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Transcript from an interview with Robert Sabuda

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Robert Sabuda. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Robert Sabuda

A trip to the dentist

We were sitting in the waiting room and she could tell how nervous and scared I was. She said, "Oh, I see a big basket of books over there in the corner, why don't you go get some of those books and bring it over and we'll read them together to make you feel a little bit better before you see the new dentist." I went over to where the basket was and I pulled out a book. It was a hard covered book so I knew it was kind of expensive, because when I was young hard cover books were the expensive books.

I opened the page and something stood up in the center of it. I had never seen that before. I mean, literally something was standing up on the inside in between the pages. I was just fascinated. The creative, little young artist in me just went crazy when I saw it. I turned the page and there were things where you would pull something and something would move on the inside. I was fascinated by that.

I don't remember the rest of the dentist visit, I don't remember anything else about that, but I remember that basket having nothing but pop-up books on inside of it. As soon as I went home after the dentist or following that, I started to experiment with making pop-ups at a very young age, just because I was a curious, creative person. I would peak in beside the pages and see how things worked.

When Christmas would come around I would ask for pop-up books as gifts because they just, not only did I think books were magic, just the pictures and the words, but seeing something like that open was utterly unbelievable to me.

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Old-school art supplies

Well, growing up in rural Michigan in the last 70's, things were so much simpler. There were no big superstores of art supplies for example. Crayola made crayons. That's all they made. You had the 64 box which was awesome, or 128, with the little sharpener in it and you could sharpen the crayons. That's all Crayola made. But now they make a million different kinds of things.

All different kinds of stuff. When I was a boy, when I was a young artist, that didn't exist. If I wanted to make something like a pop-up, there was no Staples to go into the store and get card stock to make a pop-up. I had to find that material on my own. My mother was a secretary at Ford Motor Company and she worked in the personnel department there. She worked there for many years.

Being originally from Michigan, everyone's connected to the automobile industry there. She was a secretary at Ford Motor Company in personnel. When somebody got fired she would dump out their manila filing folders and then bring them home to me and I could cut them up and make them into pop-ups. It was great because it was just the right consistency, the right weight for making pop-ups, and they were blank so I could color them, make any kind of picture, make any kind of story that I wanted to on them at all.

It was really very much a make-do kind of creative time for kids in the 70's.

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Guacamole and chips, please

At that time when I started there was nobody. There wasn't even a book to teach me how to do it.

Today there are books for adults and for kids about how to make pop-ups, but at that time there was nothing. I guess being from the Midwest it's sort of this really can-do kind of attitude. If you can't find someone to show you how to do it or find a book, you have to figure it out yourself. It was really just a matter of sort of figuring out myself.

It's funny that you mention a mentor or a group of people because I think that oftentimes people who are not involved in children's books envision this big support group that we all have, or we all talk to each other and get together and hang out and drink and eat guacamole and chips and everything. To my knowledge that doesn't really happen. Or maybe it does happen, I'm just not invited, like I'm the odd man out or something.

But we really don't do that. It's, surprisingly in some ways, very much a solitary kind of a field. Maybe that makes it more like an art field than anything else because we're still working in our own little world and our own little environments. Not to say that I don't have support, but a creative world is usually a very solitary, sometimes a little bit lonely kind of field.

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Rose-colored glasses

When you're young, oh when you're young. When you're young really, you wear rose-colored glasses. I still do that to this day. I distinctly remember when I was putting together my first pop-up book it was an alphabet book. It was Christmas Alphabet, so there were 26 pop-ups inside. I remember thinking, oh how hard is this really going to be, right? Not having ever done this before, why I picked 26 pop-ups I have no idea.

I distinctly remember getting the few easy ones done and then quickly kind of getting caught, you know, sort of bogging down. Not so much lacking the creative idea of what I wanted to do, but the physical knowledge, the engineering knowledge of what I wanted to make happen. So that was very, very difficult at that beginning time. I remember so distinctly trying to make the snowflake in that book and thinking why won't this do what I want it to do.

Then quickly, okay, you have to come up with something so you have to figure out how to make it do what you want to do. I also remember thinking at the time, this is the best that I can do right now. Looking back today at that book, of course I can make something much more elaborate if I wanted to. But at that time when I was, oh gosh, in my 20's, I remember thinking, this is the best I can do with this right now because I just don't have the knowledge or the ability to take this any further than where it's at now.

So it was a struggle. It was a struggle not only on that level, it was a struggle for a certain level of acceptance for what I was trying to do. The publisher was great. It was with Orchard Books and Neil Porter was my editor there. He completely supported the project. He kept telling me, this is going to be a great book and everybody's excited about it, and the sales reps are all fired up.

