Scenes that unfold right before your very eyes

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."

Montanaro said the popularity of pop-ups is due more to grown-up engineering than grown-up topics.

She and others give much of the credit for the pop-up boom to Sabuda, the son of a small-town Michigan bricklayer and a secretary, who began making pop-ups as a child out of the manila personnel folders of fired employees that his mother would bring home from her job at Ford Motor Co.

His three-dimensional translations of such classics as "Alice in Wonderland" and "The Night Before Christmas," as well as intricate volumes on dinosaurs, sea creatures and butterflies, have brought the craft to new levels -- and a long way from its origins more than 700 years ago.

They started with monks

Movable books date to the 13th century, with the invention of the volvelle, or rotating disc. Matthew Paris, a Benedictine monk, is credited with inventing it in 1250, so that circular charts, such as those the monks used to determine when to observe religious holidays, could be read without having to rotate a bulky volume.

Volvelles and lift-up flaps continued to be used in books, but almost always for scholarly purposes. Not until the 18th century were they used to entertain children.

In the second half of the 19th century, Dean & Sons, a London publishing firm, produced more than 50 children's titles with scenes that rose from the page by pulling on a ribbon. In America, the first movable books were produced in the 1880s and known as the Little Showman's series. World War I halted the production of movable books, but Blue Ribbon Publishing of New York brought them back in the 1930s, and its three-dimensional fairy tales were the first to which the term "pop-up" was applied.

Pop-up books aren't just for fairy tales anymore. Today, if you look hard enough, you can find pop-up books on everything from the alphabet to Alfred Hitchcock, from Bible stories to bondage, from Kwanzaa to Kama Sutra, from Smurfs to Stonehenge.

One of this year's more popular releases was "Graceland: An Interactive Pop-up Tour." Readers can tour the various rooms of Elvis Presley's Memphis, Tenn., mansion, pausing, if so inclined, to open his refrigerator, thumb through his albums or change the channels on his TV.

"Graceland," which re-creates eight rooms in the mansion, was the first pop-up published by Philadelphia-based Quirk Books, whose president is a big fan of the tourist attraction.

Melcher Media, meanwhile, released both "The Pop-up Book of Sex" and "The Pop-up Book of Celebrity Meltdowns" this year. Those followed "The Pop-up Book of Phobias," in 1999, and the "The Pop-up Book of Nightmares," in 2001, both written by comedian Gary Greenberg. Melcher Media is a book-packaging company with a reputation for the innovative and gimmicky.

"Books must play to their strengths, and one of their strengths is their tactile physical nature," company president Charles Melcher said. "People don't snuggle up in bed with a laptop or proudly display their new computer terminal on their coffee table.

"The appeal of pop-up books is the sense of wonder and surprise that comes from seeing paper come to life before your eyes," he added. "In the digital age, when so much of our info comes to us through a screen, a great pop-up book rekindles that sense of wonder in even the most jaded adult."

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