Meet Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart, the two artists who have single-handedly (well, with four hands) revived the pop-up book for a new millennium. Chances are your child owns one of their awe-inspiring creations, be it The Wonderful Wizard of Oz with its spinning paper cyclone, or Encyclopedia Prehistorica: Dinosaurs with its jaw-gnashing T-Rex. Maybe you’ve received one as a gift yourself, from a friend who appreciates your inner child.
Robert and Matthew show off their latest creations. Video by Paul Barman.
Robert Sabuda kicked off the pop-up renaissance in 1996 with Christmas Alphabet, a series of elegantly constructed pop-up images that scaled the New York Times bestseller list, despite its then-staggering price tag of $19.99. Matthew Reinhart began working alongside him and creating his own work when the two became a couple, twelve years ago. Now, working from their Tribeca studio with four assistants, Robert and Matthew start from scratch with each new book, crafting elaborate, intricately colored structures that leap from the pages, then sending the books off to be hand-assembled overseas. Babble sat down with Robert and Matthew for an exclusive interview about the art of the pop-up. – Gwynne Watkins
That’s a big stack of paper.
Matthew: This is the paper that we actually use for a lot of the artwork that we do. You know when you see the art from a book like Faeries, it is cut paper collage. It’s actually an art style that Robert used first and that I adopted very early on.
That’s kind of what Eric Carle does too, right?
Robert: Yes, he’s definitely our inspiration.
Another signature style I associate with you two is those little inset mini-books in the side panels. Did you invent those?
Matthew: We did! Robert started that.
Robert: It started in 2000 with The Wizard of Oz, because the novel was so long and I didn’t want to just retell it and condense it. I wanted to use the original language, and I thought, “How am I going to come up with getting enough text in this book without making it look like a heavy novel?” So those side flaps were an easy solution for that. One also has to remember that we’re looking at these pop-up books with our hands. I have a godson who’s about eighteen months old and he likes our pop-up books, but his hands are so small that he can’t really pick this book up –
Matthew: It’s as big as him.
Robert: – but he can open the little teeny flaps that are there.
Matthew: For example, Star Wars: A Pop-Up Guide to the Galaxy came out in 2007 for the 30th anniversary of the original film. And this was a dream project because I’m obviously a big Star Wars fan and apparently, (reading from the bio) I’m an “afficianado.”
RS: Yeah, he is really an encyclopedia. So he’s trying to cover a lot of ground in a book like this, and those side-flaps will allow him to put in additional pop-ups –
Matthew: See, I can get Jabba in there, and the IG-88.
How long does it take to put this together? It’s so many books in one.
Matthew: This took about a year.
Robert: Because we have to design the pop-ups by hand. People say “Oh, use the computer.” We do use the computer for some stuff, but all that original 3-D work, we do that stuff by hand.
Matthew: And I was very particular on this project.
Robert: We’ve been lucky to work on projects that are close to our hearts because, I guess, our publishers know that that’s how we make the best books. If someone comes to us and says, “You should do a pop-up book on motorcycles,” we have to say, “Well, you know, we don’t really:”
Matthew: We try to keep it to things we’re interested in. Now, I just finished a nursery rhymes book. You’d think after all of those giant robots, monsters, and creatures, and all of that that I wouldn’t be in too something like that, but it was so fun. That was a wonderful stretch, just like doing the Cinderella book years ago – which is very far from my usual thing, but it was such a wonderful way to push myself to think a different way. I really can’t wait to go back to doing another princess-style story because –
Robert: He’s a big princess.
Matthew: No! But it was fun to not be in the same realm of thought and to have a lighter perspective. That’s what Nursery Rhymes was like. It was like going back to being a toddler and hearing those nursery rhymes, hearing “Hickory, Dickory, Dock” or another one and remembering seeing those in books for the first time.
What’s the hardest single pop-up that you’ve done?
Matthew: Most recently, we were figuring out something for Nursery Rhymes that has flickering stars – that was a pain in the butt! In the past we’ve had some difficult mechanisms, like the ATAT from Star Wars.
Robert: Another thing that make it difficult is that we’ll design something and it will work beautifully here. We’ll test three or four times, whatever, and then it will go to production and come back from China , and then there’s some little problem that you never even realized.
Matthew: Like, we over-extend the angles because now, most people go like this – (opens the book a crack) -“Oh this is a nice book.”
Robert: And that’s as wide as they’ll open it.
Matthew: So now what we do with our engineering is, we always push it a little bit further because we know that people will not open the book all of the way.
Your books are really popular gift items. Do you think there’s a reason why pop-up books are suddenly everywhere?
Matthew: As well as the Kindle thing has done, I think people still want to hold paper. It’s kind of irritating, I have to say, I’ve gotten stories that you can only read on the computer, and there is something about holding the book and being able to turn the pages that’s . . .
Robert: Visceral. You know, when I read with Ryan, my godson, he wants to hold the book. He wants to sit in my lap. He wants to turn the pages. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with electronics in life. They have a place.
Matthew: Yeah. We love them.
Robert: But that’s why pop-ups I think have survived and are really being embraced because it’s magic without electricity. You know what I mean? When you turn the page of one of our books, you think, “Oh my god. How is that even possible?” and it’s between two boards that make a book and that’s a rare thing in our lives today to feel, very rare.
Do you two ever make each other things?
Matthew: I don’t have any time to make you anything.
Robert: I laugh, but he’s right. It’s consuming being here all day.
Matthew: Because we’re doing a lot of problem solving, thinking, if this doesn’t work, how am I going to fix it to get it to work this way? It’s not nearly as artsy as everyone likes to think.
Right, there is some serious engineering that goes into these books.
Robert: Architectural models have three dimensions. We’re really dealing with four dimensions because our stuff moves. So if you’re making orgami, you fold, fold, fold, and it’s a dragon or a tree or whatever, and you’re done. We have to deal with the extra element of its moving in an arc through space.
Do you have a favorite thing that you’ve gotten from your kid fans?
Matthew: Do you know what my favorite thing is, I think? I visited a school in New Jersey last year and they sang the pop-the-weasel song for me. But it went, “Do do do duh do doot do do. Pop, Matthew Reinhart!” And it was choreographed.
Robert: This teacher and her class made an actual pop-up book for us. When we get something like this, or they sing us a song, I feel like kids there are getting an appreciation for art, or just artists in general. We’re a little bit of a dying breed, artists, especially because of the computer. But these kids made this and they all got to see it and maybe one day, one of these kids will say, “I think I’m going to be an artist.” I mean, look at all the big hair this kid put in there! It’s great. Look at it. She put a barrette in!