Do Tablet Apps and Ebooks Spell the End of Pop-Up Books?

The wonky mechanical magic of pop-up books for kids is alive and well in kid-friendly apps and ebooks.

Fred Dufour, AFP / Getty Images

Are pop-up books dying? We remember pulling our first paper tab and seeing a book miraculously come to life. But a lot of kids these days are getting that kick on iPads and other fancy tablets. Which makes one wonder if the steady stream of interactive ebooks aimed at kids means that this generation won’t have childhood memories of Pat the Bunny, Where’s Spot, or Peter Rabbit?

Anyone worried about the future can exhale—sort of. Pop -up books aren’t dead, they’ve just turned into book apps. The apps for, say, Peter Rabbit or Alice in Wonderland are the easiest to compare to old fashioned pop-up books, thanks to their traditional stylings and digital pull-tabs. They inhabit a strange middle ground between ebook and app: not strictly text but also not quite Angry Birds. They are what ebooks would look like if their illustrations came to life.

The other digital successors to old fashioned pop-ups are magazine apps, such as those for GQ and Esquire, with their interactive doodads, moving images, and digital easter eggs if you shake your screen just so.

Magazine apps and book apps for kids may be the new pop-ups, but that doesn’t mean we should go all Fahrenheit 451 just yet.

Pop-up books, pretty much anything on paper that has moving parts or appears in 3D, first showed up in the 1300s but didn’t really start catering to kids until about 500 years later. In the 90s, thanks to some improved printing know-how and artistic gumption, things like The Daily Express Children’s Annual sprouted up. Innovators like Vojtech Kubasta in Prague and Waldo Hunt in the U.S. tried to blend high-level paper cutting with charming titles featuring Babar, Sesame Street, and Disney characters.

Despite their popularity, pop-up books have never been an over-populated field. “There aren’t that many people that make pop-up books,” says Maria Tatar, a Harvard professor specializing in childhood literature. “My guess is that there are probably less than 100 [authors] that have done it successfully. So you have a very dangerous ecology. You could imagine that it would disappear overnight.”

Jump forward some decades and the number of ebook designers is comparably small. Tatar is understandably a big fan of the printed page despite owning an Amazon Kindle.

Pop-ups have occupied a strange place in between art and literature.Tatar says pop-ups are largely left out of the children’s literature canon despite general admiration for them as art objects. That art also makes pop-ups more fragile. An expensive iPad usually wins the durability contest.

Now, instead of kids ripping out paper tabs, they can happily bash the Queen of Hearts as her court gleefully wobbles under an iPad screen. The Alice in Wonderland app, by Atomic Antelope, is one of two notable book apps (the other being Peter Rabbit by Loudcrow) that have captured critical acclaim and young readers by melding text with interactive elements. Tilt the iPad and its internal gyroscope will throw bottles and pocket watches as if obeying gravity. Playing cards fly around the screen as Alice herself grows and shrinks along with the plot.

The Alice app was co-designed by Chris Stevens, who admits to being “a massive fan of traditional books, which is odd, especially since I’ve been hailed as the death of the book.” After several failed iPhone apps, he jumped into the relatively uncrowded iPad market and got a hit out his Alice adaptation. Like Tatar, Stevens thinks pop-ups will be fine thanks to their weird position as art objects for children. Still, he thinks ebooks and book apps are undercutting the market for traditional books: “I get a lot of emails from parents and a lot of [them] would previously be buying pop-up books but are now buying the app because their kids are into the iPad,” he says.

Stevens worries that publishers will thoughtlessly slap popular kids books onto the iPad in hopes of success similar to his. The one thing he sees standing in the way of an unimaginative, imitative flood of children’s book apps is the cost. Stevens guesses that a simple iPad app costs around $60,000 to produce--and the publisher’s return is still pretty low.

While the initial cost is exponentially higher, distributing the Alice app is easier than churning out intricate pop-ups like those made by artist Robert Sabuda. “One of the reasons why I’m able to make sure complicated pop-up books is because there are fortunately people who can afford to buy these books for themselves or their children,” Sabuda says. “When I look at a tablet—and I do have an iPad—it’s expensive now but it’s going to come down.”

