Thursday, October 15, 2009

Robert Sabuda Background

"When someone opens a pop-up book and goes 'Wow!' they are really affected by the magic of a pop-up and amazed that they have the power in their hands to make it happen because they themselves are turning the pages." -- Robert Sabuda,

Once upon a time ... children's pop-up books were simple. They had a moveable flap here, a small, single pop-up there. Then came Robert Sabuda. Sabuda is a pioneer in the small-but-growing field of pop-up books, or as it is now called thanks to Sabuda's intricate work, paper engineering. His books are an example of the beautiful harmony that can emerge from the blend of text and art. Sabuda interprets the works of his favorite children's stories -- Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, the Chronicles of Narnia, Peter Pan -- and turns them into three-dimensional works of art that, literally, bring the stories to life before the reader's eyes.

Sabuda was born in Pinckney, Michigan, and according to an article on the National Center for Children's Illustrated Literature (NCCIL) website, first learned the art of three-dimensional construction from his father, who was a mason and a carpenter. But, his first interest in pop-ups came when he went to the dentist as a child and saw the pop-up book “The Adventures of Super Pickle” in the waiting room. He was so enthralled with the interactive nature of the book, that he then began to make his own. Sabuda’s attraction to pop-ups came from the idea of combining his favorite stories with his artistic talent and his engineering mind. On his website, Sabuda says “Even as a young boy I enjoyed making little books that I could fill with stories and pictures” (1).

According to an article written by Paul Maniaci on website, Sabuda's interest in pop-ups led to his going to Pratt Institute of Art and Architecture in New York and getting an internship at Dial Books where he began doing 2-D illustrations for children’s books: “I walked in and I knew this is what I wanted to do, there wasn’t even any question … The fact that you could use pictures to tell stories” (Maniaci 2). But, 2-D wasn’t quite exciting enough: “I was still working in two-dimensions, but I was working in paper a lot. I was doing paper collage and paper mosaics in my picture books. I thought this is great working with all these different techniques with paper, why not try something 3D?” (Maniaci 2). That led to his first job where he illustrated a book of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. That lead to more and more jobs and more freedom: "As I became more well known I was able to go on a limb with some techniques. I was still working in two dimensions, but I was working in paper a lot. I was doing paper collage and paper mosaics in my picture books. I thought ... why not try something 3D?" (Maniaci 2). This led to his first pop-up book, Christmas Alphabet, published in 1994. Eventually his work and his name became so well-known in the publishing industry, he was able to start his own studio in New York and concentrate solely on pop-up books.

But creating pop-up books is not all fun and games. It's a difficult challenge, in particular for Sabuda who does such intricate pop-up work. On Sabuda’s website, he says the most difficult challenge in creating a pop-up book is not making it pop-up, but making it fold back down: “making it pop shut is the real challenge” (4). On the website, Sabuda says it takes six to eight months to create one pop-up book, largely because a lot of the 3-D work and engineering has to be done by hand. He talks about the attention to detail required to create a pop-up that not only pops up, but also folds back in in an easy way that keeps the child from focusing on the mechanics and instead keeps them focused on the story: “For the most part, the reader is oblivious to the ‘technical’ aspects of a mechanical book … and that’s the way it should be. They shouldn’t be focusing on the ‘how’ of the book, they should be enjoying the book for the sake of the experience” (4).

And then there’s the production side – which is done by hand in factories in Thailand or China: “Everything is printed overseas. It's die cut so all the pieces come out and then everything is folded and glued by hand into the book” (Maniaci 4). That requires a large staff of workers at the plant. On his website, Sabuda says that "A typical hand assembly plant may have between 500-1500 workers assembling pop-up books" and that "about 10,000 to 15,000 books can be made per week" (3). This also means, however, that Sabuda's books cost more than the average pop-up book: "The manufacturing cost of a pop-up book is about 1/4 the selling price. So if a pop-up book sells to the public for $20, it should cost about $5 to make" (3). In the Maniaci interview, Sabuda says he tries to make the expense worth it to the parents: "If they have a book that is interactive or exciting in a nontraditional way, that will be acceptable to a parent who is going to buy an expensive book for a child" (2). One final concern that consumers have about Sabuda's books is that the intricate pop-ups are too delicate for children. Sabuda goes on to say in the interview that "We try and use strong paper ... We try not to design them delicately if we can" (5). But, Sabuda stresses on his own website that the delicacy can also be a way for kids and parents to connect: "Sometimes pop-ups can be delicate, but that's what makes them so wonderful. The more delicate it is, the more fantastic it usually is. If a parent is concerned about their young children handling a pop-up book, it's the perfect opportunity for them to sit down and SHARE the book with the child" (2). In this way, too, the parents can help the child see the connections between the pop-ups and the text in the story.