But unbeknownst to me, behind closed doors, the sales reps thought it was going to be a massive flop. All the pop-ups were white. What was that about? No pop-up book had ever had white pop-ups on the inside of it before. I think it was almost $20 and no children's book had ever been $20 before. They were not anticipating any success with that title in the least. Fortunately they were proved wrong because I think sometimes we underestimate the reading community.

We underestimate the book community. We underestimate the types of things that they will take into their homes. Some of them may not necessarily love a pop-up book, but if it's a book that they think is beautiful or interesting or they want to share it, and it happens to be a pop-up book, they'll get it. That's exactly what happened with Christmas Alphabet. So there were a lot of challenges involved in it. But looking back on it, I wouldn't have done anything different.

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Paper engineer?

For some reason this fancy term paper engineer came about, it came from the 70's. There was a company here in the United States, Intervisual Books, that was really sort of creating the second golden age of pop-up books. The first golden age was in the late 1800's. The second golden age started in the early 70's. They coined the term paper engineer. I think that was just almost for lack of any other way to describe what it was. I mean, the mechanical part — the mechanics of creating a pop-up. Those people as individuals were called paper engineers.

Although I did once have a very embarrassing encounter. I was at a conference or a convention. It was a very long day. I had signings and everything. That night I went down to the bar which was very, very crowded, just to relax and have a drink. The guy standing next to me, we struck up a conversation, and he says to me, "Well what do you do for a living?" I said, "Oh, I'm a paper engineer." And he's like, "You're kidding me, I'm a paper engineer." I said, "No way." He said, "Yeah." He said, "What's your name?" I said, "My name's Robert Sabuda." He said, "Really." I said, "What's your name." He told me his name and I said, "I'm so sorry that I don't know you." I said, "You know, the paper engineering community is so small I feel like I know everybody who's in the paper engineering world."

I said, "So what books have you worked on." He said, "What books have I worked on? What are you talking about." I said, "Well, you said you're a paper engineer." He said, "Yeah. I engineer paper. I take fiber and water, I'm a scientist. I actually engineer the actual paper. I'm here for a paper conference. What do you do?" And I said, "I make pop-up books." I scurried away becuase I felt so stupid because here was this guy who was really a paper engineer and I was just using this term that someone had made up in the 70's to describe myself.

Sometimes I use paper engineer, but I prefer not to use that. Usually when people ask I just say I'm a bookmaker because I do so much now. I mean, I write, illustrate, and do the engineering, I'm just involved in so many aspects that sometimes bookmaker just seems more realistic than "paper engineer", this fancy job that I have. The guy makes pop-up books!

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Paper is king

I think that one of the challenges of creating a three-dimensional books in the way that I do is the level of limitations. That has been one of the biggest challenges. By that I mean, when an artist is creating a picture book in two-dimensions, a flat two dimensional book, the sky is the limit. You can do anything you want. You can draw anything you want, you can paint anything you want. Anything. Small, big, anything you want to do.

But working with a pop-up book, a three-dimensional book, one has to obey the laws of physics. The paper will not always do what you would like it to do in your mind. That is a real challenge. You can make a staircase, sure, but can you make the staircase move? What is the paper willing to let you do. There's also an element of time when I'm working with pop-ups because the page opens in a certain time span.

Certain things on the inside can also move at different speeds. Technically I guess I work in four dimensions because there's an element of time. The paper is very tricky that way. Sometimes if I want the paper to move faster so it doesn't strike something, it won't do that. If I turn the book upside down when I'm working to try to get it to do that, it may not work that way. There are many limitations of just getting the paper to work within a three-dimensional space.

I think that's one of the most frustrating things for some of the designers at my studio — because I have some designers who work with me there — for them to really come to terms with that. That the paper is the king in the studio, and all it's quirks and nuances have to be obeyed with the utmost respect.

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Made in China

Actually, all pop-up books are manufactured by hand. Somebody physically folds and glues every single piece into every single pop-up book that ever existed ever. I collect antique books, antique pop-up books. Some of them have pull tabs on them and, instead of a little plastic rivet, like we use today, little teeny wire coils so that you can pull it and something will move.

I had one from like 1840. So I look at that and I think, somebody hand assembled that in 1840, put those pieces in, and hand colored the pages that are on the book, which fascinates me. That tradition continues today &3151; all pop-up books are made by hand overseas. They're not done in the United States. They're made mostly in South America and in Asia. I'll go over to China or to Thailand, or someone from my studio will go to oversee that production.

We design and create the pop-ups, and we make flat drawings of all the pieces. Every pop-up book has all these pieces that are made, little pieces to it. We make them on the computer. They're called die lines because they'll be used to make a die, which is like a cookie cutter that will stamp out all the pieces for the book.

