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Scenes that unfold right before your very eyes

Pop-up books, with their better quality and anything-goes subjects, aren't just for kids. It's old-school interactive.

December 29, 2006|John Woestendiek | Baltimore Sun

Were you to have popped into Bruce Foster's workshop three years ago, you might have found the artist working on Charlie Brown -- cutting, folding, taping and gluing pieces of paper to depict, in three dimensions, Chuck's ill-fated attempt to kick the football Lucy holds in place, and the inevitable airborne outcome:

"AAUGH!"

Were you to have wandered in last year, you might have found Foster applying the same techniques he used for the Peanuts "pop-up" book to show British actor Hugh Grant receiving a certain service from a Hollywood lady of the evening in the front seat of his BMW.

Pop-up books have grown up -- fast.

And, partly as a result of that, they're as popular as ever. However sluggish the flat-page publishing world might be, movable books, invented nearly 800 years ago and still assembled primarily by human hands, are thriving.

That pesky little Internet? The one that, a la Lucy, has left some parts of the publishing industry feeling as if their football has been jerked away? No problem. Pop-up books -- "interactive" before the word became a catchphrase -- survived that nicely by increasing their quality, expanding their readership base and, most of all, being able to do a little magical something the Internet (where the term "pop-up" has an entirely different meaning) can't.

In the past 10 years, pop-up books have made the most of their three dimensions, reaching new heights of sophistication -- in terms of both the engineering behind them and the topics they cover.

After decades of focusing primarily on children's themes and being viewed by most as a children's format, pop-up books have entered an era in which anything goes, even -- AAUGH! -- sex.

Or as a young couple gasped in unison recently as they opened "The Pop-up Book of Sex" in the humor aisle of a Baltimore bookstore, only to have two naked bodies rise up off the page and into their faces: "Oh, my God!"

Foster, one of about only a dozen full-time paper engineers in the U.S., passed on the chance to work on that book, but he did tackle his first pop-up book for a mature audience last year. "The Pop-up Book of Celebrity Meltdowns" was released this year by Melcher Media.

The book re-creates -- in that in-your-face way only pop-ups can -- such embarrassing moments as Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl, Paris Hilton's sex video and Michael Jackson dangling his baby boy off the fourth-floor balcony of a Berlin hotel.

"A pop-up book can be a children's book, but it is certainly not required to be," said Foster, who lives in Houston and was the paper engineer for "Little Red Riding Hood," published in 2001, and "Peanuts: A Pop-up Celebration," published in 2004. "I would hope that people would realize that pop-ups are not the exclusive province of children's books but can be enjoyed by all ages, if sometimes separately."

In the case of "Celebrity Meltdowns," he said, "the work we did has brought more laughter to people than any children's book I've been involved in."

And it has had no negative repercussions on his career. Foster has been signed for several children's book projects since, including one being released next year in conjunction with a Disney movie.

Trend for adult themes

It was a good year for pop-up books, says Ann Montanaro -- and, having written the book on pop-up books, she ought to know.

Montanaro said pop-ups are seeing some huge print runs this season, including 500,000 copies of "Mommy?" the first pop-up by influential children's author Maurice Sendak, and 275,000 copies of Robert Sabuda's "The 12 Days of Christmas," first published 10 years ago.

On top of that, this fall, HarperCollins announced that Sabuda, considered the reigning king of pop-ups, would produce a pop-up version of the "Chronicles of Narnia" series.

About 300 new titles come out in pop-up form every year, Montanaro said. "I thought it had peaked at the end of the 1990s," she said, "but I'm pleased to see it has kept growing."

Children's titles still sell far more copies, ranging from about $10 for the Snappy series available at Wal-Mart to upward of $40 for some of Sabuda's books.

Montanaro, director of information technology for Rutgers University libraries, is founder and director of the Movable Book Society, which was formed in 1992. It puts out a quarterly newsletter and holds an international conference every other year. Montanaro started collecting pop-up books 20 years ago and is the author of "Pop-up and Movable Books: A Bibliography."

This year saw a continuation of the trend of pop-ups delving into more adult themes, she said.

"The pop-up is a format that can be used for anything -- and they've been kind of stretching the boundaries," she said.

Montanaro, contrary to the stereotype of prim librarian, has no problem with that -- not even with "The Pop-up Book of Sex," which most bookstores wisely keep behind the counter, she said.

"The characters are nicely articulated, and they move nicely," she said. "Actually, it's pretty awesome."

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