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Sabuda has built a reputation as a brilliant three-dimensional artist, able to create pop ups that spin, lace-together, or change even as you open the page. Those complex designs don’t come cheap, however, and Sabuda has an entire factory overseas dedicated to hand-assembling his work. His books are as much art objects as they are pop up book meant to entertain children. He has gone on record to say his books are a time to unplug from the digital world and spend time as a family. That changed.

“Someone showed me Peter Rabbit [on iPad] three months ago, four months ago, and I distinctly remember seeing that and thinking, ‘This is coming; and once it comes, it’s not going back,’” Sabuda says.

He’s now working on ways to enter the digital market while keeping a foot in the traditional world of print. Traditional books, he says, will “have to be reinvented for the digital world.”

That reinvention is happening now in the magazine world, which has become a bizarre, unlikely heir to the pop-up tradition but—in its new digital incarnation, at older, worldlier readers. Magazine apps are digital pop-up books for the modern reader, and they would do well to learn some fast lessons from their kiddy counterparts.

“We still aren’t entirely clear what makes a good app in the magazine world,” says Devin Gordon, GQ’s senior editor and one of the minds focusing on its app re-launch. “You can get overly preoccupied with doodads and gadgets and lose track of what your readers are actually coming to you for,” he says. That sense of simplicity and drive is something shared between magazines and kid ebooks.

Gordon has a 2-year-old daughter who loves the iPad. “The Peter Rabbit book is beautiful,” he says, “if I was a kid it’s hard to imagine reading it any other way. Or at least it would be my favorite book.” He adds that his daughter still loves “boring old flat books too.”

Clearly there are some similarities between GQ’s mindset and the minds that created the Peter Rabbit app. Gordon points out that the electronic version of Beatrix Potter’s text is “using the tech to draw [the reader] in, linger on the page longer. It’s not replacing the reading experience.” If you poke some falling blackberries in Peter Rabbit, they grow bigger and burst. If you click on some dogs in a GQ feature, you get a quick Easter egg on what kind of woman that dog will help you attract. Same concept, different audiences.

One company active in the development of both magazine apps and works for children is Scrollmotion, which worked with Hearst to create apps for Esquire and O, the Oprah magazine. The company also has a line of apps featuring Curious George, Thomas the Tank Engine and Sesame Street. “I think that [our kids platform] Iceberg Kids is some of the most exciting stuff,” said Scrollmotion co-founder Josh Koppel. “I love it, I love it, I love it. On a couple of levels. The kinds of books we’re producing are the kinds of books that are bringing lots of content to the service. I think they bring a lot of love of books, even though the interactivity is sort of limited.”

Apps, especially magazine apps, do have their limitations. You can’t get true 3D, and there isn’t the possibility of varied smells and touches. And unlike books, magazines have new content to worry about every month or week. The creators of the Alice and Peter Rabbit apps don’t have to worry about such things. They create their products and they’re done. Magazine editors wrangling with apps must constantly try to figure out how to put new content into a digital format. “You’re not dealing with content that is fixed,” Koppel says. Perhaps for that reason he reserves his greatest enthusiasm for apps for children. “I just feel like the opportunity in iPad for kids books is the greatest opportunity we’ve seen,” he says. “It’s a complete reinvention. There’s a lot to learn from pop-up books, but let’s not leave it there.”

Still, don’t sound the death knell for real pop-up books just yet. People born before the 90s grew up with books and the pop-up boom. Nostalgia prevents even the deepest cynics of that demographic from completely writing off print.

There is, however, a generation of readers, like Gordon’s daughter, that is growing up with the iPad and its interactive joys. “On a bad day that’s what I fear,” says Harvard professor Tatar. “That they’ll just look at [a traditional hardcover or paperback book] and be bored. On the other hand, there is a certain magic to the pop-up book and I can’t believe that their imaginations will be so impoverished by technology that they won’t look at that and be in awe.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Alice co-creator Chris Stevens. When asked to describe his first pop-up book, he recalled a wonderful book that gradually unfolded in a series of rooms that were fully furnished with pop-up chairs and whimsical characters. At the end, the reader was left with an entire, doll-size house made only of paper and ink. “It was this amazing book that unfolded and it kept unfolding into this huge house with all these rooms … it was a bit unlike a traditional pop-up book,” Stevens says. “I wish I could remember what it was.”