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Snappy little Halloween; written by Dugald Steer; illustrated by Derek Matthews. Photograph: Lindsay Oliver (2023).

The Spooky Secrets Behind Pop-up Books!

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I have always loved pop-up books. They have a fascinating way of making the pages three-dimensional and with movement, allowing us to literally engage and experience the story. We participate in the creation of change and movement while reading, which is such an exciting experience.

At the same time, I have been equally fascinated with the engineering aspects behind them and intrigued about how the pages magically fold out and fold back so perfectly, then fold out and back again as many times as you want.

As the Collections Officer in the Collections Management Division, I have the privilege of caring for many thousands of pop-up books inside the General Collections. These titles receive a distinct categorization as “special formats materials” or SpecMat, which are linked to specific preservation and access policies.

But before we dive into these details, I want to share a little bit of history about the origin of pop-up books, which are part of a subcategory of books called “movable books”.

The first movable books were made in the early 13th century by the Benedictine monk, Mathew Paris (c. 1200-1259) and the Catalan mystic and poet, Ramon Llull (c. 1232-1315/14), both of whom used volvelles (or wheel paper chart mechanisms with rotating parts) to calculate dates, the astrological position of the stars, and to express spiritual concepts (Smithsonian, n.d.). The first official “pop-up book” is considered to be the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” published in 1855 by Dean & Son.  They called it a “scenic book” as the images created a scene through layering the illustration, which would “pop-up” after pulling a ribbon (Library of Congress, 2014).  Later, S. Louis Giraud in England (1930s), along with Thomas Brown, created what are considered true pop-up books, with three-dimensional freestanding pop-ups that were viewable from all sides, which is the idea that we have nowadays, when we hear “pop-up books” (Smithsonian, n.d.). There were many other paper engineering pioneers and publishers that helped to produce the “golden age” of moveable books, including Dean & Son, Blue Ribbon Books, McLoughlin Brothers, Ernest Nister, Lothar Meggendorfer, Vojtech Kubasta and others, all of whom greatly contributed to the collection of the various types of mechanisms needed to create colorful, complex and interactive books. (University of North Texas, n.d.)

King Arthur’s Camelot, adapted by Lisa Rojany; illustrated by László Bátki. Photograph: Lindsay Oliver (2023). 
Richard Scarry’s biggest pop-up book ever! by Richard Scarry. Photograph: Lindsay Oliver (2023).

Originally, movable books were made for adults, not children. Before the invention of printing, these books were used for scholarly purposes, primarily in science and philosophy (Reid-Walsh, 2019). They helped illustrate complex systems “particularly relating to medicine, mathematics, and technology” as well as mysticism and navigation (Smithsonian, n.d.). For example, the “lift-the-flap” mechanisms were very useful in illustrating the concepts of anatomy in medicine books as the separate leaves, hinged at the top, would feature different sections of the body at various depths (University of North Texas, n.d.)

Ristreto Anatomico ,1690, Italy. Daniel Ricco. Book about anatomy, nice engraved; bloodletting man, shown on plate has 9 movable parts. Photograph: Beatriz Haspo (2000)

By the mid-18th century, well after the invention of the printing press (1450s), advances in bookmaking made books more accessible and current. With the growth of the middle class and increasing awareness of the importance of childhood education, books were published specifically for children to teach them manners, religion, numbers, and letters as well as entertainment (Reid-Walsh, 2019, Fig. 3). Many of the movable books created in the 19th century were made for entertainment as the “interactive elements of movables and pop-ups are much like playing a game,” as it engages and amuses the reader (Smithsonian, n.d.). The first movable books for children included religious flap books, fold-out and cut-out pieces for alphabets, and flap books based on “popular theatrical entertainments such as puppet shows” (Reid-Walsh, 2019).

