ABC Pop-Up + An Interview with Courtney Watson McCarthy

ABCPOPUP

by Courtney Watson McCarthy (Candlewick, 2017)

Just when you think you’ve seen every ABC book, something fresh pops up. This one is clever and sophisticated, and I got to chat with Courtney Watson McCarthy about all things engineering and design and just plain happiness.

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When, how, or why did you get into making pop-up books?

I have always loved MAKING things. I enjoyed drawing as a child but I really loved constructing things, usually out of paper and tape. I learned early on how to use an x-acto knife with my dad, constructing movable paper objects from a kit called Spooner’s Moving Animals.

I stumbled into the world of pop-ups and paper engineering unintentionally, probably as most do. I started collecting pop-up books and mimicking what I was seeing, I made cards and gifts for people. But one day, I had an “aha!” moment when I realized that it was someone’s actual job to make these books and I set out to learn how. I was living in CA at the time and was fortunate enough to find a class on pop-ups offered at The Art Center of Pasadena. A short while later, I moved back to New York City and on a whim, emailed Robert Sabuda photos of the pop-ups I created in class. He and his business partner Matthew Reinhart invited me to his studio to talk about all things pop-ups. A short time later, they offered me a freelance job in the studio. However, on the very same day, I was offered a full time design position with Penguin Books. I was living in a new city, about to get married and terrified of the freelance life! So I thanked them for their offer and accepted the “safe” job. I have always wondered how it would have turned out if I had accepted Robert’s offer but working for Penguin was a great experience and helped me to learn a lot about the inner workings of publishing. I always knew I would find my way back into paper engineering and that it had to be on my own path.

Only a few years later, however, after the birth of my first daughter, I found myself ready for the flexibility and the creativity that freelancing can provide. I started out building little pop-ups, during nap times, of my some of my daughter’s favorite things. These would be the beginnings of ABC Pop-Up though it would take another ten years to come to fruition.

I am sure there’s got to be a link between your history in theater and set design and paper engineering. Can you talk to that a little?

I fell in love with theater in high school, primarily being onstage. But during my time majoring in theater at Hampshire College, I found that I was more interested in shaping what a production looks like, rather than be in it. My love of set design definitely had a huge influence on becoming a paper engineer. Creating a scenic design for theater requires you to step inside the play, truly visualize where these characters are and then create a physical representation of that vision. Creating a pop-up book is creating through that same process but in a smaller scale. I also found I enjoyed both model building and technical drafting, both skills necessary for scenic design. Creating pop-up books require the same skills, paper skills for creating the pops, and technical drawing to create the files necessary to recreate the books.

What are you most hopeful to see in this book’s readers?

Joy! It was designed loosely based around my daughters’ favorite things, an odd collection that would make one of them squeal in delight or coo contentedly. It’s a lovely small book meant to be shared on laps. I love seeing the delight on children’s faces when they open a pop-up book for the first time.

Publishing pop-up books is always a challenge. They are expensive and time consuming to produce, as every single one must be hand-assembled. In the digital world we are all occupying now, with everything so easily download-able, I believe it is more important than ever to keep producing actual books on paper. Pop-up books stimulate imagination and creativity and can also be a fabulous learning tool. Getting them into the hands of young readers helps keep the artform alive.

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Can you tell us about your process?

ABC Pop-Up came about very slowly, almost by accident. I began working on several unrelated small pop-ups over 10 years ago, mostly just to get the creative juices flowing. I then did a series of pop-up books, mostly collaborating with a packager based in the UK, using existing art and recreating them in three dimensions. Those books, on subjects such as MC Escher and Salvador Dali, followed similar processes. I do a lot of research on the artist and spend days and weeks simply studying the art. Slowly, I separate the artwork into layers, thinking about what pop-up mechanisms would work best. I then build very rough white dummies before laying the artwork on top. Typically, you can create pop-ups and then create the artwork to fit within it. But in these cases I am using existing art that can’t be altered and I have to find ways merely to enhance it.

