Book bento boxes: Creative reading response

Dr Jennie Bales, a lecturer in the School of Information Studies at Charles Sturt University, and Louise Saint-John, an English teacher and teacher librarian, collaborate in this article that features an engaging strategy for creative responses to texts.

Book bento boxes (BBBs) are a recent reader response strategy that offers students an alternative visual and creative approach to reflecting on a text. Through the lens of reader response theory this article demonstrates how BBBs provide an outlet for critical and creative thinking, visual arts and the application of technology for responding to texts and presenting ideas. While this strategy explicitly supports the English curriculum, it can also be harnessed to express understanding in other subject areas. Practical applications will be explored through examples created for Year 10 English and Stage 2 history tasks.

When the BBB strategy was introduced to a cohort of post graduate students enrolled in Literature Across the Curriculum (a Master of Education subject for Teacher Librarianship) at Charles Sturt University, it was received with enthusiasm. Students quickly saw the potential of this relatively new reader response strategy that offers students an alternative visual and creative approach to reflect on a text. Initially adopted by adult readers, the strategy has found leverage in secondary English classrooms. However, as this article will demonstrate, BBBs provide a creative and enjoyable opportunity for students of all ages to make connections between their reading and related content. The underlying principles can be adapted, making this a flexible and engaging option for a range of ages and capabilities.

Conceptual origins

The Japanese are renowned for simple lines, artistic design and expressive layout in many fields. This is demonstrated in the art of ikebana and in food presentation through the bento box which turns a simple single take-away meal into a visual delight. The notion of a book bento box is based on the premise of taking a single idea (bento), in this case a book, and presenting its themes in ‘bite sized’ portions within a confined unit (a box) in a purposeful and artistic way. Kelsey Kloss (2016) credits the Instagrammer @BookBento with this idea of compiling and presenting small objects to capture the themes and inspiration within a book, where ‘every object is meticulously arranged and organized in the snapshots’.

As can be seen in these Instagram images, this is a highly visual, innovative and interactive technique that invites book lovers to design, create, hyperlink and share responses to books in an artfully arranged interactive collage. This article includes digital samples from Year 10 English students responding to a short story of their choice. A physical, rather than digital, rendering of the BBB format is another possibility that will be explored later in the article.

Responding to literature

Researchers and professionals in the field of children's literature (Yopp and Yopp, 2014; Miller, 2010; Miller and Kelly, 2013 and Krashen, 2011, 2018) identify some key approaches to establish a strong reading culture within the library and across the school. Book bento boxes are ideal for helping students to identify and connect with themes, topics and compelling issues as they read. Book bento boxes can also cater for individual and small group literary experiences and offer an enjoyable and engaging extension of the reading experience that differs from the more traditional book report. The final product can be an individual or shared compilation and ideally there will be opportunities for students to discuss and explore their responses to the text during the design, development and presentation processes. Reader response theory, as explained in the following video (1:57), is steeped in the notion of shared experiences and these can readily be embedded into the reading and response cycle.

YouTube video: ‘Reader Response Theory’

An important aspect of the BBB is the sharing of a creator’s thoughts that reflect their personal interpretations of a text. Typically, as the strategy has been inspired by technology, a BBB will often be in a digital format, harnessing interactive components to provide annotations during the publishing process. It is the combination of the box components supported by annotations that result in a product that explicitly addresses English K-10 Syllabus. An aspect of the syllabus requires students to reflect on their learning and empowers them to become confident communicators, as well as critical and imaginative thinkers. These elements are demonstrated in the following paired images of a Year 10 student’s response to the short story ‘Raymond’s Run’ by Toni Cade Bambara. The image on the left presents a collection of articles titled ‘Visual Representation of Raymond's Run’ and the image on the right illustrates one of the hyperlinked annotations.

Multimodal photographs containing various hyperlinked items on a tiled floor. Items include the book, first place ribbons and a trophy, white roses, an ornamental heart, a floral skirt, a broken pencil, a small wooden horse and a running shoe. Superimposed text gives an explanation about a selected item.
Image: Visual representation of the novel ‘Raymond’s Run’ on the left. On the right is an example of a hyperlinked annotation. Both created by Emma, using Thinglink.

