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A Passion for Pop-ups:
20 Years of WOW!!

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A Passion for Pop-ups: 20 Years of WOW!!

by Ellen G.K. Rubin
(reprinted from the catalog of the exhibit-
IDEAS IN MOTION: The History of Pop-Up and Movable Books: Books & Ephemera from the Collection of Ellen G.K. Rubin; Sojourner Truth Library-SUNY/New Paltz April 11-30, 2005)

The rush of joy comes back to me when I think of that evening, probably 20 years ago, when I first opened The Pop-up Book of Trucks to ‘read’ to my son, Andrew. (This book happened to have no text.) Reading had long been a part of our bedtime ritual, but this would be a new experience for both of us, my first of many with the “Wow! Factor.” I had found this pop-up book at a local store, drawn to it for its colorful illustrations of all manner of vehicles, illustrations that were, amazingly, almost life-like. We pulled a tab together to make the fire-engine ladder rise, turned a wheel to make the cement mixer grind, and opened the flaps to see inside the moving van. Best of all was grabbing the little tabs on the car-carrier and making the cars slide on and off the ramps. I think I was more excited than Andrew interacting with the book, recreating the actions inherent in each vehicle. The paper engineer, in devising these ingenious mechanicals, had allowed us to actually become the energy behind the vehicles’ movements.

Until that moment, I had never known of these fabulous and interactive books called “pop-ups.” Always a reader myself, it had been an added joy for me to use my hands along with my imagination. I remember in the early grades loving the monthly magazine, Humpty Dumpty, filled not only with stories but also with cut-outs and paper toys to assemble. When the other girls moved on to Children’s Digest, with more mature stories but no need for scissors and glue, I balked and insisted I keep my Humpty Dumpty subscription, withstanding the derision they heaped upon me. I could read more sophisticated stories, I reasoned, in the books I borrowed from the local library. A “hands-on” experience was only to be found in Humpty Dumpty.

So here I was, now an adult, responding again to the need for reader-involvement in a book. Thus began my adventure as a collector of pop-up and movable books. My initial thought had been to concentrate on acquiring pop-ups of children’s classics and fairytales, like The Secret Garden and Cinderella, and those on scientific subjects (since science had been my interest and occupation), like The Human Body and The Facts of Life. I was especially enthralled with the science books and realized the use of pop-ups and movables allowed them to be unique teaching tools. I thought, “A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a pop-up is worth a million.” By actually manipulating the paper I could “make” the sperm reach the egg and even do a “dissection” of the human body by lifting the flaps, exposing layers of muscles, bones, and internal organs.

But my fledgling collecting habits changed in 1988. While a student at Yale Medical School (in their Physician Associate Program), I visited an exhibit called Eccentric Books at Yale’s Sterling Library. Over 125 books were displayed, some dating back to the 15th century, all with movable paper components. I had no idea these books had such a long history. I discovered the “Wow! Factor,” awed by the inventive quality of the early use of paper engineering. I began to collect with a new eye and appreciation. After graduation, I sought out book fairs, tag sales, and flea markets in search of pop-up books. I was on eBay when it was in its infancy.

In 1994, I became one of the first members of the Movable Book Society, established as a forum for collectors like myself. The Society published a newsletter, Movable Stationary, and I began to write articles about my escapades in collecting and what I was learning about pop-up and movable books. The Society brought me into contact with paper engineers, book artists, librarians, publishers, and packagers. My whole world was expanding!

Opening a pop-up or movable book is an adventure. I thrill to the way paper engineers will enhance a story or an idea by imbuing the subject with movement. I am drawn into an imaginative world and am expected to be a participant. Perhaps these books are the dollhouse I never had as a child. The more I can play with the movables, the happier I am. A book will find its way into my collection if it passes ‘The Smile Test’ and ranks high in the “Wow! Factor”. I delight in finding new books with ingenious paper engineering or books on subjects one wouldn’t think would lend itself to movables, like The Pop-up Book of Phobias, a book illustrating strong emotions.

Of late, I am attempting to move the time-line of my collection backward, searching for earlier and earlier examples of the use of movable paper. This is a daunting task due both to the rarity and cost of these books.

I have been lucky in my pop-up world, from the coincidence of my being in New Haven at the time of the Eccentric Book exhibit to meeting and befriending the daughter of Vojtěch Kubsta, the one paper engineer in whom I concentrate my collecting. Lucky too, that I have been able “to shop and share” and mount exhibits like this one, Ideas In Motion.

It is my hope that the books and ephemera chosen for this exhibit will demonstrate an historical arc highlighted by those examples that are pivotal in the history of movable paper. I have weighted the choices in favor of the older books that visitors, especially collectors, rarely see or rarely see together. I have sought to include items representing different kinds of mechanical devices and those published around the world. More recent pop-up books are less in evidence because they are more readily available to the public today. It has been my intention to emphasize the three facts of which most people are unaware: that movable books have a 700+ year history, that they are all hand-assembled, even to this day, and that they are not just for kids. I will have achieved my goals overall if you, the visitor, come away from this exhibit saying, “Wow!

Ellen G. K. Rubin
March 31, 2005

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