Finally, there’s the artistic side. Sabuda does all his own illustrating for his books, though he works with his partner Matthew Reinhart on the mechanics and engineering. (Reinhart himself is an accomplished paper engineer and recently completed a pop-up version of the Star Wars series in which pop-ups of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader actually use light sabers that light up.) Sabuda says he only does artistic representations of favorite texts: “I usually only work on stories or subject matter that interests me” (1). The passion in his projects is readily apparent from looking at the finished products. New York Times writer Leonard S. Marcus says in his review of Sabuda’s Night Before Christmas that “it’s hard not to want to believe in the aliveness of everything” (2). That is where Sabuda’s blending of artistry and text works so well. It literally brings beloved stories and characters to life, making the story more interactive and wonder-inducing.

Sabuda also designs certain pop-up books in all white, to divert the attention from the colors to the designs: "I usually work in white when I want the pop-ups to be viewed as just shapes. I don't think they really need to have color to convey my creative vision. This works especially well with books that take place in the winter" (1). The result is a more subtle, but also more classic and artistic look which calls particular attention to the intricacies of the designs and the cuts. In his article “’America the Beautiful’ and ‘Liberty’s Journey’: From Sea to Shining Sea,” New York Times writer Ted Chapin talks about the impact of Sabuda’s use of white in his book “America the Beautiful.” In the book, Sabuda uses American landmarks to represent the words of the famous patriotic song, using for example Mount Rushmore to represent the line “purple mountain” or Mesa Verde National Park to depict the “fruited plain.” Chapin applauds Sabuda’s representations and calls the paper sculptures “a series of astonishing images, most of them entirely in stark white.”

Sabuda has expanded his pop-up business to include more than just books. He now also does greeting cards and Christmas-tree ornaments. But, his focus is still on pop-up books. In his interview with Maniaci on website, Sabuda says they put out approximately four books per year now on average.

1. Fantastic video on youtube where Sabuda and his partner Matthrew Reinhart show how they made all their books:

2. Great site with photos of his studio:

3. New York Times articles:

4. National Center for Children's Illustrated Literature article:

5. Sabuda's own site:

6. Make your own pop-up:

Photo copyright: Gordon Trice

Works Cited:
Carvajal, Doreen. "Boing! Pop-Up Books Are Growing Up: Flaps, Foldouts and Complexities Attract Adult Eyes." New York Times. 27 November 2000. Web. 17 October 2009.

Chapin, Ted. "'America the Beautiful,' and 'Liberty's Journey': From Sea to Shining Sea." New York Times. 14 November 2004. Web. 17 October 2009.

Heller, Stephen. "Children's Books: Ready for Her Close-Up." New York Times. 16 November 2003. Web. 17 October 2009.

Kurkjian, Catherine; Livingston, Nancy; Henkes, Kevin; Sabuda, Robert and Yee, Lisa. "Evocative Books: Books That Inspire Personal Response and Engagement." Reading Teacher. February 2005. 480-488.

Maniaci, Paul. "Robert Sabuda." The Career Cookbook. 27 August 2006. Web. 17 October 2009.

Marcus, Leonard S. "Children's Books." New York Times. 8 December 2002. Web. 17 October 2009.

The National Center for Children's Illustrated Literature. Web. 17 October 2009.

Sabuda, Robert. ed. Home page. Web. 17 October 2009.