Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to interview paper engineer and pop-up book designer, the exceptionally talented, Becca Zerkin.
Becca first studied paper engineering at the Center for the Book Arts in New York City and at Pratt Institute with The New York Times bestselling pop-up book creator, Kyle Olmon. She currently works alongside bestselling author and paper engineer, Matthew Reinhart (Encyclopedia Mythologica: Dragons & Monsters; Star Wars: The Pop-up Guide to the Galaxy), in his busy and innovative studio. She previously worked with paper engineer Sam Ita, creator of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: A Pop-Up Book and other titles.
Becca’s freelance clients include the greeting card company, Up With Paper. Becca offers workshops in schools to help students apply geometry and spatial thinking to the art of pop-ups. She has also been a frequent guest instructor in book artist Esther Smith’s class at Cooper Union.
Becca also writes, and has reviewed children’s books for The New York Times and the Junior Library Guild.
Becca earned a B.A. from Swarthmore College and a Masters in Teaching from Simmons College. For nearly ten years, Becca was an elementary school teacher and provided professional development to teachers of reading and writing.
She lives in the New York with her husband, children and some fish.
I recently had the chance to catch up with Becca.
Becca, thanks so much for doing this interview.
When I was a child, one of the books that I cherished, and sadly destroyed with too much love, was a French pop-up book telling the story of Puss in Boots. What were some of your favorite childhood books? Were any of them pop-up books?
I wish I could say I remember a pop-up book (even one!) from my childhood. I can’t—how embarrassing!
What I loved were picture books and chapter books that my mom read to me. The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, and Blueberries for Sal and Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey were among my very favorites. I liked quiet picture books rather than adventure ones, I think. But mostly I absorbed my mom’s enthusiasm for whatever we were reading together.
How did you first get interested in paper engineering and pop-up book design?
Since I was little I always liked making things, with paper or Fimo clay or anything I could build with. I came by that naturally—I was like my grandmother that way. (And, coincidentally, she loved pop-up books long before I did! If she were still here, she’d get a kick out of what I do.)
After I’d been teaching for a long while, I was home part-time with my two young kids. I was connected with children’s books through my staff development work in schools and the reviews I wrote about children’s books. I started to wonder what kind of job I could dream up that would be new, challenging and creative and also in the realm of children’s literature. I really wanted to make something.
I discovered the pull-tab book Wheels on the Bus by Paul Zelinksy with paper engineering by Rodger Smith. I realized Smith had the [paid!] job of figuring out how to make paper move this way. It was mathy and creative and playful all at the same time, and it was a children’s book. I also came across a pop-up book by Patricia Fry; like me, she had been a teacher in NYC before becoming a paper engineer. That gave me the inspiration to go for it. It was a crazy idea, but my family cheered me on.
What was your first pop-up project?
My first movable project was a pull-tab. I had made a print of two dancing girls, and I figured out how to make the girls move in different directions when I pulled the tab. It was a good challenge, and I was very proud of myself. Later, as my first assignment in Kyle’s class, I made a pop-up wasp. I stayed up late many nights that week figuring it out!
Can you tell us a little a bit about the process of making a pop-up? How long does it take to put out a commercial pop-up book?
There’s a lot of trial and error in making a pop-up. I have some idea in my head. I start cutting paper (sloppily!) and taping it in place to see what happens. When I have a good start, I take it apart, scan the pieces, and make dielines for each piece using Adobe Illustrator. I cut those out, put them together, fix the trouble spots, and make more changes. Even for a simple card I might go through six or more rounds of this before I like it.
A commercial book, like one of Matthew Reinhart’s, can take a year or more from beginning to end. He designs the pop-ups with paper and tape through a trial and error process, the pieces are translated into digital dielines, and later the art is added into the digital files. It’s sent to a manufacturer (a printer in China or Thailand). Die-cuts are made in the shape of each piece in the book, and the pieces are punched out like sugar cookies from large sheets with the art printed on them. Every pop-up is then hand-assembled. Oftentimes paper engineers visit the printers during the process to check the assembly. The printers also have experienced paper engineers on staff who are able to make suggestions when pop-ups don’t work smoothly or are tricky to assemble.
Are there particular projects that you are drawn to? Can you please give us the inside scoop on some of your current projects?
I love learning new things, so right now I’m researching and writing non-fiction. I’m working on a really fun book about how things work for young kids who ask a ton of questions. I’m sure you know one! Sometimes as a parent you don’t know how to respond to a question like “How did my lamp turn on?” in a way that’s satisfying to a young child. In my book I answer questions about water, electricity and other systems, and I have lively pop-ups to illustrate the ideas. I’d call it David-McCauley–meets-Richard-Scarry. I’m very excited about it. I have another top-secret project about something really . . . disgusting. You’ll have to stay tuned for that one.
I love the medieval pop-up book that you did with a class of seventh graders. How did the book come about?
Thanks! That was a wonderful collaboration with a talented 7th grade history and language arts teacher at my son’s school. The students had studied Chaucer and medieval Europe. They developed characters and wrote Chaucerian-style tales that were just amazing. I taught the students a couple of basic mechanisms, and they each created a pop-up of their character. The pop-ups and the tales were bound into a nice volume—it was a great way to publish and showcase their work.
Has being a school teacher influenced your projects in any way?
Both teaching and parenting have informed me a lot. I have good sense of what kids enjoy and what’s challenging for them to understand. I also think about what works for parents when they’re reading to their kids and how kids will interact with pull tabs and pop-ups while they’re listening to a story.
The other aspect of teaching I think about when I’m making pop-ups is how much applied math and critical thinking is involved. I wonder a lot about how I could help students deepen their understanding of mathematical concepts by teaching them how to make pop-ups.
How is writing a pop-up book different from a regular book?
In many ways it’s the same. The writing has to be compelling no matter what. But with a pop-up the book has to be structured around five or six spreads that will each have one main pop-up for the child to focus on. So the pacing of the book is organized around that.
Is it harder to publish a pop-up book than a regular book?
As you know, children’s books in general are difficult to publish. It’s a tough field, and there are a lot of wonderful authors and illustrators out there. But it’s much more expensive to create pop-up books because of the labor involved. It’s a big investment, and publishers need to sell many thousands of a pop-up title to make it profitable for them. Understandably, a publisher needs to see the potential for a wide audience to be interested in the book before they will consider publishing it.
Matthew Reinhart and Robert Sabuda have been described as “revolutionizing the pop-up book industry, repositioning the pop-up book as a children’s novelty item into a grown-up collector’s obsession via their intricately-crafted masterpieces.” (Source: http://www.squidoo.com/pop-up-books-by-robert-sabuda-and-matthew-reinhart#module66342901). What has it been like working alongside a master paper engineer?
I’m very lucky to work with Matthew. When you look at his books, you’re astounded by what his brain is able to come up with. Having the chance to study his work, literally deconstructing it and putting it back together, has taught me a lot about what paper can do. And really it’s just plain fun, like doing puzzles all day. Matthew has also been very supportive of my work, which means a lot.
How can your fans get a hold of you if they would like to learn more about your work or if they would like you to teach a workshop?
I’d love to hear from fans! You can find me through my website, http://www.beccazerkin.com.
Becca, I cannot thank you enough for doing this interview. And I cannot wait to get my first copy of your “how things work” book. I’m also most intrigued about your top-secret project. All the best and much success.
Robin, thanks so much for your interest in my work! Best of luck to you, too!