Together or separately, Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart have popped everything: classic stories (Alice in Wonderland, The Jungle Book), Christmas scenes (The 12 Days of Christmas), bookmarks and ornaments, frightening phobias and creepy monsters (Mommy?). And, beginning with 2006's Encyclopedia Prehistorica: Dinosaurs, the pair began exploring the fascinating animals that stalked the earth millennia ago. The third and final part of their extremely popular Prehistorica trilogy, Encyclopedia Prehistorica: Mega-Beasts, will be published this month.
Speaking by phone—make that phones—from their New York studio, Sabuda and Reinhart clearly have this interview routine down pat, identifying themselves before each comment. "We were finding that a lot of teachers and educators, and even librarians, were using pop-up books in their classrooms or for reading time," Sabuda says. "We would go to book signings or to conferences, and educators would say: Oh, we really love pop-up books and it would be great if we could use them more in the classroom."
Add to that the pair's love of prehistoric animals and Reinhart's degree in biology, and a pop-up book on dinosaurs couldn't have been a more perfect project. Each Prehistorica book begins with Reinhart diving into research, consulting books, museums and the Internet.
Remembering his own childhood reading habits, Reinhart aims to make the words bring the animals to life. "I really try . . . to find interesting information, quantitative information how big the animal was, how long it was and all those sort of things but also, interesting, weird, gross facts, because that's fun, that draws the reader in." Reinhart uses wry humor, alliteration and other devices to ensure his text is both informative and entertaining. Of the brontothere, for example, readers are told: "Alas, these hulking horned herbivores may not have been the brightest beasts around, since their brains were only about the size of a man's fist." And in a marvelous juxtaposition of text and image, the woolly rhinoceros (coelodonta), described as shortsighted and dangerous, is shown tripping along, almost as though dancing, in a mini pop-up.
Mega-Beasts introduces a menagerie of towering, lumbering or flying animals, constructed from hand-painted paper in shades of purple, blue, gold and auburn. "We can use sponges for scales, or use combs and run it down the paint to make feathers," Sabuda says. "The opportunity to make different kinds of surfaces and textures, which is so important for this series, is much easier to come by using this technique." Mini pop-ups are used liberally in Mega-Beasts and function like sidebars or pull-down menus augmenting the main spreads.
The team first incorporated the form in their 2000 adaptation of The Wizard of Oz and it is now a standard feature in their books. "If a reader is interested in just a big pop and wants an overview, that's great," Sabuda says, "but if they want to delve just a bit further, those little mini pops will allow them to get that information, too."
Reinhart agrees, "It gives us the opportunity to showcase more creatures and show animals that aren't necessarily the big stars like a saber-tooth tiger or a woolly mammoth." So while you're on the spread with the beautifully rendered, though nevertheless menacing, quetzalcoatlus (there's a helpful pronunciation key after every name), check out the flying fossils flap for a view of an absolutely disgusting (that's meant as a compliment) meganeura dragonfly, its wings delicately formed in clear plastic. After reading text under the airborne saber-toothed feline, peek under the flap on the right-hand page to see a powerful mastodon losing the struggle to escape a tar pit. "Oh, yes," Reinhart and Sabuda respond in unison at the mention of that last pop-up. "We visited La Brea Tar Pits and that [scene was] inspired exactly by that imperial mammoth sinking into the sculpture there," explains Reinhart.
Getting back to the woolly mammoth, as the page is turned on that magnificent spread, the animal moves toward the reader, trunk unfolding, tusks getting closer (this pop-up is also effective when seen in one's peripheral vision). Other impressive large pop-ups include the intricate skeleton of the brutal killing machine cynognathus and the very tall (as in 20 feet) indricotherium, moving at what appears to be a fast clip across a vibrant depiction of a prehistoric landscape.
"I think our books are kind of the high-tech version of regular books," Reinhart says, "they're very complex. The mechanisms we use are a little bit beyond what has been used in the past . . . we use a lot of new paper technology."
Given that, what other elements would Sabuda and Reinhart like to incorporate into their books? "Sound for one thing. I have a big book that I'm killing myself to finish right now," Reinhart says, laughing, before describing his forthcoming Star Wars encyclopedia, a celebration of the 30-year anniversary of the first Star Wars film. He describes himself as a huge fan not like normal people, beyond and says he wanted to incorporate breathing sounds into a spread showing 360-degree views of Darth Vader's helmet. "It's hard-core, but it's really cool," he says, adding that limited editions of the book might include sound.
As for Sabuda, he'd like to do something for the youngest pop-up fans. "It would be great to be able to create a series of pop-up books with un-tearable pop-ups," he says. "We would have to develop some kind of paper that was impregnated with Tyvek or plastic or something so it would be much sturdier, and it wouldn't break off, because pop-up books really get loved to tears."
In the meantime, the two are planning their next series, Encyclopedia Mythologica, about myths and legends. While both Reinhart and Sabuda also have their individual projects, Sabuda says exhaustive series like Prehistorica and Mythologica are best handled as team efforts. "That type of work would take a good two years, two-and-a-half years to do alone, so there's no way one of us all by ourselves could get that done."
As for divvying up the other ideas, Sabuda says they choose projects that appeal to their personal interests, like Matthew working on Star Wars [Reinhart interjects: "I wouldn't let him touch it." Sabuda responds: "Right."] and the whole series of white Christmas titles.
"People always ask where we get our ideas," Sabuda continues. "There's a never-ending chain of ideas that go on towards infinity, it seems like, which is good. "