Family, friends, eating together, patience, celebration and amore are the essential ingredients for a magical life, according to Tomie dePaola’s wise Strega Nona. She celebrates all six elements in Brava, Strega Nona!: A Heartwarming Pop-Up Book, featuring paper engineering by Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart. Released by Putnam last week with a 125,000-copy first print run, this is dePaola’s first pop-up tale starring Strega Nona, and his first collaboration with Sabuda and Reinhart.

The book sprang from a conversation dePaola had with Sabuda four years ago at a meeting of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. The author recalls commenting that it was too bad that Sabuda had an exclusive contract with his publisher, which would preclude them from doing a book together, given dePaola’s exclusive deal with Penguin. “I was so happy when Robert immediately corrected me, saying that he did not have an exclusive deal,” says dePaola. “And I said, ‘Great! Let’s do a Strega Nona pop-up.’ ”

Tomie dePaola.
Photo: Ken Williams.

Sabuda and Reinhart signed on, and once their schedules cleared, their collaboration with dePaola began. “Initially we did a lot of talking and idea sharing,” the author recalls. “Doing a pop-up is such an interesting process—it is totally different from illustrating a picture book. Creating the art is like painting a jigsaw puzzle, with so many little separate pieces. You paint an arm here and a foot there. Fortunately I had done several pop-ups before, so I wasn’t quite a neophyte.”

The paper engineers then created a succession of dummies based on dePaola’s art, and the three conferred on what dePaola calls “the nitty gritty—what should be included on each spread, what we could afford to do and what we couldn’t.”

Robert Sabuda (l.) and Matthew Reinhart, at work on the book. Photos: Kyle Olmon.

DePaola, who admits that his computer use is limited mostly to e-mailing and scanning, says that it was “very cool” when Sabuda and Reinhart e-mailed him videos showing the pages of the dummies opening and closing. “That gave me an idea of what it looked like even before they sent a dummy off to me,” he says. “Robert and Matthew do most of their work on a computer, while I create my art the old-fashioned way, with paint and paper. It was a wonderful marriage of two technologies, the old and the new.”

One highlight, dePaola says, was the time the collaborators worked together in each other’s studios. He spent a week in the bustling New York City studio where Sabuda and Reinhart work with a crew of “very energetic young people,” and the pop-up experts in turn visited dePaola’s studio, located in a large New Hampshire barn.

A spread from the book.

Seeing Strega Nona, Big Anthony and his other characters spring to life in the pop-ups was gratifying to dePaola, if not entirely without precedent. “Several Strega Nona stories have been performed on the stage, and seeing this book is kind of like seeing theater in miniature,” he remarks. “And since I have a theater background, it seems quite natural for me to see these characters in three-dimensional scenes.”

DePaola’s current tour to promote Brava, Strega Nona! will take him to 23 cities by month’s end. He estimates that he has already signed several thousand copies of the book. “I sign my name on the first spread,” he says, “and even after doing it so many times, opening the cover to see Strega Nona’s family tree pop up and see her on her little swing hanging from a branch always makes me smile.”

Brava, Strega Nona!: A Heartwarming Pop-Up Book by Tomie dePaola, Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart. Putnam, $29.99 ISBN 978-0-399-24453-7