For over 200 years books with movable elements have been providing children with vitally important empirical and didactic experiences as well as affording readers a mental gear change for creative and interactive storytelling. But what are the different mechanisms involved in paper engineering and how much do today’s creators of movables owe to the pioneers of this kind of book making?
Books with mechanical and dimensional features are very different from conventional books with their set physical formats and layouts. For the purposes of this article we have agreed to call them paper engineered books because we feel it better describes the physical techniques which seek to modify and manipulate the paper to create either two or three dimensional transformations and movement, real or illusory.
The book makers of today are still being inspired by early examples of paper engineered books. When looking at a new title possible influences come to mind and it is often illuminating to discuss with the creators of today’s paper engineered books the titles from the past that have influenced them. This can mean going back not just decades but up to two centuries, tracing pop-ups back to the 1930s, holes in pages to the 1820s and fold-ability to the charming transformational tradition of the harlequinades or turn-up books of the late 18th or early 19th century.
When Percy Muir wrote the catalogue for the exhibition ‘Children’s Books of Yesterday’ in 1946 the movable book section comprised 88 books. In the introduction he wrote that these books ‘provided ingenuity and invention in the entertainment of children that has seldom been more indulged’. This has continued to be the case for paper engineered books. Each new title is a small created theatre with a life of its own to entertain or enlighten a young audience. Part of the spectacular visual ingenuity of these books is their ability to surprise and engage their audience. For example, in 1961 Vojtech Kubasta produced a series of panascopic pop-up tableaux, eg. Circus Life, that when closed totally belie their visual impact when opened.
At the same time paper engineered books can be considered as time capsules which reflect the socio-cultural thinking of their time. The making and processing of the mechanisms, methods of printing and colour also reflect particular historical periods. Colouring, folding and cutting, for example, have evolved remarkably from earlier technologies through to computerised electronic controls.
Paper Engineering Techniques
We have divided the different mechanisms into three main categories: pop-ups, movables and other techniques with classified subsections. The vital feature, which it is impossible to recreate in an article, is the quality of the engineering. Regardless of the number of times the book is opened and closed, the mechanisms must always be reversible and repeatable to enable a fresh reading.
Category 1: ‘Pop-Up’ three dimensional effects
By opening the page the three dimensional construction is energised and elevated. In some instances page-opening movement is also created. For example, Sabuda and Reinhart’s Mega Beasts (Candlewick, 978 0 7636 2230 5).
This is where layers of cut out paper shapes have been superimposed onto and parallel to the page to create a grotto like scene. For example, the Peep Show in the Ahlbergs’ Jolly Christmas Postman (Puffin, 978 0 670 88627 2).
Cut and Fold Within the Page
This is the simplest of the ‘pop-up’ techniques. The cut and folded page is transformed from a flat to a three dimensional image. See The ‘Granddreams’ Series (1990s).
The book is opened to a full circle showing a series of four or six dimensional tableaux. See Jan Pienkowski’s Botticelli’s Bed and Breakfast (1996).
Lift the Flap ‘Pop-Up’
This technique is similar to that of the dynamic ‘pop-up’ but it is activated by lifting a flap rather than by opening a page. See Robert Crowther’s The Most Amazing Hide-and-Seek Alphabet Book (Walker, 978 0 7445 7027 4).
There are a large number of other pop-up techniques, not as commonly used as the five above which space prevents us from including in this article. The use of a ‘honeycomb’, similar to a Christmas decoration, could be one of these, also the paper spiral and beehive effects.
Category 2: Movables
Change or movement is created by reader participation.
Pull the Tab Change
A ‘before and after effect’ is created by pulling a tab in and out. See Robert Crowther’s Opposites (2005).
Pull the Tab Movement
Pulling the tab movement here produces a continuous movement. See Robert Crowther’s Pop-Up Olympics (2000). In the sprint race one competitor is seen to overtake another.
Rotating Discs and Volvelles
Circular rotation of a paper disc, on or below the page, effects change or movement. See Lothar Meggandorfer’s Lustige Drehbilder (circa 1895).
The reader creates change/movement by hands on participation as in Roger Hargreaves’ Mr Men Clock Book (2004).
Category 3: Other Techniques
This final section includes some techniques which don’t fit neatly into categories 1 and 2.
Lift the Flap
Excluding situations where pop-up movement is created, this is the simplest of mechanisms whereby a surprise is hidden under the flap. See Peter Bently’s A Lark in the Ark(Egmont, 978 1 4052 2550 2).
