Arts & Humanities

When stories pop off the page

The University Libraries’ collection of fantastically engineered pop-up books grew from a late professor’s fascination.

SILS library assistant Kenny Jones holds open a pop-up edition of Alice in Wonderland with a spray of plyaing cards rising aove Alic with her hands up for protection.
Kenny Jones, library assistant for University Libraries at the School of Information and Library Science, displays a pop-up adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland outside Manning Hall. The book is one of 1,800 pop-up books in the University's collection. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Open some of the pop-up books from Carolina’s library and inches from your face a tornado twists, sea creatures swim or a T. rex’s sharp-toothed mouth gapes.

The University Libraries’ collection of pop-up books at the UNC School of Information and Library Science is one of the country’s larger such collections, with more than 1,800 titles on everything from obscure subjects to today’s popular culture. Each has unique ways to fill readers with wonder.

“If there’s a subject and a pop-up book on it, we probably have it,” said Kenny Jones, library assistant.

With their beginnings in the 13th century, pop-up or moveable books began to be mass produced in Europe during the mid-1800s. American firms first published them in the late-1800s. “The Aquarium,” one of the first titles published in America around 1880, is the oldest pop-up book in Carolina’s library.

The collection was small until 2015, said Rebecca Vargha, information and library science librarian. That year, the late Sterling Hennis, professor emeritus in the School of Education, and his wife Anita donated more than 1,300 pop-up books to the University Libraries. Since then, other donations and purchases by library staff have enlarged the collection for use by students, scholars and the public.

At a 2013 presentation on pop-up books sponsored by the school, the University Libraries and Friends of the Library, Vargha learned from Hennis about his fascination with them as a combination of his interests in creativity, art and education.

“Sterling always wanted to try new ways for people to learn,” Vargha said. “His first book was a mark-down from a craft store in University Place [in Chapel Hill]. I believe he said that he bought a new pop-up book every week for 40 years.” Hennis and Vargha talked often, especially when one or the other learned of a new book, and in 2015 he donated his books. Hennis died in 2018.

To Vargha, pop-up books are much more than novelties. “I want people to understand that you can’t just say, ‘Oh, look at this book! Isn’t that cool!’ These books are so much more. It’s illustration. It’s information. It’s context. It’s wonderful ways to enjoy the book and to learn from it.”

The collection serves the needs of scholars who are interested in moveable books and how they can influence learning, said Brian Sturm, a professor at the School of Information and Library Science. “A static book cannot help children understand verbs as easily as a moving book can, since interacting with the books demonstrates actions,” he said. “Engagement in narrative, particularly surprise as a 3D image jumps out of the page, can help children to develop visual-spatial cognition with the aid of print books.”

Pop-up books can help and hinder a child’s imagination and creativity, Sturm said. “They help by providing three-dimensional detail to more accurately represent objects so that children can visualize more clearly and by showing action that static books cannot. In this way they increase a child’s visual literacy — a cube is more easily represented and more completely understood in a three-dimensional pop-up than on a two-dimensional page. They may, however, hinder imagination for the same reason — they provide details that would be added from the child’s imagination were they not provided by the book itself.”

Quintessentially creative is how Sturm describes the books because they merge two- and three-dimensions, text and images in varied formats, ranging from realistic portrayals to concept books to imaginative fictions.

Most daily use of the collection, Jones said, is by people who hear about the books and come in by themselves or with children. “People are curious. They want to see what a pop-up book is and how it moves. It depends on the complexity of the paper engineering, but if the paper mechanics are interactive, they’re great for children of all ages.”

Carolina’s fascinating pop-up books include:

“The Aquarium”

Published in 1880 by McLoughlin Brothers, one of the first firms in the United States to create moveable books; part of “The Little Showman’s Series” with “The Lion’s Den” and “Happy Family.” The UNC library catalog describes it as a color illustration “with title on top board; a leaf on which is printed the poem, ‘The Aquarium,’ pasted-down on inner lower board. When the upper board is lifted a chromolithographed three-dimensional aquarium scene, with cellophane ‘window’ pops up.” “It’s the oldest book in the collection. An anonymous donor gave it to us, and it’s by far the rarest and most unique movable book that we have,” Vargha said. “Jan Paris, a former library conservator, and the Davis Library preservation department restored some of the sea creatures that had deteriorated. They made 3D replicas of the originals. It’s amazing to think about its condition when it was donated and what they did with it.”

