Gay pop-up book author Robert Sabuda’s work may be sold in the children’s section, but his architectural, wow-inducing books appeal to the kid in all of us
Probably the first thought that comes to most readers when they pick up a Robert Sabuda book is: "How did he do that?" Then the second thought is, "No seriously — how’d he do that?"
Well, that’s just the reaction Sabuda hopes for — every time, whether the first or the fortieth.
What Sabuda does is closer to architecture than to literature, more sculpture than illustration: He’s the reigning prince of pop-up books.
If your recollection of pop-up books is more of pre-literate novelty than true children’s literature, you’ve never seen one of Sabuda’s creations. They are as complicated as machines, with dozens of working parts that include wooden ships’ masts or clotheslines with paper socks dangling from them; some even include sound and lights. They are, quite simply, jaw-droppingly brilliant.
While Sabuda’s reputation and popularity means they are mass-produced — 250,000 copies are not unusual — they are still made largely by hand.
"They are not coming off a machine— it’s one of the reasons I like what I do so much," Sabuda says from his New York City studio. " In today’s technological world, it’s nice to have something made with care. Of course, I only have to make one, thank goodness."
But that first one — the prototype from which all others are reverse-engineered — is the result of tremendous, painstaking amounts of time, planning and creative effort.
Sabuda, who often works with his partner, Matthew Reinhart, has reached a plateau in his career that affords him significant artistic freedom. He writes (or in the case of classics like "Peter Pan," selects) a manuscript; he decides which scenes needs to be animated; he illustrates the images.
And then comes the paper. Sabuda bristles slightly at being labeled — "My whole life revolves around bookmaking so that’s what I am, a bookmaker" — but concedes that the skill he practices is known as paper engineering. There are numerous elements to it, from cutting out the right weight paper for fitting the pieces together to having the pages open as silently as possible to making sure it works upside down and right-side up. But the end result still has the ability to impress even him.
"Sometimes I’ll be working on a project and I’ll design something and it comes out visually, and it works the way I want it to… and I’ll go ‘Wow!’ I have not lost my appreciation for the magic of it."
You can see his process for yourself this weekend, when Sabuda holds a bookmaking workshop as part of the Dallas Museum of Art’s Art & Letters Live series.
Sabuda started out as a children’s book illustrator when he realized his interests lie in collage and mosaic and working with papyrus.
"I thought, ‘How can I work in three dimensions with paper? What about a pop-up book?’" he recalls. He developed his own, and in 1994 released "Christmas Alphabet," which established his style. "It’s very graphic, very simple — about letting the paper be the paper," he says.
His designs have becomes more elaborate over the years. One book, "Cookie Counts," contains "a gingerbread house and even I’m amazed that it stands up." His "Encyclopedia Prehstorica," produced in conjunction with Reinhart, was envisioned as a useful classroom tool for teaching about dinosaurs in a graphically arresting way.
"One thinks kids are scatterbrained, but they are also very observant when they choose to be. When they open that first page [of 'Peter Pan'], they look and say ‘That’s Tiger Lily’ and their parent says ‘What? I didn’t even see that.’ I want to see that, too," he says.
Adults have been increasingly appreciative of his art. The most common reaction he gets is parents saying, "I had no idea these kinds of books even existed — when I was a child nothing like this was around." Which, he says, probably accounts for his appeal with adults.
It wasn’t always that way.
"I’ve been in children’s publishing since 1988 and it was always the stepchild of the publishing world, even though they keep adult divisions afloat for the most part. And there was a time when pop-up books were the stepchild of children’s publishing!" Sabuda says. Over the years, the books that have come out of Sabuda and Reinhart’s studio have changed that, much as the success of the Harry Potter series has lent legitimacy to children’s fiction. But there’s more to it than that, Sabuda feels.
"Today’s young and adult readers don’t feel they need for the words to convey the story for them. Words used to be the cornerstone of communicating with children, but we have become a more visual society," he says. A pop-up book takes that one step further, creating the moment of the story being told in four dimensions.
Sabuda’s success has even allowed him to become the living version of a character in one of his books.
"’Peter Pan’ has been a big part of my life: I played a pirate and John [in stage productions as a kid], and my sister is actually named Wendy from the story. But I also relate because I never had to grow up. This is an amazing job that I have."
People used to ask him "When are you gonna do a grown up book?" But, he reports, no one has asked him that in a long time. The closest he comes anymore are adults who assume a more calculated approach to selling children’s books.
"Some old straight guy always asks me" — he deepens his voice, speaking with a pompous, vaguely Republican air — "’What kind of market research do you do for your books before you write them?’ The truth is, we don’t do that — we just do what we like."
And what’s not to like about a pop-up book?
POP GOES THE EASEL
Robert Sabuda at the Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 Harwood St. May 31 Bookmaking demo at 1 p.m. (free); and discussion at 3 p.m. $10â€“$16.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 29, 2009.