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Three movable books from the Rare Book Division.
Three early movable books in the Library's Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Photograph by Marianna Stell.

Pop-Up Books at the Library

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Do you and your family enjoy reading pop-up books? If so, you’re in good company. The pop-up book collection is an extremely popular part of the Young Readers’ Center and Programs Lab (YRCPL), the Library’s drop-in space for children and caregivers. Visitors of all ages pour over these books; they get so much use that we regularly have to repair or replace titles. Seeing people delight and exclaim over the intricate designs and the clever ways in which pop-up books tell stories and impart information made me wonder how these perennial favorites came to be. Luckily, expert advice is always easy to find at the Library! I headed off to the Rare Book and Special Collections reading room for a chat with Jackie Coleburn, children’s literature specialist and an avid collector of pop-ups. I learned from our conversation that pop-up books have a long and detailed history, and are even more fascinating than I had imagined.

The Rare Book Division houses 279 movable books and pop-up books. Many are extremely rare – all those moving parts and flaps mean that copies often don’t survive in good condition. Jackie described how early “movable books”, as they were initially called, were largely instructional and covered scientific or medical topics. Movable paper parts, often discs known as volvelles, allowed readers to manipulate parts, visualize concepts and make calculations in a way that a standard page did not. This digitized 16th century text on cosmography includes several moving parts, such as one showing months of the year and another attached to a map.  Books on fortune telling like this instructional manual also used movable parts (see images 12 and 13).  Medical texts sometimes included flaps which lifted to show anatomical details. These weren’t just used to explain the human body – the same technique was sometimes applied to animal anatomy too.

Page showing performers and audience members from Meggendorfer's International Circus.
Detail from Meggendorfer’s International Circus.
Photograph by Marianna Stell.

Children’s movable books appeared in the 19th century as part of a general increase in printed material for younger audiences that grew out of increased mechanization, improved color techniques and greater mass production in the printing industry. Much of this technological development happened in Germany, and so many of the Rare Book Division’s most spectacular examples of three-dimensional children’s books are from this place and era.  Some early versions look quite different from the books with flaps and pop-up elements that we are familiar with today. Jackie Coleburn showed me one of the most magnificent movable books in the Library’s collections, a first edition of the accordion book International Circus, produced in 1887 by German publisher Lothar Meggendorfer. Several panels open out and pull down to form a highly detailed, colorful circus scene with 450 cut out and pop-up figures, including performers, animals, an orchestra and a large audience. A book this elaborate would have been an expensive indulgence for some lucky child in the late 1800s.  Author Maurice Sendak was a great admirer of Meggendorfer’s work. A catalog that accompanied a Library exhibition of rare children’s books quotes Sendak as saying “Meggendorfer enlarged the child’s visual pleasure in a way that probably will never be duplicated. His work stands alone. What came after, the pretty pop-ups of my own childhood, were skimpy in comparison …What he had to offer was the very best on the highest level.”

Tunnel books were another variation, consisting of a series of illustrated pages placed in a row and joined by paper panels. Readers looked through a peephole on the cover to see the story unfold on the inside.

An open tunnel book from 1890 showing people in a city park.
In the City Park, by Lothar Meggendorfer, 1890. Rare Book Division.

Tunnel books weren’t only for children; adults could use and enjoy them too. The picture below shows a souvenir printed for the 1896 Great Industrial Exposition in Berlin. Its cover had a handy map of the grounds to help visitors find their way around the large site.

The guide for the 1896 Berlin Exposition, opened up to show all six panels.
A view of the 1896 Industrial Exposition’s Main Hall. The cover in the background shows a map of the grounds.
Photograph by Marianna Stell.

In the 1930s, American publisher Blue Ribbon Books produced many appealing, colorful movable books, inventing the term “pop-up books” to describe and market them. One example from Blue Ribbon Books in the Rare Book collections is a 1932 pop-up Pinocchio. It includes several beautiful and intricate three-dimensional representations of the story, such as Geppetto’s house, and Pinocchio and his father being swallowed by a giant fish. The Library also owns an extremely rare 1934 Blue Ribbon “Waddle Book” version of the Wizard of Oz, complete with cut out figures to walk—or waddle—down the Yellow Brick Road.

A close up from The "Pop-Up" Pinocchio, showing Gepetto's house, a coach and trees.
Detail from Carlo Collodi’s The “Pop-Up” Pinocchio, illustrated by Howard Lentz.
Photograph by Marianna Stell.


Additional Resources

If you’re inspired to learn more about pop-up books or would like to try making your own, take a look at these Library resources:

In this video, Rare Book Division intern Sarah Denslow talks about the history of toy and moveable books, and features examples from the collections.


  • Jackie Coleburn introduces Sarah Denslow (1:55)
  • Sarah Denslow’s presentation begins (3:35)
  • The differences between movable books and pop-up books: 4:42
  • The earliest moveable books (5:49)
  • The introduction of children’s books in the 1770s (6:45)
  • Paper doll books (10:52)
  • Growth of children’s books in the 1840s (12:54)
  • Tunnel books (15:05); first pop-up book (16:00); pull tab books (17:44)
  • 1930s, Blue Ribbon Books and the introduction of “pop-up” (25:41)

Authors Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhardt created some of the pop-up books in the YRCPL. In this presentation from the 2008 National Book Festival, they demonstrate several techniques for making paper pop-ups. Watch from 1:24 – 20:15 to learn how to produce three-dimensional cards or booklets. Many other step-by-step directions are available online if you’d like more ideas for designing your own examples.

The Informal Learning team would love to know how you feel about pop-up books. If you’d like to share your favorite title, or a pop-up book memory, leave us a message in the comments section!

With many thanks to Rare Book and Special Collection Division colleagues Jackie Coleburn, for her pop-up book expertise, and to Marianna Stell for her photography skills.

Comments (2)

  1. Great talk by Sarah Denslow. What a fascinating topic! Who knew they went back that far?!

    Would it be possible for you to date your videos? I’d love to know when this talk was given (before Covid, I’m thinking). If I missed that info somewhere, my apologies. Keep up the great work!

    • It was certainly a fascinating topic to explore, thanks for the kind words. Sarah Denslow’s very interesting talk is from January 30, 2024; the date shows up on screen 15 seconds in.

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