I grew up in the 1950’s and had limited access to books in my own home. But I remember seeing a few pop-ups, the sort of half-hearted efforts that passed for movable books for children during that gloomy decade. Skip ahead about thirty years. In 1979, I was working as an administrator for a large public library system in Cleveland, Ohio and came upon a book that changed my life…Jan Pienkowski’s Haunted House. Colorful, inventive, and sneakily subversive, Haunted House was a new kind of pop-up and just the thing, I thought, to bring home to my own kids, then 3 and 5 years old. They loved it…to death. In a short time, it was reduced to tatters and I was struck by the irony of producing these wonderful, intricate, complicated and delicate feats of paper engineering…and then giving them to children to play with! How many, I wondered, actually survived? And how far back did the history of pop-ups go?
That was my beginning as a collector (and eventually a dealer) of old and rare children’s books. I still have a special place in my heart for pop-ups, movables, and novelty books of all kinds, the sorts of things that were traditionally excluded from public library shelves and considered no more than ephemera. While researching the history of the genre, I discovered that it extended back to the 13th century, further than I ever expected. The earliest movable books were created for adults…calendars, astronomical charts, mathematics, medical procedures, and so forth…and the earliest children’s movables didn’t appear until the mid-18th century.
As with all art forms, the history of pop-up and novelty books has had it’s peaks and valleys. Certain publishers or individuals rise to the challenge and produce works of wonder only to be replaced by fallow times in which little of real merit is created. Among the peaks, we have names like Ernest Nister, Lothar Meggendorfer, Vojtech Kubasta, Dean & Sons, Julian Wehr, Robert Sayer, McLoughlin Brothers, Blue Ribbon, Bookano, Wally Hunt, Robert Sabuda, and others. On the valley end, we have…well, no one worth mentioning.
The rules for collecting pop-up and movable books…both antiquarian and modern examples…are essentially the same as for collecting any volume: condition, edition, and intrinsic value. It stands to reason that placing a pop-up book in the hands of children presents an innate condition concern, but regardless of the risks, a book is judged by an immutable standard: Fine means Fine and Very Good means Very Good (and not “Very Good considering age” or “Very Good considering the intended audience” as is sometimes noted). Collectors will often accept pop-up and novelty titles in a somewhat lesser state, especially among older items, because of the difficulty of finding the same in flawless condition, but grading terms remain fixed.
Edition is something I’ve talked about (some may say “endlessly”) on this blog and elsewhere, but I really do see it as a fundamental change in the way titles are currently being described on-line. When I first started dealing in rare children’s books, around 1990, there was a widely accepted shorthand among both dealers and collectors that the term “first edition” meant “first edition/first printing.” Historically, that was not absolutely accurate, but considering the state of contemporary publishing it was both useful and universally understood. Today, the words “first edition,” as found in many on-line listings, can mean most anything, from a true first to a later printing to a book that (often infuriatingly) says “first edition” on the copyright page but is clearly a later printing with a compromised number line. I mention this (again and again!) because the “rules” of book collecting place real value (with few exceptions) in a true first edition/first printing and not in later issuances. For more information, please see my earlier blog entry, “What’s a first edition?”.
Finally, the value in any pop-up or novelty book (or any book, really) is determined by its intrinsic value. Difficult to define (but…like pornography…you know it when you see it), this can be determined by multiple factors: the quality of the illustration or writing, the inventiveness of the paper engineering, the notoriety of the author, the limitation of the initial printing, the addition of an author’s signature, the receipt of various literary awards, and so on. It is those qualities which make some books collectible and others…perhaps issued by the same publisher in the same season…forgettable.
Earlier, I mentioned peaks and valleys. We are particularly fortunate to be living through what is generally regarded as a “Golden Age” of pop-ups. Part of this is technology, of course, and part is the availability of cheap labor in various third-world countries, but the majority is the emergence of remarkably creative paper engineers who have changed the face of the field: Robert Sabuda, David Carter, Ron Van der Meer, Matthew Reinhart, Andrew Baron, Sam Ita and many others. Living in such a gifted era has many benefits: a surge of wonderful titles, the opportunity to assemble a first-rate collection on a reasonable budget, and…not least of all…the chance to share your enthusiasm with a group of fellow-collectors.
I’m a big fan of The Movable Book Society (www.movablebooksociety.org), an international organization of about 400 members (begun in 1993 and founded by Ann Montanaro, the author of Pop-Up and Movable Books: A Bibliography) which issues Movable Stationery, a quarterly journal focused on pop-up and movable books. In addition, it sponsors a conference every two years with presenters including illustrators, paper engineers, conservators, publishers, and collectors (as well as a marketplace to buy and sell pop-ups). The next conference is scheduled for September 15-17, 2016, in Boston. All this (cost of the conference not included) for only $30/year!
The internet is awash with information regarding pop-up and movables. My favorite site is Ellen G. K. Rubin’s, a force of nature in the pop-up universe (www.popuplady.com). A major collector and an expert on…among other things…the work of Czech master Vojtech Kubasta, Ellen has done as much as any single person to bring the art of the pop-up to public attention. Especially noteworthy is her (almost) hour-long video on the history of pop-ups, a presentation filmed at the Smithsonian.
So let’s get going! Perhaps you’re a seasoned collector. Perhaps you’re just starting out. There are so many avenues for the children’s book collector to investigate (and we here at Wonderland Books attempt to meet everyone’s needs, regardless of interest), but pop-ups and movables can easily be part of every collection and are among the easiest to share and elicit ooh’s and aah’s from other enthusiasts and non-collectors alike.
And these days, I still buy pop-ups for my grandchildren, despite the risks!