containing the word “intelligence” while the text states, “The more he ate, the smarter he got.” On another page, the text sits on the lined paper used for the illustrations, yet on others, background lines are ignored. One of the most dynamic uses of Jeffers’ unique design technique is a double-spread where Henry imagines himself on an old-fashioned stage eating books in front of an audience. This illustration is painted over the back, spine and front cover of what appears to be an old discarded edition of an Encyclopedia Britannica. Though the color of the book cover does not show through, the raised lettering, the blind ornate stamping on the spine and the spine binding itself show through the cream colored paint and enhances the spare illustrations and muted, darker colors of the stage. This spread in particular is the most stunning use of the “found” paper/book technique as well as Jeffers’ color scheme and use of different fonts and handwritten text.
The text or type of the book is also one of those “invisible” design techniques that brings the entire book together. The display type, as mentioned earlier, is hand-written and designed and is used in a good amount of the book. Jeffers’ own handwriting is used for speech when characters in the story are interacting with each other and also for diagrams, charts and other asides that are not part of the main story text. Any type of sign, book title or other more formal text in the illustrations appear to be hand written more in the ornate style of the display text, though sometimes a typed font may appear to juxtapose the handwritten design. As for the actual text that tells the story, it is a kind of typewriter font that really works well in the book.
I was unable to find out what the actual name of the font is, but there are several reasons why this font works: 1. The font is bold and not too small – at least a 14 point or larger – making it legible; 2. It is not too ornate, again making it legible for younger viewers; 3. It works perfectly with the whole concept of the retro book. The older style typewriter font fits with the old discarded book pages. The size of the font is also used well to reflect important parts in the story, such as growing in size as Henry becomes smarter and smarter and smarter. The same font is used for the copyright page, sometimes a bit crooked in keeping with the old book theme. The typewriter text is also used as part of the illustrations, such as letters spilling out of Henry’s mouth, being churned up in a blender, or part of a jumbled mess in Henry’s mind. The handwriting that is placed throughout the book tends to be smaller and somewhat less legible, which could potentially be a problem. However, I would argue that this forced me to look at the book more closely and uncover more of the design elements that make this book so wonderful.
Overall, each element of design works to create a beautiful book that flows seamlessly and what appears to be effortlessly. The spare illustrations make the book a fun adventure for both children and adults. The unusual color scheme of browns, oranges and creams actually make the book stand out in a world of bright colors and glossy pages. And of course, the bite out of the back of the book puts that special little touch to the end of the story. The Incredible Book Eating Boy is an understated and beautifully designed picturebook.