With ABC Pop-Up I had significantly more creative freedom, as I was creating each piece from scratch and could essentially do whatever I wanted! Five or six years ago, an editor saw some of the first few spreads (apple, balloons, juice) and said “Hey there’s a little alphabet book here!”

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I then slowly developed each spread up through the letter O. I made up several samples, as well as a short video of the project so far and sent it out to about ten different publishers. I had the highest hopes to work with Candlewick as they have an excellent reputation with paper engineers and make beautiful pop-up books. I received polite rejections from every single publisher EXCEPT Candlewick! They said they loved it but I had to finish it before they could commit. So back to the drawing board to complete the book. I think I revised the R/S/T spread (roots, swing, tree) more times than the entire book put together.

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Every time you adjust one small angle you have to adjust everything else, especially with such a small book, to make sure nothing is sticking out of the sides.

My very messy desk and some of my tools:

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Once all of the dummies are finalized, I lay out all of the components of the book onto one large document in the computer. This is called a nesting sheet.

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This provides the printer with all the information they need to recreate the book. From there, multiple dummies are made, checked, adjusted and remade.

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Until the final arrives!

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Who are some of your story heroes?

I read aloud to my daughters every single night, particularly stories with strong female protagonists lately. I love being able to share favorite characters from my own childhood memories as well as discover new ones. Claudia Kincaid of From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is a fascinating portrayal of a 12 year old, strong, defiant, complex. My youngest daughter and I recently tore through the entire Clementine series, laughing out loud the whole time.

I tend to gravitate toward misfit characters, the ones who feel they don’t fit in or don’t care about fitting in. Ramona Quimby, of course, Anne Shirley, Lyra of His Dark Materials, Violet Baudelaire, Peter Sis’ Madlenka. Not surprisingly I find I’m drawn to books that incorporate paper somehow into the storyline. Years ago, I fell in love with Clare the paper artist from Audrey Niffennegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. And I have revisited Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus multiple times, losing myself in her magical otherworldly descriptions.

What’s your favorite piece of art in your house?

I’m sure it’s common to answer with your children’s art but seriously, what they produce in a month is more creativity that I can imagine in a year. My eldest is an amazing writer and my youngest creates amazing paper sculptures.

A table set for tea made out of construction paper and tape by my daughter at age 7.

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What I love most about the art in our house is that each piece has some kind of a story or memory attached to it. A small piece purchased while traveling, artwork given to us by friends. Currently we have a print of Faith Ringgold’s Freedom of Speech hanging in our dining room that has prompted a lot of interesting meaningful dinnertime conversations.

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What’s next for you?

I have been working on several private commissions this past year. But I’m eager to get back some new book ideas of my own!

And guess what? I have an extra copy of this delightful book for one of you! Just comment here by Friday, February 2nd at noon PST for a chance to win. US only please.

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10 Comments

  • John Smith
    Posted January 30, 2018 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    Those pop-ups are incredible! I like the strong design and simplicity! Congratulations to the author!

  • Posted January 30, 2018 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    I will consider myself the luckiest person ever if I win this beauty!!!! (If not, I’m off the the library!)

  • Tara Creel
    Posted January 30, 2018 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Pop up books are huge in my house! Such beautiful, intricate pieces of art combined with our other favorite thing: books. This one looks so gorgeous and fun!

  • Posted January 30, 2018 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    I just finished doing my ABC storytime, and would have loved to use this book. It would be a fantastic addition. I loved all the projects you showed.

    Thank you for sharing this.

  • Posted January 30, 2018 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    I love pop up books – so many surprises with each turn. Looks like a fun skill to learn.

  • Posted January 30, 2018 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Amazing work. I admire the skill and diligence needed to create a pop-up book!

  • Posted January 30, 2018 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    This book is beautiful! I imagine, besides creativity and artistic talent, it took a lot of patience!

  • Posted January 30, 2018 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Love pop-ups!

  • Lisa Babs
    Posted January 30, 2018 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    I’ve never seen pop-ups so gorgeous in a book before.

  • Posted January 31, 2018 at 12:55 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this insight into Courtney’s considerable talent. Pop-ups are a marvel. Right now, I’m wishing every child in the world had one.

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