During my last weekly-but-increasingly-frequent Waterstones visit, I spotted a title I’ve had my eye on for quite some time: Playbook Farm, published by Nosy Crow.
In case you haven’t heard of it before, it’s a ‘pop-up book and play mat in one’ that was published in September of last year. So, it essentially works in the same way as a board or picture book but also folds out into a 3D model that children can use to play with on the floor.
I’ve always been amazed by the intricacies of pop-up books. I remember trying my hand at making my own pop-up cards as a child (usually Blue Peter-style!) where the characters would all stand up in front of a painted background as you open the card, creating a little model. Even as adults, there’s no doubt that seeing something transform in front of your eyes is just as amazing as it is for children. The only difference is that us adults might tend to have a ‘wow’ moment and a secondary ‘how did they do that?!’ moment, whereas children probably hold on to that ‘wow’ moment for that little bit longer…
So now, seeing the excellent types of 3-D masterpieces that can be created from layers of paper, complex mechanics and repetitions of images (just look at some of the images by Playbook Farm’s creator on this post!) not only amazes me but makes me wonder about the whole ‘how did they do that?!’ bit and – in a publishing mind-set – leads me to also wonder about the role of such masterpieces.
Crossing the boundary
When it comes to the first ‘how do they do that?!’ question, I won’t go into detail, but simply point out the long, complex processes involved in creating all pop-up books – each one needing to be printed by specialist printers and assembled by hand. As pointed out by the paper engineer Andrew Barton: ‘the result is one of the last hand-made, mass-produced, complex products that you can buy today.’
Playbook Farm is just one example of what can be achieved by this term ‘paper engineering’. Here we see the idea of a picture/board book being transformed into something fully immersive and – dare I say it – crossing the boundary into the realm of toys (although, I did wonder when I first saw Playbook Farm how durable the ‘play mat’ concept would be beneath the feet of young children – even the recommended 36 months plus….). Such an innovative title hints at the ways publishers could think creatively to give books that upper-hand if ‘competing’ with the interactive element that digital apps might be able to offer – even for such publishers as Nosy Crow themselves, who also develop their own digital book apps. Yet, one might conversely think that the interactive element of the pop-up book could itself be compared to the ‘bells and whistles’ of the digital book apps that publishers have received so critically in the first place…
On the one hand, many pop-up books – similarly to digital book apps – could draw reluctant readers to pick up such a book due to their incongruity and surprise elements. But when it comes to anything more than looking at the pretty pictures, the idea of them promoting any hands-on learning or enticement to really get into reading has been debatable for quite some time. This is not just in the case of non-fiction pop-up titles, but for pop-up picture book titles aimed at early years, where they might be trying to teach basic morals or such simple concepts as ‘a cow goes moo’. Yes, they might see something in 3D, but are they associating what is going on with what it represents? With the emphasis being on the pop-up elements, might what is going on in the text be completely missed?
The science-y bit
A few researchers have in fact looked into this in the past. Most notably, a series of experiments determined that when children ‘have been encouraged to manipulate and play’ with something, they find it harder to understand that what they are playing with is actually a symbol of something else – known as ‘dual representation’. Furthermore, the cognitive effort it takes to manipulate the flaps and pop-up elements of the book can make it harder for them to additionally process what is being said by an adult or the book itself. Overall, they suggested that to get information across to children, ‘less is more’.*
So it makes you wonder, are the pop-up elements worthwhile if what is going on in the text of a book might be missed as a result? And what about the titles that were originally straightforward picture books and are re-released to become pop-up books? We’ve seen how complex a production process each book has to go through – why go through that all if it is at the expense of the overall story or the message of a book?
The New York Times put it well:
“Why mess around with an established picture-book favorite – one that seems to land on every newborn’s bookshelf? Because the pop-up version isn’t a mess-up, but rather a beautifully produced, restrained amplification of the original” [sic]
In my personal opinion, similarly with digital book apps, it’s all about variation and knowing when to use different formats. If you’re really trying to teach a child what a duck is, perhaps you’re best off showing them a simple picture book about ducks. But if you want to amaze and entertain your child, then pop-up books are a fantastic novelty to do just that.
Playbook Farm itself was engineered by Corina Fletcher, who has also produced some intricate pop-up versions of such well-known titles as Giraffes Can’t Dance and Guess How Much I Love You for many different publishers. Personally, I see the art in all her work and want to buy her work for myself, just as much as I would for a child!
* It’s probably worth pointing out that it’s of course a completely different scenario if you’re working with pop-up non-fiction titles for older children and adults. Some of the earliest moveable books were aimed solely at adults and used in the medical profession to illustrate the anatomy of the human body – clearly the 3D element has its use when you are cognitively developed enough to automatically understand ‘dual representation’.