We send the die lines to the manufacturer overseas. They build this big die mold, this big block of wood with all these cookie cutters in it. Then the printed pages press on until all the pieces are cut out. All those pieces are counted. Somebody counts 500,000 pieces for dinosaurs. They count them. They go into the hand assembly room. That room is unlike anything you will ever see in your life.

It's an enormous room that has like 1,000 hand assemblers in it. They all sit at these long tables and all they do are assemble pop-up books. Each side of the table is responsible for just one pop-up or one page in the book. That side of the table or that table becomes the experts at making that one particular pop-up. Like the T-Rex head from Dinosaurs, somebody will put the teeth in, somebody will put the tongue in and hand it to the next person, and then they'll put the sides of the head on and they'll hand it to the next person.

It will go all the way down the row of people, and at the very end there will be a finished T-Rex head. Then they'll hand it across the table and somebody will glue it to the page, and somebody will glue the arms on. All they'll do is make like a million T-Rex's for the book. The pages will be all glued together by hand. Then somebody will glue the cover, the boards — that even gets glued into the book by hand. They're very quick at it.

They assemble so much faster than we do at my studio it's not even funny. They can make like 25,000 books in a week, which is a lot of books. But, fortunately pop-up books have become very popular. ISo if they have a print run of 500,000 books, 25,000 doesn't sound like a lot. You're obviously taking months and months and months to get all of those books finished and completed.

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Different looks for different books

I love pop-ups that are just in white because I love the way that the simplicity of the light and the shadow plays on the shape. I think that in our busy, crazy world of blackberries and DVD's and computers and everything, there's all this kind of staticy noise, things going on, visually too.

I like working in white a lot because it's just a quiet moment. You open the page and there's this white kind of sculpture that's on the inside. For me, I find that very soothing. People say, oh you must love children and you make these books for children that are great — I like children, they're okay and everything, but I really make my books for the child in me, things that really interest me and excite me.

I'm always getting ideas from people about pop-up books. You should do a pop-up book about that, or you should do a pop-up book about motorcycles. Well, I don't even drive a car. I mean, I'm never going to do a pop-up book on motorcycles because that does not interest me. I'm only going to work on the stuff that I really find interesting and creative. A lot of my holiday titles are just white because I love it.

It reminds me of my childhood in Michigan when it was very snowy, before global warming there was a lot of snow in Michigan. It just takes me back to that. For other books, like Encyclopedia Prehistorica Dinosaurs, that book requires a different look. Each book should be illustrated as the manuscript dictates. If I'm doing a book on the 12 days of Christmas, I love working in white, that's going to have a very quiet, subtle, beautiful view to it.

If I'm working on something like Encyclopedia Prehistorica, that has to have something totally different. It has to feel old, it has to feel fun, even though everything's been dead for millions of years. It has to feel scaly and texturey, and each book is really dictated by that. That continues also into the future.

I'm starting another series, Encyclopedia Mythologica. That will require a whole new look. I'm investigating using marbleized paper, becuase the first book in the series is called Fairy, which is unicorns and wizards and fairies. I see marbleized paper for a lot of those surfaces and textures. That's really all dictated by the story or the message I'm really trying to convey in a book.

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Watch this pop-up book in action!

This is Castle that I wanted to share with you. This is a new imprint that Matthew and I have started to foster new talent — new paper engineers and new illustrators, for projects that we can oversee in our studio that we would love to do but don't necessarily have the time to do it with our hands. This is sort of our foray into non-fiction. I love non-fiction and I love history. I knew the first title for this series, this imprint would be Castle.

Here we have, of course, an enormous castle on the inside. People always say, well what is it about pop-ups that are so attractive or why do they inspire so many people? We say it's the wow factor. It's the surprise factor. You don't know what's going to happen. You see the cover of the book and you're like, this looks really nice, and then you turn the page and you see something like that.

I even love that wow factor. These books have little side pop-ups too. This whole non-fiction series was also really kind of a request from the teaching community because a lot of teachers were coming to book signings and saying, we love your pop-up books. We wish there was more that we could use in our classroom to use as part of our lesson plan or as teaching tools.

We said hey we hear you. I just love fun kinds of stories. The medieval times, just like dinosaurs, were not all dry and crusty, and kids want fun stuff. They want to see what it's like to live inside different aspects of the castle and we've even got some pull tabs here. This is our jousting scene. When I was a boy, I would have loved this — eeing all this cool stuff.

If I was a boy, I totally would have had this book. I would have made someone get it for me for Christmas or give it to me for my birthday. Not only do I want pop-up books to be fun, but I would like to think that if they can be used in the classroom, if they can be used in the library in story time, then my work is completed. Hopefully I've done a good job with it.

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"Today a reader, tomorrow a leader." — Margaret Fuller