“The Aquarium” Published in 1880 by McLoughlin Brothers, one of the first firms in the United States, to create moveable books.

“The Aquarium” (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

“The Wizard of Oz”

By L. Frank Baum with paper engineering and art by Robert Sabuda; published by Little Simon, 2000. “This is an example of pop-up art serving as literary elements to advance the story,” Jones said. “Think about the experience of readers. That tornado engages them. They see it twisting and literally rising up from the page. Pop-up book creators have to think about how to intermingle illustrations with the text. The result is greater than the two individual parts, and the mechanics, for example, in the Wizard of Oz, must have a purpose. Those moveable parts need to enhance the content in an educational way.”

A tornado rises from a two-page spread in “The Wizard of Oz” Published in 2000 by Little Simon. By L. Frank Baum with paper engineering and art by Robert Sabuda.

“The Wizard of Oz” (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

“Dinosaurs: Encyclopedia Prehistorica”

By Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart; published by Candlewick Press, 2005. “The Texas Bluebonnet Award Committee put this book on its annual state reading list. That’s the first time that a pop-up book had ever received that honor. The creativity and complexity of the paper engineering makes the substantial T. rex literally spring off the page with a display of jagged teeth,” Vargha said. “The encyclopedia also includes dinosaurs with frilly headgear plus information on the history of paleontology.”

A paper 3D raptor "flies" off a page of a pop-up book.

“Dinosaurs: Encyclopedia Prehistorica” (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

“The Little Mermaid: A Pop-Up Adaptation of the Classic Fairy Tale”

By Robert Sabuda; published by Little Simon, 2013. “Sabuda follows the original story of “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen. “The pop-ups in this book are artistic and very intricate; another beautiful book by Sabuda,” Vargha said. Its fine paper engineering showing underwater scenes seems fragile. Vargha said that in the heyday of pop-up book production, 30 to 40 people might work on one book during its production. Fragility for intricate and delicate works is a concern. “We had to take one book out of the collection because it was basically a race car with a steering wheel. We had it fixed several times. Pop-up books at some point wear out,” Vargha said.

Scene from Little Mermaid pop-up book showing ariel and the prince holding hands.

“The Little Mermaid: A Pop-Up Adaptation of the Classic Fairy Tale”  (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

“Under the Ocean”

By Anouck Boisrobert and Louis Rigaud; published by Tate Publishing, 2014. “I think we have all of the pop-ups by these two French artists,” Jones said. “It’s absolutely beautiful, and it’s fun because the way it pops out allows you to not only see under the ocean, but you also see what’s on top. It could have just been the strata below the surface, but instead they did some very creative things.”

Boats on top of the ocean and strata of plants and sea creatures under in “Under the Ocean” Tate Publishing, 2014. By Anouck Boisrobert and Louis Rigaud.

“Under the Ocean” (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)


By Anouck Boisrobert and Louis Rigaud; published by Roaring Brook Press, 2010. “One of my favorites,” Jones said. “It’s excellent because the actual form of the book relates to the story. In this case, as you turn the pages, the city begins to be built. Everything that was there before remains. There’s not a new house on every page, but you can gradually see the city being built.”

interior spread of Popville showing 3D city with road and buildings.

“Popville” (Photo courtesy of UNC Libraries)

“Yellow Square: A Pop-up Book for Children of All Ages”

By David A. Carter; published by Little Simon, 2008. “Carter is another rock star in the world of paper engineers,” Vargha said. “What’s neat about this one is it concentrates on shape. The reader is trying to find a yellow square, which is usually hidden in forms that look like works by artists like Alexander Calder or Christo. It doesn’t have a lot of words. There are many ways to think about books like this and to enjoy them.”

A two-page spread open in Yellow Suare.

“Yellow Square” (Photo courtesy of UNC Libraries)