Paper engineer Matthew Reinhart broke into the world of pop-up books in 1999 with The Pop-Up Book of Phobias. A robust roster of pop-up books followed, including those created in collaboration with others (such as the Encyclopedia Prehistorica and Encyclopedia Mythologica trilogies with Robert Sabuda) and solo paper-engineering projects, among them Star Wars: A Pop-Up Guide to the Galaxy and Transformers: The Ultimate Pop-Up Universe. Now, Reinhart embarks on a new creative path with Pop Magic, his first series of pop-ups for the board-book audience, which Abrams rolls out this month with What’s Up, Fire Truck?, illustrated by Toby Leigh. Not your older siblings’ pop-up, the sturdy book features innovative sliders and double and triple flaps to lift and, after the story has been read, fold out (and up) into a toy fire truck—complete with a towering ladder. PW asked Reinhart about the whys and hows of launching Pop Magic and making the leap into the preschool market.
What triggered your interest in creating books for preschoolers?
This series has been brewing in my head for a long time. Since the beginning of my career I’ve wanted to do very young pops, since I’ve always been a bit sorry that little ones were missing out on the excitement of pop-ups. When I watched kids with board books and I saw the aspect of play that goes on—children really do play with books, holding them upside down and turning them sideways—I wanted somehow to be part of that.
How did you finally make that happen?
I haven’t had a lot of spare time over the last few years and I hadn’t found the right publisher for that kind of project. But I love Abrams’ books and I worked with Andrew Smith [senior v-p and publisher of Abrams Children’s Books] at the start of my career, when he was at Candlewick, so I thought it might be a natural fit. I pitched Andrew some different ideas we could go with using my experience and knowledge to make interactive books for the youngest readers. I was blown away when he said he was interested.
In order to stretch as an artist, I am always trying to learn new things in paper engineering. At the beginning of every book, I try to put myself in a place where I’m a little doubtful about what I’m doing—and then eventually get where I want to be.
Was that the case with What’s Up, Fire Truck?
Yes, it was! I knew that bringing paper-engineering mechanisms into a younger realm would be a little tougher, because they have to be sturdier since little ones handle books with such gusto. We did a lot of testing and throwing models around, to make sure that they were fun, exciting, and sturdy. If I get excited about a book, young readers will too. I feel much younger than I am, and I’m still excited about the things that excited me as a child!
How did you conceive of the concept of turning a book into a toy?
At first, I thought, “I’m not sure can do this,” but I began playing with the idea of giving kids a chance to read a book and then play with it. I’ve always loved toys. I am a toy collector and I try to pay attention to what is going on in the toy world. As I said, I still am a kid—and I describe myself as a failed toy designer. I studied toy design at Pratt Institute in New York, and I have worked toy aspects into a lot of the interactive elements I’ve done in books, but this is the first time I’ve turned a book into a toy. So maybe I’m not a failed toy engineer after all!
Why did you opt for a fire truck for your first book-toy hybrid?
I’ve always wanted to do a book about a fire truck. I have since moved to San Francisco, but I lived in New York City for a long time. And every time I saw a fire truck parked by the side of the road, usually because the firefighters had gone into a grocery store, I had to stop to walk around the truck and look at that amazing machine. There are so many different read-outs, hose hookups, and boxes that hold things—I decided it would be cool to figure out how to somehow replicate a fire truck in book form.
Flashing back to your earlier collaborations with other artists, what projects were especially memorable?
I of course collaborated on many wonderful books with Robert Sabuda, and early on in my career, in 2006, I was able to work with Maurice Sendak on Mommy? He would repeatedly say, when doing the art, “I’m totally screwing this up!” We went back and forth many times. I remember when we started, he said, “I’m really fast—I’ll be finished with the art in no time at all.” And it took him four years! We got to be friends, and I’d go to visit him. As a young artist, I was still figuring things out, and he was great to me. He had a reputation for being ornery, but to me he was a breeze and I loved collaborating with him.
I was also fortunate to collaborate with Tomie dePaola on Brava, Strega Nona!: A Heartwarming Pop-Up Book, and was able to learn a lot from him, too. Tomie was really wonderful, and he was a machine—he could work so fast! He touched so many lives and inspired so many people. What is exciting to me about collaborating is being able to vibe off each other and share the experience with another artist.
In the complicated paper-engineering world, how does your collaborative process with another artist work?
My first step is always thinking about it as though I’m a director blocking actors on the stage. I sketch out art guides for artists so they know what to draw—otherwise their art might limit what I can do as an engineer. I don’t like to be limited, and because I know how to draw, I can explain very clearly what I need. Though when I look back at notes I have given illustrators, I realize that they can be frightening, because they are so detailed. Working with Toby [Leigh] on Fire Truck was easy—I sent him sketches with notes and he took it from there. His work was beautiful. There were no corrections.
After you received the final art from Toby, what was your next step?
Toby sent me his digital artwork files and then I added a layer of die lines, which is essentially the template for cutting out the different pop-up pieces for the book. A layer for the text got added into this finalized digital file, which was sent, along with my hand-built prototype, to the manufacturer. That way, their team could replicate the book. I am always involved in the process throughout the entire production—either in person or through Skype or videos. The book goes from my hands, creating the engineering and building the prototype, to me guiding the manufacturer’s hands so that the best possible book can get into the hands of readers. It’s a complicated process, but I feel strongly that this is my responsibility as an author, illustrator, and paper engineer. Abrams has a great production team, and with Fire Truck everyone worked together to make sure that every part of the book was just right.
Given this painstaking process, how long was Fire Truck in the making?
I’d say that it was two to three years before we had the actual books. The project was germinating for some time, and the art took at least a year, with a lot of starts and stops. And designing the book took about a month of nonstop work. Pop-up books can take a long time, but I enjoy the process a lot. I’m a journey rather than a destination person, even though it sometimes can be annoying and hard and your head hurts a lot. I have both sides of my brain working—there’s the creative part and the “how can we make this work?” part—figuring out the minute, irritating details you want to be able to gloss over but you can’t. I’ve been thinking and dreaming about Pop Magic and this first book for the longest time, and I have to pinch myself realizing that it actually exists now!
What additional Pop Magic titles do you have in the works?
Well, Fire Truck gets it started with a bang, and future Pop Magic titles will include some playable object books and other books that offer interactivity in some way. I worked with the artist Ekaterina Trukhan on the next book, Colors: My First Pop-Up!, which will come out next spring. It has fun pull-tabs and some other cute interactive mechanisms. I’d also love to do more vehicle books, and perhaps a book that turns into a house or part of a house, so kids can read the story, build the house, and play with it. I think books are so important to growing up—not just helping children learn how to read but learn how to imagine and how to explore the world. I hope Pop Magic books can add a little extra bit to that experience.
What’s Up, Fire Truck? by Matthew Reinhart, illus. by Toby Leigh. Abrams Appleseed, $16.99 Sept. ISBN 978-1-4197-4107-4