The wonderful world of pop-up books

The wonderful world of pop-up books – bibliography

Peter F. Neumeyer


What contrasts, what paradoxes! The South American country of Colombia is the source of 80 percent of the cocaine entering the United States. The murder rate for the little nation is two and a half times that of New York City. (1) At the same time, that beautiful land is where thousands of ingenious, amazing children’s pop-up books are glued and assembled–by hand. I’d give anything to see how they do it.

Originally developed for the delight of 19th-century collectors and children alike, “movable picture books” again began sweeping the Western countries in the 1970s. Some are nostalgic Victorian revivals; others, eminently modern books featuring bulldozers and helicopters. And one, The Phantom of the Opera, presents a panoramic pop-up of the current Broadway musical sensation of the same name. Open the last double spread, and a magical chip in the book’s innards lights up the stage.

The cleverness and vaiety of these books is inexhaustible. The simplest ones just pop up in three-dimensional display. In some of the most charming volumes, you lift a flap. For others, you turn a wheel, transforming the picture on the page–changing the season, for example, from summer to winter. Still others feature pull tabs designed to make strange and wonderful animals, ghosts, and other surprises leap out at you.

The paper engineering is awesome. The slips that the publishers insert for reviewers often state that these pop-up books are designed for “all ages.” No doubt about it, the stack I’ve been perusing has captured my geriatic fancy. How long these delicate paper machines and their fold-up, pop-out tabs can weather the eager hands of a three year old, only a parent can know.

Among the Victorian revivals, few are more engaging than the antique picture books by Ernest Nister. Sweetly sentimental (and blessedly inexpensive), small volumes like Favorite Animals, Special Days, Visiting Grandma, and Good Friends alternate pages of pop-up with pages of pull tab. Turn-of-the-century children engage in innocent pastoral and domestic pleasures–stitching dresses for dolly, riding hobbyhorses, gathering apples in season, and building castles in the sand. Each movable illustration faces a short Nister verse expressing simplicity and innocence. Every page is delicately brown hued, and the illustrated covers are attractively foxed or darkened at the edges. The whole gives the appearance of a treasure found–perhaps rescued from Grandma’s trunk. If Grandma has no trunk, a Nister book for her on Valentine’s Day may give her the joy of thinking she does.

Nister’s large-format Animals’ Picnic draws a bead on what makes children giggle. The crocodile eats 10 sandwiches at once. Piggy forgets his manners and licks his dish. The monkeys perform a quadrille. All is accompanied by uncomplicated, direct narrative and respect for the original vocabulary. (“Dumbing down,” the bane of modern children’s books, rates in noxiousness second-only to compulsive moralizing.) Picnic features skilled drawings in the great tradition of A. B. Fox (illustrator of the Uncle Remus tales, 1985). Sporting no fancy tabs or turning wheels, Nister’s busy pop-ups are rich with explorable detail–dancing rhinoceroses, courtly elephants, ring-around-a-rosying monkeys, and even crocodiles baying at the moon. For sheer directness and the spirit of innocent joy, few modern books rival this happy, comparatively sturdy treasure.

It is not a secret. . . . Many writers have touched on the fact that children have a streak of anarchy. And indeed, much children’s literature is “subversive,” undermining the decorum of cleanliness and sweetness, as well as the dullness of adult quotidian. It is to this wild, crazy streak that The Things in Mouldy Manor and The Ghosts of Creepy Castle are addressed. Worms, ghouls, blood, skulls, hairy monsters, suits of armor covering evil, glint-eyed creatures, witches, bats, and skeletons inhabit the world of Andy Everitt-Stewart. The paper engineering by Keith Moseley is as intricate (and sometimes fragile) as any you will find. Lift the flap, and a hairy beast grabs at you from behind a picture on the wall. Pull the tab, and a witch dunks a mouse in and out of the bubbling cauldron. Particularly delightful are the vapid mom-and-pop tourists viewing the castle; pull the tab, and one by one, they are snatched out of the picture by a hairy arm or a skeletal hand.

Discovering Our Past and Animals in Disguise are two of seven “Science in Action” books. These attractively instructive volumes feature pop-up panoramas (life in a Cro-Magnon cave, a butterfly disguised on a leaf), as well as lovely pull tabs (a moth raising wings to show color beneath, a puffer fish in the process of bloating), and ingenious turning wheels (a quiz on prehistoric life and early tools). The text is dry but informative. Although the 1974 discovery of 7,000 life-size figures in a Shensi province tomb in China is thrilling, the movables are where the fun is.

In the same pedagogical vein, the prehistoric animal series entitled “A Pop-Up Book” is ideal for the legion of youngsters enthralled by dinosaurs and their ilk. The cutout pop-ups are elegantly contrived, vibrantly colored, and–due to the skilled control of proportion and perspective in the background landscapes–remarkably convincing of the creatures’ actual sizes and, more importantly, of life as it was. Arsinoitherium, a two-horned, five-ton rhinoceros who roamed the swamps and grasslands 35 million years ago, invitingly bobs his great head up and down as we open Prehistoric Mammals, whereas Pterodactyl elegans literally flies out of the book on the first page of Pterosaurs: The Flying Reptiles. The modest price of all this activity is astonishing.

What’s in the Jungle?, a “Life-the-Flap Pop-Up Book” accessible to quite young children, is more elegant than many in both color and design. The lack of mechanical intricacy establishes a simple coherence and comprehensible development that tells me this is a book for Max, my three-year-old grandson. “What’s in the jungle? Let’s find out.” Lift the first big jungle-tree leaf. There’s a toucan! Lift the second. There are her babies! Turn the page and lift the flower petal. . . . But all this is merely a prelude to the final scene: “What else is in the jungle?” Turn the page, and there, roaring fiercely in the night, striped magnificently, and showing fearful fangs in thunderous roar. . . . A marvelous book.

