Pop-up books are true oddities of children's publishing. They are charmingly quaint and old-fashioned, yet eternally popular. They've been around for ages, but precious few creative souls set out to become pop-up artists. This, however, is not the case with Robert Sabuda, who seems to have been born to make pop-up books.
Sabuda made his first step toward becoming one of the most ingenious pop-up artists in contemporary publishing as a very young child. He grew up in a household where books were held in the highest regard and reading was always encouraged. He has fond memories of being read to by his mother when he was a little boy. Sabuda's first encounter with a pop-up book occurred in a dentist office. Anxious about his appointment, young Robert's mother read a pop-up book with him to take his mind off the dentist's chair. He was instantly hooked.
Sabuda's background as a gifted artist also played a key role in his future career. As a kid, he was fortunate enough to be encouraged in his artistic pursuits by his teachers and his parents, his father being a mason and carpenter. He inherited from his dad a lifelong fascination with construction and avidly studied the pop-up books he received as gifts to find out what made them work. Imaginative and curious, he even made his own pop-ups out of discarded manila envelopes his mom brought home from her office.
This childhood hobby would prove invaluable, as an older Sabuda set out on a career in children's books. He got his start as a journeyman illustrator working with such writers as Eugene Bradley Coco (The Fiddler's Son; Wishing Well) and Jay Patrick Lewis (Earth Verses and Water Rhymes). He even worked on adaptations of Walt Whitman classics geared toward young readers.
Sabuda's first solo effort was Saint Valentine (1992), a retelling of the ancient tale of a humble Roman physician who brings about a miracle. The focal point of this charmingly simple story is Sabuda's illustrations, a series of intricate, exquisite mosaics made of marbleized and hand-painted paper that simulate the look of early Christian art. Proof of a craftsmanship rarely seen in children's books, Saint Valentine and its sequel, Tutankhamen's Gift, revealed the illustrator's uncanny talent for creating unconventional art.
In 1994, Sabuda discovered his niche with The Christmas Alphabet, a seasonal delight filled with eye-catching pop-ups and crafted with an elegance as appealing to adults as to children. The Christmas Alphabet was the first in a long line of remarkable paper-engineered wonders covering a wide range of subject matter. He would adapt famous tales (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; Alice's Adventures in Wonderland), tackle contemporary issues (the Help the Animals series), and tell completely original stories (Winter's Tale).
Some of Sabuda's finest work has been done in collaboration with his partner and good friend Matthew Reinhart. Between them, these two pop-up geniuses have produced stunning work, including two wonderful science-oriented series, the Young Naturalist's Pop-up Handbook and the Encyclopedia Prehistorica. And although each has become increasingly involved in independent projects, they continue to influence each other in subtle and dramatic ways.
In explaining the attraction of the pop-up genre to today's technologically savvy kids, Sabuda says,. "I think [kids] are drawn to pop-up books because so much in their world today to them seems like magic, electronically," Sabuda told Barnes & Noble.com. "So, when they see one of my pop-ups books and they open it, they're amazed that it's occurring just by turning the page... that there's no electronics or bells or whistles to make that happen. I know that just from a creative part, they love seeing that magic occur."
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As a boy, Sabuda took tap lessons at a local dance school, where he also furthered his artistic abilities by designing backdrops.
Shortly after graduating from Pratt Institute in New York City, Sabuda made ends meet by designing boxes for women's underwear.
Sabuda's first work in children's publishing was as an illustrator of coloring books, which books based on such popular movie characters as the very non-kid-friendly Rambo.
Sabuda shared some fun facts about himself in our interview:
"My first job was as a hardware stock boy and I LOVED it. To this day, when someone says 'Home Depot,' I start salivating like Pavlov's dog."
"I'm inspired to create the work that I do because I really don't know how to do anything else. Besides it's a bit of a curse, too. I always have so many ideas that I feel like I'll never get to them all."
"I don't know how to drive a car and have no desire to learn."
"My partner (author/illustrator) Matthew Reinhart and I just got an 1830's farmhouse in up state New York. Having it renovated has been a great project. It's like working on a huge pop-up that you can live in."
"To unwind, I do yoga, but my practice is pretty average. But I can do a headstand, away from the wall, which for me is a really big deal!"
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In the winter of 2005, Robert Sabuda took some time out to answer some of our questions:
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career?
Since so much of my current work is 3-dimensional, I will say Cinderella by Prague paper engineer Voitech Kubasta. Of course, as a child, I had seen pop-up books, but most of them were humorous or cartoony, and intended for a very young audience. Kubasta's Cinderella was the first paper movable book I saw that had pictures that were more like art than illustrations. I remember going through that book so slowly and carefully, poring over every detail.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?Frog and Toad are Friends by Arnold Lobel -- This is the first book I can recall reading where some of the pages did not have pictures on them. For me as a young reader this was a BIG deal, because it meant I was reading a grown-up book since there were SO many words. There simply wasn't room for pictures!
The Stand by Stephen King -- I read this when I was a barely a teenager, and was so riveted by the characters, situations and language itself that I will be a Stephen King fan until they pry his final novel from my cold, dead hand.
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury -- Never has the concept of "alien" been so compellingly and sympathetically portrayed.
The Devil wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger -- I have a lot of friends in fashion who told me this is EXACTLY what their world is like. Absolutely hilarious and a real nail-biter.
As Meat loves Salt by Maria McCann -- A gripping tale of forbidden love set in the 17th century during the terror English revolution. Sounds like a history lesson? Forget it! I've never felt so emotionally attached to a protagonist in a novel. Ever.
John Adams by David McCullough -- The oft-forgotten second American President gets his well-deserved due. Jefferson who?
The Elements of Pop-up by David Carter -- For everyone who says "Oh, I wish I could make pop-ups," your prayers have been answered. This brilliant book not only shows you how but has working samples.
The Works: Anatomy of a City by Kate Ascher -- A beautifully illustrated look at how everything works (or doesn't work) in my adopted home city of New York. For the first time I can understand aspects of what I had considered impossible to understand.
Dry: A Memoir by Augusten Burroughs -- I'll never complain about having a "tough day" again. This memoir is so brutal yet funny it should be required reading for anyone touched by the specter of substance abuse.
Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan -- One of the best graphic novels of the 21st century. All the men of the planet have been mysteriously killed in a single moment of plague. Except for one man. Enough said.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
The Wizard of Oz is my favorite movie from childhood. I still get teary when Toto barely manages to jump of the closing drawbridge and get back to his friends.
I've probably seen Blade Runner more times than any other film. It's one of the few science fiction movies that isn't all explosions or battles from beginning to end. The question of "what makes a human, human" has never been answered so subtly.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I'm not particular about music. I'll listen to whatever is on the stereo at the studio, I rarely pick. I'm perfectly happy working in silence.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
My book club would only allow books that were yet to be "discovered." I think it's so important to give up-and-coming authors and illustrators the opportunity to succeed.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I only give books that I think each person will like. I'm happy to say I make an effort to find out what the people close to me like to read!
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
The only rituals I have are 1) I don't work past 6:30pm during the week and 2) I don't work on weekends. Oh, and I have hot chocolate on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the winter.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
Amazingly, my first book was published shortly after I graduated from college. I don't think this happens very much today. I guess that after my first pop-up book, The Christmas Alphabet was published, readers began to embrace more non-traditional titles. For me, that is definitely a sign of success.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
I find that many people with a children's manuscript tend to hold onto just that manuscript, as if this one story is the ONLY thing that defines them as a writer. They just can't let go. I think a creative writer should constantly be working on new things, new ideas.
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