Book bentos: my first attempt

Book bento resources I used plus what I’ll do differently next time

To conclude first quarter, my independent reading class usually produces some kind of summative project for a book they read during the previous eight weeks. This fall, instead of the usual book report, I came across the “book bento” idea in a private Facebook group. It basically takes the look of a bento, a common Japanese to-go meal, and applies it to a book. Instead of an arrangement of individual food portions, it’s an arrangement comprised of a book surrounded by tangible objects that connect to the book.

Find this Instagram account, @bookbento for lots of examples from Read It Forward of Penguin Random House. Here are three:

Unfamiliar with bentos?

A bento is “single-portion boxed meal that is usually composed of staple carbs (rice or noodles), meat or fish, and an assortment of pickled or cooked vegetables,” writes Samantha Cubbison of Japan Bentos boxes, the partitioned box that holds the food portions, come in all shapes, sizes, and materials and are known for the way they attractively present and transport food. Read here for more about bento box history and its evolution through the years.

Remember in The Breakfast Club, when Molly Ringwald’s character had that fancy sushi lunch? She was eating from a bento box.

Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club eats out of a bento box.
Molly Ringwald eats her lunch from a type of bento box in The Breakfast Club.

Here’s a typical bento meal. Notice how the box holds the foods in precise, geometric arrangements.

Bentos display food beautifully

Three reasons I tried book bentos

Since I had been wanting a new creative project to try, I decided to give book bentos a “go” for three reasons. Here they are:

  1. The project would require minimal prep.
  2. Students could complete it on their own outside of class.
  3. It would give them a break from the traditional typed essay.

As I prepared for the project, some online sleuthing led me to an article by Joyce Valenza, assistant professor of teaching at Rutgers University.

A Japanese bento meal

Her post on the School Library Journal’s “Never Ending Search” blog contains several links, such as one to this awesome Hyper Doc created by Lisa Highfill and Rachel Kloos.

I added the Hyper Doc to my Google Drive and showed it to my students. I did make a few clarifications as I explained the assignment, but it was sufficient to use “as is” for my first book bento attempt.

Valenza’s post also offers a list of seven tips that inspired the instructions for my assignment, which I eventually uploaded to Google Classroom for my kids.

The instructions for my assignment:

  1. Make a book bento for one of the books you read during first quarter.
  2. Arrange and take a balanced, well-composed square photo of your book surrounded by 6-8 objects that connect to ideas and/or details from the book.
  3. Your background should also connect or at least “make sense” for your book. Be sure to explain how it connects.
  4. Write a review of your book on You’ll need to create an account.
  5. Open the Novels Class Book Bentos Google Slides Presentation (see photo below) that will eventually contain all of our book bentos and accompanying writing.
  6. Add your book bento photo and two to three slides after it. On one or two of these slides (depending on how much space you need), you’ll explain your connections to your objects and background with two to three sentences each. On one of the slides, you’ll include your book review.

Update on 3/27/2022: I’ve added two inexpensive book bento products to my TpT store. They are Book Bento Instructions (four Google Slides with easy directions and a mentor) and a Book Bento rubric.

I tried to make it interactive, but…

Most book bento projects, including the one outlined by Valenza, suggest adding interactivity to the assignment. This can be done with a website such as Thinglink, Piktochart, and others mentioned in Valenza’s post. And this was in my original plan because I love the dynamic that Thinglink added to my own Anne Frank book bento shown at the top of this post. Unfortunately, however, some of my students had trouble creating their free Thinglink accounts. In addition, because I had used all my views on my own free version, I was unable to access theirs.

In this video, I show my book bento in Thinglink so you can see how the interactivity is SUPPOSED to work.

Google Slides to the rescue

So instead, I decided to create and share a Google Slides Presentation for the entire class to edit. Basically, students would create a slide for their photo in the presentation, and then add two to three slides on which they would describe their connections and their book review. Here’s the title screen of my presentation:

The title slide for a Google Slides presentation about book bentos
Here’s the title screen for the Google Slides presentation. I shared it on Google Classroom to my students and asked them to drop in their book bentos and their written connections.

What I’ll do differently next time

  1. Increase rigor by requiring students to cite textual evidence to support their connections. I’ll require this next time for at least some of the items. Because I decided to do book bentos late in the quarter, I felt students would have been hard-pressed to return to their books to search for precise lines to support the use of their items. Of course, if they read on a digital version of their book, this wouldn’t be an issue since they could easily search for keywords.
  2. Rule out Photoshop! I never saw this one coming. I actually had students finding images online (see the first bento below), duplicating them, and then dropping them into their composition filled with other items they found online. Yes, maybe it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but just once, I would LOVE for kids to look away from their screens and do an assignment with their hands. Next time I’ll specify that they must find actual tangible objects.
  3. Put more emphasis on mimicking the bento box’s design and placement. Objects should be arranged geometrically with balance and neatness. Items shouldn’t be angled or scattered into the arrangement.
  4. Figure out the interactivity portion of the assignment. Whether I use or another similar app, this should make the project more fun and complete.
  5. Ban flash photography. The glare! The glare!
  6. Keep photos square. Challenge students to arrange their objects into a square shape so their photos can be easily uploaded to Instagram and other apps without cropping.
  7. Give students a heads up. Tell students about the project at the start of the quarter so they have opportunity to think about connections as they read and also have more time to locate objects.
  8. Schedule a photo-taking day. I might consider scheduling a couple of class periods for photographing the book bentos. I set two due dates for the project: one for the photo and one for the connections and book review, which concluded the assignment. Several students were late with their photo. In their haste to get it turned in, a few resorted to Photoshopping photos they found online or just throwing together a few props at the last minute. If we dedicated class time to take the photos, higher quality compositions might be the result.

Some final book bentos created by my students appear below.


A book bento for A Small White Scar by K. A. Nuzom
I love the color and variety of the objects in this bento! However, this bento contains objects that have been “Photoshopped” into the arrangement. Next time, I’ll specify that students are to find and use tangible objects for their book.
A book bento for Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
It helps to have a book with a prominent and colorful cover. This bento features a copy of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, but you wouldn’t know it by the plain cover.
A book bento for The Outsider by Stephen King
The Outsider by Stephen King
A book bento for The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I printed a color copy of the classic cover of The Great Gatsby for the student to tape to her plain black and white edition.

Overall, I’m pleased with the book bento project. It’s a fun way to make visual connections with literature to document what we learn and think about as we reflect on a book and its characters, theme, setting, and other elements.

If you’re looking to put a twist on your next “book report” assignment, think about trying book bentos! And if you have a book bento tip for me or other readers, feel free to chime in!

And now for the follow-up!

Read my most recent post on these awesome projects: Book Bentos: Five Tips to Make Them Even Better. I’ve learned a few things from doing book bentos twice now with my independent reading class and wrote this post to keep you updated.

Thanks for reading!

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Published by Marilyn Yung

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12 thoughts on “Book bentos: my first attempt

    1. Wow! I love this! Thank you so much for chiming in and for sharing this with us! I’d love to hear how your Ss’ bentos turn out! Good job on this. This took time and thought and it’s an excellent alternative to ThingLink.

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