The larger format and busier pages of Robert Crowther’s most Amazing Pop-Up Book of Machines feature 28 “working” pop-ups, turn wheels, and pull tabs. Not much story is told, but in the bustling, modern-world scenes portrayed, window cleaners go up and down a hotel wall, a hard hat climbs a crane as a pulley lowers bricks, a bulldozer unearths little creatures, police cars carom and trucks jiggle, dumpsters dump, helicopters veer up to avoid a cheeping bird, and on the last page, astronaut buzz Aldrin shoots for the moon. People say silly things in cartoony balloons, and it’s all great fun.

I know a family or two that reads Clement Clarke Moore’s classic poem, “The Night before Christmas,” always from the same rebus (picture-replacing-word) book, before setting out the stockings for Santa on Christmas Eve. For an annual December revival, Michael Foreman’s “lift-the-flap rebus book” by the same name is attractive and simple. “Now, Prancer and Vixen! On….” and there, beneath a little colored flap with shooting stars, is the word Comet! Let your child lift the flap, say the word, and you’ve started a Christmas tradition.

Penny Ives’s The Night before Christmas is a bit more sophisticated, complex, and consciously artful. For each page, you turn a ribboned tab, totally changing the full-page illustration. Santa traveling across the starry sky becomes a close-up Santa on the roof. Now here’s Santa in the foreground, stuffing his pipe, with the Christmas tree in the background. Turn the wheel, and zoom in on the tree aglow and presents underneath. In the background, Santa ducks into the fireplace.

Watty Piper’s 1941 classic, originally illustrated by Lois Lenski, has been turned into a toy package with paste-on stickers and three small pinch dolls, in Playland’s adaptation of The Little Engine That Could. Three removable dolls shinny up the side of the book. The illustrations are anything but delicate, and the cutout pop-ups are big, simple, and sturdy. The book is hardly an object for aesthetic appreciation, but in the unpredictable hands of children, it could become a favorite. Moreover, the railroad cars are so substantial that you can even put things in them.

Finally, a curious object from art publisher Harry N. Abrams. Red Grooms is an innovative, amusing artist-sculptor whose “sculpto-pictoramas” colorfully reconstruct subway trains, Wall Street, and scenes and icons of contemporary America. Published in cooperation with the Whitney Museum of Modern Art, Ruckus Rodeo is a stagelike, four-panel, foldout, pop-out rodeo featuring a big, golden Brahma who bucks (lamely) if you can attach his two halves. The broncho buster flying off his mount in the right panel has an unsettling resemblance to Richard Nixon–in keeping with Groom’s role as a socio-cultural commentator. Attached is a five-page commentary by the curator of American art at the Whitney, leading the reader to think that this book is serious business. Like any work of art, Ruckus Rodeo just may trigger the reveries of a child.

Pop-up books can play an odd and active role in the imagination. They may be associated with literature (Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit or Edward Gorey’s Dracula), with science, with drama, and with history. Like those enthralling, suspenseful Advent calendars in which you open one door each evening till Christmas, pop-ups engage both the child and the precious child in the adult. They let us take part. They let us marvel. They let us wonder.


(1) New York Review of Books (22 Dec 1988): 61.


(in order of appearance)

The Phantom of the Opera, by Franz Van der Meer (Harper & Row, 1988), $19.95.

Favorite Animals, Special Days, Visiting Grandma, and Good Friends, by Ernest Nister (Philomel Books, 1989), $4.95 each.

The Animals’ Picnic, by Ernest Nister (Philomel Books, 1988), $13.95.

The Things in Mouldy Manor and The Ghosts of Creepy Castle, apper engineering by Keith Moseley, illustrated by andy Everitt-Stewart (Grosset & Dunlap, 1988), $S7.95 each.

Discovering Out Past, by Peter Seymour, illustrated by Borje Svensson, paper engineering by John Strejan (Macmillan, 1986), $7.95.

Animals in Disguise, by Peter Seymour, illustrated by Jean Cassels Helmer, paper engineering by John Strejan and David A. Carter (Macmillan, 1985), $7.95.

Dinosaurs: Giants of the Earth, Pterosaurs: The Flying Reptiles, and Prehistoric Mammals: After the Dinosaurs, paper engineering by Keith Moseley, illustrated by Richard Courney (Grosset & Dunlap, 1988), $5.95 each.

What’s in the Jungle? by Peter Seymour, illustrated by David A. Carter (Henry Holt and Company, 1988), $9.95.

Most Amazing Pop-Up Book of Machines, by Robert Crowther (Viking Kestrel, 1988), $14.95.

The Night before Christmas, by Clement Clarke Moore, illustrated by Michael Foreman (Viking Kestrel, 1988), $10.95.

The Night before Christmas, by Clement Clarke Moore, illustrated by Penny Ives (Putnam, 1988), $14.95.

The Little Engine That Could, adapted from the original story by Watty Piper, illustrated by Cristina Ong, paper engineering by Linda Costello (Playland Books, 1988), $19.95.

Ruckus Rodeo, by Red Grooms (Harry N. Abrams, 1989), $17.95.

Peter F. Neumeyer (60) is a professor of English and comparative literature at San Diego State University in California. He is also a reviewer of children’s books, author of several titles, including five for children, and a Contributing Editor to Mothering. Peter and his wife Helen live in La Mesa, California. They are the grandparents of Max (3) and the parents of three grown children who still enjoy pop-ups.

COPYRIGHT 1991 Mothering Magazine

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group