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Pop-up book author Matthew Reinhart talks to LI kids

Writer and illustrator explains his paper creations and reveals a few Easter eggs.

Pop-up book author Matthew Reinhart in his studio

Pop-up book author Matthew Reinhart in his studio in Manhattan with Kidsday reporters Emily Baker, left, Caitlin Denburg, Nicholas Mattheus and Anthony Fritz. Photo Credit: Newsday / Pat Mullooly

We met pop-up book artist and author Matthew Reinhart at his studios in Manhattan recently. Matthew recently published “Disney*Pixar: A Pop-Up Celebration.” But as we found out, he was hard at work on his next two projects.

How did you get interested in pop-up book art?

When I was younger I only had one pop-up book. And it was a dinosaur pop-up book, and my sister destroyed it in a day. Growing up, I never really thought about pop-up books at all because the only one I had had a bunch of headless dinosaurs, and it was all ripped up and it didn’t have any pop-ups in it. It wasn’t until I got to be older that I started to get more interested in making pop-ups. And I started to intern with another paper engineer, another pop-up book maker, and that’s where I caught the pop-up bug. I’ve always been making stuff with paper and drawing and creating things that way. Because the only material I had was paper.

What age level do you target with your books?

I don’t really like to target any age group. Hopefully I try to make books that go from a younger reader to older. But it isn’t always that way. Right now I’m developing a series. And it is very much targeted toward pre-K and toddlers. But it just depends on the subject. You know, like I did a “Game of Thrones” book. You guys are probably a little young to watch “Game of Thrones.” So it really depends on the subject matter, more than anything.

How do you get the theme for your books?

There’s a number of different ways that I do. There are certain things I like that I really want to make a book about. But then sometimes I would be approached by publishers, and they’ll say, “Could you make a book about this?” And so it really depends, and it also depends on what people like. I think it’s important for me to be in love with what I’m making, so that I can make something really, really special. If I didn’t really like it, then I’d be like “ah.” But when you’re challenged, ones that you would really love the subject and theme, you can make something really special. So every book . . . there’s always something about it that I really, really love and I’m interested in.

Who taught you how to make pop-up books, or were you self-taught?

I was taught by a paper engineer, Robert Sabuda. And also taught by a lot of people. When you’re learning how to make pop-ups, what a lot of us do — they call us paper engineers, right. So what a lot of us do is take apart pop-ups we really like and figure out how that paper engineer made those pops. So I would destroy other people’s books. So even though I worked with Robert Sabuda, I also learned from all these other paper engineers.

I hope that there’s a whole new generation of people that are doing the kind of books I do. Or even better, in the future, that I can copy from. Or I can take apart the things and learn what they’ve learned because I think it’s really important to always stretch your mind, always continue to try to learn and put yourself in an uncomfortable place. That’s how I started out. I learned from one paper engineer in particular — I was his apprentice — and then also from all these other engineers. You do learn a lot on your own, though. As I work here I found that I learned rules — there are certain rules to paper engineering and making pop-ups. There are certain things that usually have to happen. But my goal is also to break those rules. So I guess that’s me learning on my own.

Are there any hidden messages in your pop-ups?

Oh, yeah. I’m always hiding things. So like in the Pixar book, there are — you guys have heard of Easter eggs, you’ve heard that term before? When people can find Easter eggs in, like, a movie. Well, there are a lot of Easter eggs in this book. And one of them, every pop there is a Mickey Mouse head, and so you have to search all under. So there’s a Mickey Mouse everywhere. So Pixar is a very famous computer animation company, and they are amazingly creative. And there was a class many animators took at California [Institute of the] Arts, yeah, Cal Arts, and the number of the room was A113, and that number is hidden throughout. I think every pop has that number hidden in it.

I would put my family as characters in books. Or I even put myself in the “Star Wars” book because I’m such a huge “Star Wars” fan. I was like, I’m going to be in this book, it’s my turn. And I’m doing that right now in “Nightmare Before Christmas,” and there’s a lot of Easter eggs in it. It’s fun. Wouldn’t you want to do that if you wrote a book or did a book?

How did you get involved with Pixar?

I have a relationship with Disney. I’ve been doing some Disney. So I did this. My first big Disney book, I did “Frozen” last year. I don’t know if you guys got one of those or not. But did you guys get the Pixar book? I get to actually go to the Pixar studios in Emoryville in California. It was so amazing because of the artwork. You know, there’s a lot that goes into those movies — there’s so much art that all these different creative people make. And they design every leaf on the trees. That’s how incredible it is. So I was able to go to Pixar and work with their book group and also work with the different producers from each movie, and they would tell me, “Could you do this moment from the movie?” Sometimes when we see a movie we remember a certain part the most, you know. And we think everybody remembers that part, but not everybody does. And so they help me. Sometimes I’d be on the same page as them, and sometimes they would help me. So that’s how I got connected with Pixar.

How long does it take you to start and finish a pop-up book?

It takes a long time. It takes usually about six months. But sometimes I’m thinking about it many months before. So right now, I have things in my mind for the future. If it’s a really small book, I’ve gotten a book done in like two weeks. But that would be a very simple, small book. A book like this takes much longer, like six months from the beginning to the end. First I have to start with the writing, and thinking about what’s going to happen on each page. It’s almost like a little play happens on each page, so you have to say what actions are going to happen. And then after that it takes about two months to do all the paper engineering, all the pop-up design. It starts out by hand, then I take apart the pop-up and I trace all the pieces, and then I rebuild the pop-up over and over. Sometimes I have to rebuild that pop-up like 20 times.

If you had continued with medical school, where do you think you would be now?

If I had gone to medical school, I would probably be a doctor. I think I wanted to be a plastic surgeon. But see, the thing that wouldn’t have worked for me is I wanted to be a plastic surgeon, but if you had seen my sketchbooks, I was always drawing monsters and creatures and things like that. I would have probably grafted extra eyeballs onto people. Or, you know, insect mandibles or anything.

About how many pieces of paper does it take to make one of your pop-ups?

I think it’s about two or three of these big sheets that are probably about 3 feet by 4 feet. So maybe about three of those of card stock. That’s why some of my books are expensive, because not only does it take up a lot of paper, but there’s so much assembly to go into building it.

Do you doodle when you’re on the phone or when you’re thinking?

Oh, yes, I do. And usually when I’m on the phone I’m working, so I will cut and build, or draw. . . . When I was younger, if you had seen the doodles and my sketches — well, that’s what my teachers used to call me, “Doodles,” because I drew so much in my notebooks. I’ve got to find some of those notebooks because they were really good. But I would sit in class and just draw. And then sort of take notes. But I would mainly draw. And then I would go back to study for the test, and I would be like, oh, no, I don’t have very good notes. But they looked really good. I just would get bored, so I would draw. I doodle whenever I can.

Linda Vaianella’s fifth-grade class, Boyle Road Elementary School, Port Jefferson Station

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