Multimodal expression - the technology connection

The book bento box provides a medium to enhance visual literacy through the creation of multimodal text in a digital or physical format (Ljungdahl and March, 2014, p. 261). It can be used as a response to or analysis of a focus text, thereby developing the imaginative and critical thinking of both the reader and responder. In most examples, Thinglink has been the tool of choice, but other programs such as Glogster, Piktochart, Padlet, Wakelet support digital storytelling and are easy to use and incorporate into the school’s learning management system or online platform. The apps are free to use in an educational setting (though some have limited functionality without a paid subscription). Book bento boxes created on an app and uploaded to Instagram limits the content to still images. However, the tools listed above allow for the inclusion of interactive components such as video, hyperlinks, maps, music and created documents such as Google Docs. The General Capabilities within the Australian Curriculum that address a number of 21st century skills including communication, interaction, collaboration, ICT competence and the development of visual literacy can be enhanced through the interpretation and creation of visual images, and BBBs support the application of many of these skills.

Icons feature skills of problem solving, reasoning, analysis, thinking, literacy, ICT, collaboration, teamwork, leadership, numeracy, communication, research skills, questioning, creativity, imagination, innovation, humanitarianism, fellowship, and planning, organising, perseverance, initiative
Image: ‘21st century skills’ Louise Saint-John (2020)

Young people today require the ability to read and create multimodal texts. Burke and Hemmett (2009, p 1) highlight the importance of incorporating opportunities for multimodal expression as part of assessment requirements. Such projects are often collaborative and incorporate a suite of 21st century skills in their creation. After reading or sharing a text, students’ use of the BBB model encourages them to plan and organise the content to be displayed. They are required to consider the purpose and reason for each component, along with the layout, research, compilation and placement of written annotations to communicate their ideas.

Opportunities for creative and critical thinking

This creative approach encourages students to make the link between stories and related content whereby both imaginative and innovative thinking are activated. Purposeful thinking and intentional creation extend students’ visual literacy, allowing them to devise or develop concepts in a meaningful way. Book bento boxes enable students to display understanding and knowledge creatively and artistically whilst challenging a viewer to interpret, analyse or infer the concepts being promoted. This aligns with Ross Johnston’s key defining qualities of visual literacy being ‘the ability to analyse the power of the image and the how of its meaning in its particular context’ (Winch, et al. 2010. p. 620).

As a means of expression, the BBB provides a flexible option for students and allows for unlimited imagination and creativity. Age and understanding will be reflected in the complexity of the work, including age appropriate online links. Book bento boxes can also encourage students for whom English is not their first language to display understanding, knowledge and analytical skills moving beyond the constraints of solely written English. Book bento boxes can be presented simply or can be used to encourage higher order thinking. Students can make new links, formulate concepts and creatively apply new ideas to specific texts.

A water splattered window is superimposed with items including a circle, a closed cupboard, a copy of the book cover, a row of other books and two newspapers
Image: ‘All Summer in a Day’ by Ray Bradbury, Thinglink

As seen in the above example, opening an image within Thinglink allows a reader to navigate the various buttons embedded in components and to explore the creator’s reasoning, interpretations and the connections made in relation to the focus text.

Supporting English and the visual arts

English and visual arts are subjects that naturally lend themselves to the BBB. Students can use their visual literacy skills to present their ideas about how their topic is relevant to the real world and make connections with other texts and ideas. For example on the Instagram page @BookBento the BBB is used to great effect for Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’. Chosen objects surrounding the book cover are evocative of time and place in the novel.

Students could also make use this format to demonstrate themes and connections they have made and indicate how a text participates in a conversation within their own society and the framework of broader world view. A case in point is the consideration of gender stereotypes. For instance, the role of women is a quintessential theme that is as relevant today as it was in earlier times. Students could demonstrate their research and understanding by making comparisons between women in classic literature and women in the modern literary canon.

Digital apps work equally well in the purview of visual art. Creation of an artwork such as that on L Frank Baum’s ‘The Wonderful World of Oz’ displays skillful design in which each visual item is conceived and rendered with care. This medium also allows for more expressive illustration whereby painting, drawing or sculpture can be interwoven and linked to digital annotations. A work based on Doris Lessing’s book ‘Flight’ demonstrates how both English and visual art objectives can be incorporated into the creation of a piece of work created in Thinglink.

Against a background outdoor field is a pen and paint sketch of a bearded man holding a pigeon. There is also a pigeon in flight and shadows of other pigeons. The images contain symbols linking to annotations on the text
Image: Visual representation of ‘Flight’ by Doris Lessing

Wider possibilities

The book bento box strategy can readily be applied to learning areas other than English. For instance there are picture books that support many curriculum areas and are an ideal medium to encourage student reflection and to spur further investigation. A BBB example created by Jeannie Bales (2018) displays a book bento box expressing her thoughts on ‘Mallee Boys’ by Charlie Archbold (2017). In this example, Bales explores the use of different buttons to help create a sense of journey as well as sequencing the annotations on the narrative.

