Moveable Feasts at Christmas Time
As bookstore owners observe, pop-up books are flying off the shelves. Deservedly so. We are in the midst of a Golden Age of Pop-Up Books which, in terms of complexity and beauty, go way beyond what was customary before.
One of the geniuses of this Golden Age is Robert Sabuda, and his The 12 Days of Christmas provides a good introduction to the amazing leap forward in pop-up design. On its last page (see above), you encounter a huge, three-dimensional Christmas tree, folding up from the page, surrounded by gifts and decorated with actual twinkling (battery-powered) lights. Just as gifts accumulate in the traditional song (from “a partridge in a pear tree” to “twelve lords a leaping”), awe accumulates as you recognize what a self-styled “paper engineer” like Sabuda can do with glue and cuts and folds. The 12 Days of Christmas is a wonderful holiday gift to share with children.
On the other hand, Maurice Sendak’s pop-up book Mommy? may or may not be a Christmas book; its boy character sports a red Santa hat but much of this monster story seems tied to Halloween, a mixture of the two events that recalls Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” In the text, Sendak (in partnership with Arthur Yorinks) introduces a young boy who resembles Max from Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are but also the Wolfman from old horror films. In some underground laboratory, this boy — as in P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother — wonders who or what his parents are. Daddy, it would seem, is Frankenstein’s monster; and from another horror film and in something of a pun, Mommy is apparently the Mummy.
Creating this pop-up, Sendak teamed with another major name in “paper engineering,” Matthew Reinhart. His six designed pages are impressive (gothic as well as silly) and structured by a duality: the main pop-up on each of Reinhart’s pages shows the monsters’ efforts to frighten Sendak’s buoyant boy, while each fold-out envelope on the right shows him helping or taming the ghouls. Perhaps the most impressive feature is an amazing “spinner” in the middle where the Mummy’s wrappings are unwound as the page is opened.
The height of genius in pop-up design remains, however, the two books where Sabuda and Reinhart joined forces. Their Encyclopedia Prehistorica: Dinosaurs and Encyclopedia Prehistorica: Sharks and Other Sea Monsters have won numerous prizes and been on bestseller lists–and deservedly so (if you were to buy only two of these new creations, these would be the ones to get). I confess it is difficult to explain in words what they look like and the awe they inspire. Describing them to others, I have said: Imagine opening a page and popping up is a full-sized and life-sized lobster, sitting on the page as if on your plate, alive, with its tail still curled like a scorpion’s. It can take your breath away. It can also startle you, which is why the medium seems so apropos to the horror story and why they so frequently feature a Jaws-like moment where a scary creature’s gaping mouth rises from the page .
Since these can be expensive purchases, we should weigh the pro’s and con’s of pop-ups. Teachers have complained that kids are distracted by the mechanisms of the book and often ignore the text; indeed, some pop-ups (like David A. Carter’s Blue 2 and Sabuda’s Winter’s Tale) largely lack a story and seem more an impressionistic tour de force of design where the medium is the message. Then, too, another shortcoming of these productions is their fragility. While covers sometimes advise “Recommended for ages 3 and up,” it is easy to imagine these objects would not survive everyday use but are meant to be brought out now and then on special occasions.
In their favor, pop-ups address the child’s wish to live inside a story. Speaking to that wish, there are theme parks dedicated to “Anne of Green Gables” (in Japan) and “Pippi Longstocking” (Sweden) where one can walk around inside a book’s world, just as in Disneyland you can actually shake hands with Snow White. Likewise, fleshing out fiction, children sometimes have toy theaters where they can bring stories to life in their own room; and in that regard, it will not be surprising to learn that this season Tim Burton will re-release his film “The Nightmare Before Christmas” in a 3-D version, so that it will seem as if the story is unfolding right amongst us in movie theaters. Adding vividness in other ways, children’s books often contain multiple illustrations and sometimes accompanying recordings meant to be played. In other words, unlike the adult book, the children’s book is not a static object but a multimedia setting for the story: a busy and miniaturized universe all lit-up and humming with a life of its own.
Throughout his career, Hans Christian Andersen told stories in the company of children by means of elaborate scissor-cuttings and collages of pictures; for him, the story did not reside in words or fixed typography upon the page, but in the moment of telling or reading. On our part, we may object that the young are slow readers because they are so easily distracted and, for example, like to pause and ponder pictures. The truth is — as this new generation of pop-ups remind us — children “read” in a different way. Not especially eager to get to the end, they want to dally and dwell inside the book’s constructed world.
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