Pop-up books: for better or worse?

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.

Playbook Farm, Nosy Crow

Playbook Farm

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…

Giraffes Can't Dance

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’.*

Lost and Found

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’.

All photos © Corina Fletcher: http://www.corinaandco.com/

Themes and dragons

Just a brief post to mention that the Reading Agency have decided on their theme for this year’s Summer Reading Challenge – ‘Creepy House’, with illustrations by the well-known author Chris Riddell.The Reading Mission

As with each and every Reading Challenge, there will be various levels to explore – this time The Awful Upstairs, The Gruesome Ground Floor and The Spine-tingling Cellar…

I never fail to be impressed by the theme ideas that The Reading Agency come up with year-on-year – from Circus Stars to The Reading Mission, to Space Hop and many more since 1999. As they say – they always ensure that they suit both genders and cover a wide age range, to entice as many children as possible to take part.

Circus Stars

The themes allow libraries and schools to get creative with displays and events to make The Challenge the centre of attention at libraries during the summer weeks, so that children really feel they’re a part in something big. When I worked at a Bristol library, I remember the effort we would make to promote The Challenge and make it as exciting as possible for every child. Take this big dragon, below, that I made one evening for the Quest Seekers theme! Now that was a lot of cutting and gluing…

“The annual Summer Reading Challenge helps gets three quarters of a million children into libraries to keep up their reading skills and confidence. Because everything changes when we read.”

– The Reading Agency
Quest Seekers

The New Scholastic Research Results: a flashback to my dissertation

Earlier today, the Bookseller reported on the findings of the new Scholastic Kids and Family Reading Report (4th edition). It’s a report that’s been conducted since 2006, based on a survey of adults and children in the US (1,074 children between 6 and 17 in this one), giving useful insight into reading habits and trends.

The results didn’t really come as a surprise to me, having read their previous reports from the last few years, but some of the statistics are of interest – especially those concerning rates of reading for pleasure. It’s an area of interest to me, having spent so much of my time looking into it during research for my MA dissertation last year.


The report seemed to primarily focus on e-books:

  • Although there was a sharp rise in the amount of children who had read an e-book (46% of children in this study as opposed to 25% of children in their 2010 study), 80% of the children still did most of their reading from print books.
  • The main time a print book came across as preferable to an e-book was at bedtime and for reading along with friends, whereas e-books were seen as useful for reading when travelling or when they didn’t want friends knowing what they were reading.

Of interest to me, was that 21% of the children who had access to e-books said that they were now reading more books for pleasure. Moreover, the report found that ‘half of children age 9–17 say they would read more books for fun if they had greater access to e-books – a 50% increase since 2010’. Does this point to e-books being directly beneficial for encouraging increased reading for pleasure in children?

Reading for pleasure

New scholastic research However, the number of children in the survey who read for pleasure between 5-7 times a week (considered to be ‘frequent readers’) decreased from 37% in their 2010 survey to 34% in this recent survey. Although not a huge decrease, it is still notable that there continues to be a decrease at all.

There can be many reasons for this. In fact, it was one of the key areas for my MA research. The reasons for the amount of time (or lack thereof) a child spends reading for pleasure are vast – and are partly believed to be based on children’s perceptions of reading – such as the importance they place on reading for pleasure. It can be due to parental influence (e.g. whether their parents visibly read or not); access to books (e.g. money to buy books); time (e.g. versus time spent doing homework); competitive media (e.g. leisure time spent playing video games, on computers, watching TV) and much more.

The additional finding that younger children are more likely to read for pleasure than those in the older age bracket is not new. In fact, this is known to be around the difficult ‘transition’ age, where children move from primary to high school and adjust their reading preferences – sometimes finding it difficult to move from one age level of literature to another. But, again, there are also many other reasons why children’s interest in reading for pleasure declines with age.

A potential link? The focus of my work…

In their previous reports, they found that children’s use of media – including social media – increased with age, documenting this right through from 6 to 17 years old. But, in this report, they only seem to have reported on the 12 to 17 year age-range. Still, the increase is there.

In my work, I noticed that the previous reports (as well as reports by the National Literacy Trust in the UK), documented this rate of reading for pleasure decreasing with age whilst the rate of other media consumption increased (e.g. social media, playing games, using a mobile phone). I therefore began wondering whether there might be a way to tackle this potential link…

This is what led to me coming up with the idea of a platform that would utilise children’s growing interests in other media to engage them with reading for pleasure after the age of 8. I looked into what drew them to this other media, and found another potential link between the importance placed by children on social interaction as they grew older and the other media they were using. I conducted research for my platform concept with children across libraries and schools and came up with some interesting results – with an extremely enthusiastic audience reaction to my concept. The research is now being used by The Reading Agency as they develop a similar model.


Scholastic’s research was instrumental in me putting two and two together to come up with this idea, which I hope will be of some use. Reading for pleasure is directly linked with literacy and academic achievement and also has an influence on a person’s economic and social wellbeing, so efforts to promote it are of paramount importance. Such reports by Scholastic, as well as such bodies as the National Literacy Trust, are of use to everyone involved in the effort to improve literacy rates in the UK and abroad – whether it achieves a deeper understanding of the issues or provides new ideas for tackling them. However, with this new survey documenting an increase in the number of parents concerned about the time their children spend reading for pleasure (up to 47% from 36% in 2010), it’s clear that much more still needs to be done…

Read the full report here: http://mediaroom.scholastic.com/kfrr