Pages can be unfolded vertically or horizontally to extend illustrations and storytelling beyond the confines of the dimensions of the book. See Mick Inkpen’s The Blue Balloon (Hodder, 978 0 340 91819 7).
Pages can be sectionised in a variety of different ways to facilitate endless combinations of ‘Mix ‘n’ Match’. See Nick Sharratt’s Crazy Mix-Ups (Scholastic, 978 0 439 94317 8).
Pages are cut to enable moving parts to be slotted in so as to change the original illustrations. In this way the reader is given creative licence and extensive storytelling enhancement. See Allan and Janet Ahlberg’s Yum Yum: Slot Book (1984).
Holes or Die-cut Apertures in Pages
A very simple device allowing the reader to discover new surprises and other worlds by peeping through one or more successive cut layers of illustration. A good example is Tove Jansson’s The Book About Moomin, Mymble and Little My (Sort of Books, 978 0 953522 74 3).
Translucent or Transparent Pages
Overlay sheets to effect mood and atmosphere in storytelling and also to facilitate changes in the pictorial narrative. A recent example is Nick Sharratt’s The Foggy Foggy Forest (Walker, 978 1 4063 0337 7).
This is where a multiplicity of techniques is used within a book to provide extra dimension and movement as well as other techniques to ensure that the reader is engaged and has the potential to fully participate. See David Pelham’s The Human Body (1983).
Sound, Optical and other Sensual Effects
The most obvious examples here are Braille or ‘feely’ books for the visually impaired and the use of batteries to produce light and sound. There are now many such books on the market. Perhaps the most interesting (for lights) is Eric Carle’s The Very Lonely Firefly (1996). For the ‘feely’ experience, see David Pelham’s Stuff and Nonsense (Little Simon, 978 1 4169 5907 6).
Whilst paper engineering has long been a feature within the field of children’s books, it represents a small proportion of total production. The complexity of the mechanisms involved in these books compared to that of other illustrated children’s books and the lengthy, labour intensive methods of production needed make them more costly and difficult to produce. Even today when computer technology can be utilised this is still the case.
The fragility of paper engineered books has also meant that fewer examples have tended to survive for collectors and researchers. In children’s book reference works, therefore, a short chapter is often all that is devoted to them. But despite this, they should not be thought of as marginal or something of an afterthought. In our opinion, nothing could be further from the truth.
Paper engineered books have a central and important place in a child’s development. There are a number of reasons for thinking this. The first has to do with their obvious visual qualities and intriguing ingenuity. Both have the power to capture and captivate a young audience. They can be a wonderful introduction to the world of books, and, in our experience, this can result in real appreciation and the fostering of a lifelong love of books even before the child is able to read. An early interest in books can develop the desire to read and, as we all know, this is more than half the battle. For older children who are reluctant readers or might have learning difficulties, paper engineered illustrations could be crucially important, bringing stories vividly to life.
Secondly, paper engineering can be a useful tool in children’s books that are primarily educational and informative in their content. Comenius in the mid 17th century emphasized that ‘learning should be fun if it is to be effective’. His Orbis Sensualium Pictus published in 1658 was the first major educational work to be lavishly illustrated throughout. But Comenius must also have realised that clarity and a potential for reader calculation could be added by paper engineering and illustration. We know this because one volvelle (The Heavens) is included in this important work. This message was echoed by John Locke some years later in his Some Thoughts Concerning Education and has been recognised and accepted by the teaching profession ever since.
Thirdly, paper engineered children’s books also have the potential to develop other non literary skills. The ability to handle books with care helps to develop general motor skills, whilst interest in these books can stimulate imagination and creativity. An interest in fine and applied arts including design and drama could follow later. The actual mechanics of paper engineering might also kindle an awareness of and interest in architecture and engineering generally. This is now recognised by the teaching profession and paper engineering techniques are now an integral part of the National Curriculum.
Finally, there is a real danger, in our high tech computer age that literary and communication skills might diminish in future generations. It is our opinion that this would have a devastating and detrimental effect on society. The computer should be a ‘tool’, it should not replace the written word. Anything therefore that can ‘buck’ this concerning trend should be actively encouraged and children’s books, including those with paper engineered illustrations, have a crucial role to play.
Mike Simkin and Rosemary Temperley have researched into and collected paper engineered books for many years.
This article is based upon an illustrated presentation to the Children’s Books History Society in London October 2009.