Although the use of technology can enhance the communication options and expand the sharing of ideas, the book bento box model is easily adaptable to a material format. A physical collection of items photographed and then printed, along with hand drawn illustrations and oral explanations provide an alternative approach. The pinup board below shows examples of physical BBBs from Stage 2 students undertaking a humanities and social sciences unit supported by story books.

A pinup board with examples of physical BBBs from Stage 2 students using story books for a Humanities and Social Sciences unit
Image: A school library display of mixed media book bento boxes created by Stage 2 students in response to a text of their choice

The following examples present products from the Stage 2 library research unit. Using paper as the ‘box’ students have identified items and events inspired by a book and have drawn these on the paper.

A book cover supported by drawn pictures including a girl and  kangaroo, a fish in a pond, a map of Australia and an Aboriginal flag.
Image: Book bento box of ‘Tiddalick: The frog who caused a flood’ by Robert Roennfeldt
Physical Book bento box presentations for Jandamarra by Mark Greenwood and Terry Denton and My Two Blankets by Irena Kobald and Freya Blackwood. Each illustration contains a copy of the book cover and hand drawn related items.
Image: Book bento box illustrations on specific cultural themes

The examples provided here indicate a range of strategies that students can employ by taking the underlying principles of the book bento box and adapting them to suit individual learning styles, interpretations and preferences. Book bento boxes encourage creativity, and as such, will inspire students to adapt the format to suit their own purposes.

A Year 10 teacher and supporting teacher librarian indicated that Book bento boxes were well received by students and a popular choice. With clear learning expectations and guidelines, Thinglink provided the necessary tools for students to address all aspects of the task including image selection, placement, and the thoughtful annotations embedded within. The teacher librarian, Helen Styan, was excited by the possibilities of this reflection strategy and intends to include BBBs in future units of work. In addition, a number of tertiary students working towards their teacher librarianship qualifications expressed interest in the idea, seeing great potential for providing an original and engaging learning opportunity for students to reflect on reading experiences.

References and further reading

Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. (2019). Critical and creative thinking. The Australian curriculum.

Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. (2019). General capabilities.

Bales, J. Book bento boxes. JB on not Just Books. (2018, September 24). [Blog]

Burke, A. & Hammett, R. (Eds.) (2009). Assessing new literacies: Perspectives from the classroom. Peter Lang, New York.

Highfill, L. Replying to @MrsReberger. (2018, April 10). Here is my #BookBento HyperDoc [Tweet].

Kloss, K. Book bento is every bookworm's dream come true. (2016, May 2). [Elle Decor–blog].

Krashen, S.D. (2011). Free voluntary reading. Libraries Unlimited, USA.

Ljungdahl, L. & March, P. (2014). The role of writing. In G. Winch, R. Ross Johnston, P. March, L. Ljungdahl & M. Holliday (Eds.), Literacy: Reading, writing and children’s literature (5th ed., pp 260-268). Oxford University Press.

Miller, D. (2009). The book whisperer: Awakening the inner reader in every child. Jossey-Bass, USA.

Miller, D. & Kelley, S. (2013). Reading in the wild: The book whisperer’s keys to cultivating lifelong reading habits. Jossey-Bass, USA.

MsLamm1 (2016, September 2). Reader response theory [Video]. YouTube.

NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales. (2012). English K-10 syllabus.

NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales. Learning across the curriculum.

NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) for and on behalf of the Crown in right of the State of New South Wales. (2003). Visual Arts 7–10 syllabus.

Ross Johnston, R. (2014). Visual literacy: Reading the world of signs. In G. Winch, R. Ross Johnston, P. March, L. Ljungdahl & M. Holliday (Eds.) Literacy: Reading, writing and children’s literature (5th ed, pp 618-636). Oxford University Press, Victoria.

Valenza, J. Building beautiful book bentos. (2019, May 4). [Never ending search–blog].

Winch, G., Johnston, R., March, P., Ljungdahl, L., & Holliday, M. (2010). Literacy: Reading, writing and children’s literature (4th ed.) Oxford University Press, Victoria.

Yopp, R.H. & Yopp, H.K. (2014). Literature-based activities (6th ed.) Pearson Higher Education, USA.

How to cite this article – Bales, J. & Saint-John, L. (2020). ‘Book bento boxes: Creative reading response’, Scan, 39(3).

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