‘Paper engineering’ is a good description of what Robert Crowther does. A maker of fantastical, quirky pop-up books, the artist’s favourite readers are the reluctant children who pick up a pop-up without really knowing what’s inside. In his bestselling ABC, kids could pull tabs and lift flaps ‘to make frogs leap, hens peck, koalas climb, mice scuttle, owls blink and snakes uncoil’; in his book on numbers, ‘one spider drops on its thread, five goldfish leap out of the water and ten butterflies rise into the sky.’
The book’s entertainment value cleverly masks its educational content. “I think pop-ups perform a useful function in drawing these children into books and hopefully leading them on into reading fiction,” says Robert, whose other books include a series on transport, shapes, colours and one on household inventions.
Creating a pop-up book can take time. With a topic chosen it may take three months to make the initial black and white roughs – and there’s still plenty of work to be done before it’s ready to go to the printers. “For me making these first roughs is the most interesting part of the book,” says Robert, adding that “I enjoy showing roughs to schoolchildren and also I think it is good for them to see a book in a less glossy state – it gives them the feeling that they can achieve something similar in quality.” Though he did show his own kids the pop-ups when they were younger, he confesses “If I’m honest I try to make books that I like myself.”
A good pop-up has plenty of humour in it, and Robert enjoys surprising a laugh out of his readers. “Some of the most successful mechanics I’ve used have been very simple but effective: all children seem to be tickled by a crocodile snapping open its jaws, an idea I’ve used two or three times now.” He is currently at work on a book about extreme animal habitats which will cover the desert, deep sea, polar regions, grasslands and the jungle.
He says creating all the animals is going to be a welcome change from working on his transport series. He’s also looking forward to his first visit to Sri Lanka. “I shall be working in Jaffna part of the time and I’m fascinated to see this part of the country,” he says.
What are you reading now?
I’ve just started ‘Fingersmith’, by Sarah Waters, which my partner Sarah suggested I might like to read. It recreates Victorian England in such a wonderfully descriptive way: you can almost feel the cold in the dank and dingy terraced house where Sue the maid is brought up under the care of Mrs. Sucksby. She is then sent away from this house of petty thieves to a large country house where she is to befriend Maud, a young heiress, and help lure her into a marriage to Gentleman, a conman who aspires to inheriting Maud’s money. It seems to me a most intriguing book and I’ve no idea what will happen in the end but it is a gripping read!
Where do you like to read?
I like to read in complete peace and quiet and if there is any background noise I can’t concentrate and keep re-reading the same passages. I especially like reading on holiday: this year we were staying in a Greek villa high above the town of Nidri, on the island of Lefkas, and I could sit in a deckchair with the sunlight glinting on a bright blue sea in the distance, sipping a cold drink – the perfect place to read!
Which was the first pop-up book ever you fell in love with? Which was the most recent?
As a youngster I had two pop-up books, one of nursery rhymes and the other was the Story of Jesus, which I loved because the beautifully illustrated scenes stood up in the centre of the page in quite dramatic fashion. Probably this book is the reason I ended up making pop-ups as I’ve always enjoyed making things in 3D out of card.
When I was at art college I was particularly inspired by tutors like the illustrator John Farman, who encouraged me to come up with solutions for projects using card.
Recently I’ve been inspired by the work of Louise Rowe, in particular her interpretation of Red Riding Hood (Tango Books): I think her style of illustration and the colours she uses are particularly fresh and unusual.
If you could create a pop-up book to accompany any children’s classic, which would it be and why? What scenes do you imagine would be particularly fun to work on?
A lot of children’s classics have already been made into pop-ups but I think it would be good to try a Robinson Crusoe or a Swiss Family Robinson. I think the shipwreck scene could be fun as building a cabin in tall trees. I think there may be a Treasure Island pop-up already but if not I might suggest it to my editor!
Could you recommend two books that both a child and an adult would enjoy equally?
I think the work of Stephen Biesty can be enjoyed equally by children and adults. I would recommend ‘Castles’ and ‘Incredible Cross-Sections’: he makes everything seem very clear and goes into incredible detail in his work. Occasionally I have been known myself to waffle in illustrating for instance the internal combustion engine but in looking at his work you feel you can see precisely how things work.
We’re coming up on Christmas – would you recommend a bedtime story ideally suited to reading on Christmas eve?
As an illustrator I tend to go for books with lots of pictures and so for Christmas Eve I’d pick Raymond Briggs ‘Father Christmas’. I have a kind of love/hate relationship with Christmas as I suspect Raymond has too: I hate the commercialisation bit but I love certain traditional aspects like the carol singing, snow, Christmas cards etc..I adore the illustrations in ‘Father Christmas’ but also there is so much humour in the book that it can stand to be looked at time and again.
Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on December 11, 2011. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Robert Crowther