From the collections management and preservation perspective, pop-up books present some challenges. These books are mostly made of paper with extra elements of fragile and movable parts and thus are susceptible to the same preservation challenges common to all paper and book materials. These factors can lead to damage and deterioration. Among them, environmental damage from temperature and humidity, light, dust, pests, and rough handling of the materials. The inherent acidic nature of paper also causes natural deterioration and brittleness. Continued and rough handling is especially a concern for pop-up and movable books due to the mechanisms of tabs, strings, wheels, etc., that allow for the interactive nature that can be easily worn and torn over time from repeated use. Common damages to movable books include unbound and loose pages, tears near the pull tabs, missing or torn detached tabs, missing parts, and misaligned or broken mechanisms.

With that in mind, these materials are categorized as special materials (or SpecMat) with the associated access and inventory policies. They receive additional levels of preservation, usually being placed inside custom-made boxes, to protect them during use, in storage or in transit. Over almost two decades, I have had the chance to train staff, interns and volunteers of the Collections Management Division to make such boxes. While these items may be requested by patrons, they are served in special reading rooms, where staff trained in care and handling can help readers. As part of the SpecMat materials, the pop-up books are stored at our offsite storage facilities for long-term preservation.

Rehousing pop-up books. Tiny kittens [illustrated by] Leslie Anne Ivory and [design and paper engineering by] Ron van der Meer. Photograph: Elizabeth Sporgitas (2003).
Pop-up books are important not only for their entertainment value but also for their educational, cultural, and social value. They help to create a memorable learning experience for all ages and help readers understand complex and abstract concepts through the colorful images and interactive process while reading. The process becomes fun, engaging, and participatory as the reader becomes part of the action.

In addition, pop-up books are a great way to teach about paper engineering, project planning and critical thinking skills. Danna Bell, Educational Resource Specialist at the Library of Congress, in her blog post (Bell, 2021) provided a template for a lesson regarding how to construct a pop-up book, with students following an Observe-Reflect-Question approach as they looked at pop-up books, considered how they are constructed, and determined what materials would be necessary to make their own. Linked to the lesson is a video of Robert Sabuda and Mathew Reinhart, award-winning self-taught pop-up book illustrators, demonstrating how to make simple pop-up books at the 2008 National Book Festival with paper, pen, and scissors. This lesson template teaches how the engineering process, such as paper engineering, is a cycle that requires people to design and create multiple versions of their ideas, to observe how each version works, and reflect on how they might make it better” (Bell, 2021).

And because we are approaching Halloween, I could not end this blog without sharing some images of some cool pop-up books that are part of the General Collections. Happy Halloween everybody!

Halloween bugs: a trick-or-treat pop-up by David A. Carter. Photograph: Elizabeth Sporgitas (2023)
Snappy little Halloween; written by Dugald Steer; illustrated by Derek Matthews. Photograph: Lindsay Oliver (2023).


The spooky scrapbook: a pop-up book by Kees Moerbeek. Photograph: Elizabeth Sporgitas (2023)
I’m not afraid of Halloween! a pop-up and flap book by Marion Dane Bauer; illustrated by Rusty Fletcher. Photograph: Lindsay Oliver (2023)

I want to thank my interns (past and present) namely Irene Lewis, Lindsay Oliver, Elizabeth Sporgitas, Melody Wang and Lauren Quackenbush for their contributions in this blog.


Bell, Danna. 2021. “Inspiring the E(ngineering) in STEM by Exploring the Construction of Pop-up Books.” Teaching With the Library of Congress.

Library of Congress. 2014. “Origins & Variety of Movable Structures in the Book Format.” Video.

Reid-Walsh, Jacqueline. 2019.”What are Movable Books?” Learning as Play. The Pennsylvania State University.

Smithsonian Institution Libraries. n.d. “Paper Engineering: Fold, Pull, Pop & Turn” (2010-2011) Access June 14, 2022 from

University of North Texas. n.d. “Pop-Up and Movable Books: A Tour through Their History.” Accessed June 14, 2022 from

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Comments (2)

  1. I love your blogs! This one is great: lots of interesting information, excellent illustrations, fun examples. Congratulations!!!

  2. Interesting history.

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