Robert Sabuda: Fluxlings talks to the King of Kids Pop-up Books

Everyone loves a pop-up book! We interview Robert Sabuda – the pop-up master creating his amazing 3-D storytelling in paper.

If you’re at all interested in beautiful books for children, you’ll have come across the fantastical, pioneering pop-up books by Robert Sabuda. Working from his New York based studio, Sabuda is the King of the Pop-up, the master of paper engineering, creating amazing three-dimensional paper structures as well as flaps, tabs, pull-outs, twirling figures and flashing lights (and other interactive mechanisms) to wow young and old eyes alike.

From The Christmas Alphabet (his first pop-up published in 1994), Sabuda has explored fairy tales (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast), fantasy literature (Alice in Wonderland, Narnia) and Christmas (Winter’s Tale, 12 Days of Christmas) not to mention dragons, dinosaurs and monsters in his Encyclopedia series with his partner Matthew Reinhart.

The books look super expensive, but are in fact surprisingly accessible. No kids bookshelf is complete without a selection. His latest book, ‘The Dragon & the Knight’ is a wonderful chase through fairytale land. A Dragon and a Knight race through a fairy tale adventure, visiting stories from Rapunzel to Aladdin, to Cinderella and The Three Little Pigs (our favourite spread where a dragon shoots paper flames from the page much to the shock of the fleeing pigs.

So we were thrilled when Mr Sabuda agreed to talk to us about all things pop-up! What a great way to start the New Year.

FLUXLINGS: How did you first get into creating pop-up books?

Robert Sabuda: I’ve always been an artist and after graduating from Pratt Institute in New York City I knew I wanted to be a children’s book illustrator. For many years I illustrated 2-dimensional picture books but noticed that much of my final artwork was created using paper. Cut paper collage, paper mosaics, paper batik, I just love paper. So I began to wonder how I could illustrate a children’s book using paper but make it 3-dimensional. Pop-up seemed the perfect answer. I taught myself how to create all the paper engineering and, I suppose, the rest is history!

FLUXLINGS: Your pop-ups are so perfect! But how long does it take to create a pop-up spread?

RS: That really depends on the complexity of the pop-up in the spread. As I’m sure you’ve noticed most of my pop-ups are quite complicated. I can take week just to get one pop-up working correctly.

FLUXLINGS: How many iterations do you go through?

RS: Sometimes I’ll make up to a dozen prototypes just trying to get the mechanism to work (and I fail A LOT!). At times I want to pull my hair out in frustration but there is no other way to design the pop-ups. They are simply too complex. Everything is trial and error. But I do learn something even from the errors.

FLUXLINGS: The books feel like they are very much handcrafted. Can you use computers to help, or is creating a pop-up a totally hands on art?

RS: All of the original design and prototype work is done completely by hand. I literally begin by cutting, folding and gluing the paper together to see what I can come up with. Computers are used later in the process to make duplicates of the original designs and pop-up mechanisms.


FLUXLINGS: I am always surprised by the price of the books, when you look at how intricate they are, and how complex the print/putting together process must be. How is an actual copy made?

RS: Believe it or not, even in the 21st century, pop-up books are still assembled by hand (but not me)! Someone folds and glues every single piece of paper in a pop-up book. This is the way it’s been done for the last 700 years (pop-up and movable books have a very long history) and most likely will be for a long time to come.

FLUXLINGS: I guess you get asked this a lot, but what is your favourite pop-up title?

RS: When I was a boy I received a copy of the pop-up book “The Adventures of Super Pickle” for my birthday and was so thrilled with it! By day the pickle was a mild mannered office worker but at night he’d put on a cape and become a super hero. I thought it was fantastic and still have a very warm spot for it in my heart.

FLUXLINGS: Do you have any other favourite children’s books/illustrators?

RS: My heroes include (in no particular order) children’s book illustrators, Tomie dePaola, James Marshall and Eric Carle.

FLUXLINGS: Which is your favourite from your own books?

RS: Actually I don’t have a favourite book of my own! Is that weird? But I do have favourite pop-ups IN books that I’ve created. This is usually because they were so DIFFICULT to design. The last spread of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” comes to mind because of all those flying cards and also the Dragon’s ROAR in “The Knight & the Dragon.” Both of these pop-ups are incredibly complex and took a very long time to design.

FLUXLINGS: Children are so bombarded by different media these days, why do you think a pop-up book is still so magical?

RS: For exactly the reason you’ve brought up. Children are so unbelievably overwhelmed with electronic media that it’s almost a relief (and a relief to their parents to, I think) to be able to enjoy storytelling that doesn’t involve a glass surface or batteries. The magic happens because OF the reader. They turn a page and something wonderful and mysterious occurs in the real world, right before their eyes. Nothing electronic can replace this kind of interactivity.

FLUXLINGS: You are based in New York – what is your workshop/studio like?

RS: Surprisingly clean at the moment! My studio is in lower Manhattan and when I step out the front door I have a beautiful view of the new World Trade Centre. My agent always jokes that no one knows what goes on in my studio but if you walk by the building you’ll see “creative steam pouring out the windows!”

FLUXLINGS: Do you have a favourite place in New York to relax?

RS: Any place I can lay my yoga mat and practice. New York City is a hectic place and yoga keeps me balanced and centred.

FLUXLINGS: How would you recommend an artist start if they love pop-ups and would like to create their own?

RS: Not to “toot my own horn” but if you go to my web site I have loads of practice lessons, pop-ups you can print out and construct as well as a bibliography of How-to books. Beyond that, I would say practice truly does make perfect and never be afraid to fail. You’ll learn something valuable along the way!


‘The Dragon & the Knight’ is published now by Simon & Schuster. Also check out fluxlings Sabuda favourites, ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, ’12 Days of Christmas’ and the Encyclopedia Series!