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P O P goes the reading

Pop-up books are experiencing a pop in pop-ularity.

And they're not the simple one-trick books you might recall. Today's pop-ups are intricate and elaborate works of art. The most ambitious are feats of engineering with scenes soaring high above the page, so you might not leave them alone in the hands of little kids.

Those in the book world credit Robert Sabuda, the master paper engineer – aka pop-up maker. “He's the emperor of pop-ups,” said Sally Brewster, co-owner of Park Road Books in Charlotte. “Everyone is trying to emulate (him) or jump on his bandwagon.”

The breakout book for the niche and for Sabuda, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: A Commemorative Popup,” was published in 2000. Since then, Brewster says her shop has sold “incredible amount” of the 3-D books. Among recent best-sellers: Sabuda's 2003 “Alice in Wonderland” pop-up adaptation and last year's “Star Wars: A Pop-Up Guide to the Galaxy,” by Matthew Reinhart, a paper engineer who shares a studio with and sometimes teams with Sabuda. Pop-ups are as popular with adult collectors as children, Brewster said.

In a recent interview with the Observer, Sabuda and Reinhart said making pop-up books involves a bit of engineering, but mostly old-fashioned trial and error. That means the engineering is done by hand.

“We cut up lots of paper,” Reinhart said.

Every piece on every page is cut and folded and taped and glued until everything pops up like it's supposed to, they said. Then, the pieces are taken apart and scanned into a computer to make flat patterns.

“It is like pop-up roadkill – all arms and legs and flat pieces,” Sabuda said.

In the final stage, the books are assembled by hand, usually in China or Thailand, so they're not cheap. A six-scene pop-up book sells for as much as $30.

Among recently released pop-up books, the most stunning is “Brava Strega Nona!” by renowned children's author and illustrator Tomie dePaola with paper engineering by Sabuda and Reinhart. The book, published on Oct. 30, also opens more smoothly than the rest. The Italian grandmother's life is highlighted in six pop-up scenes. A dinner scene measures more than a foot high. And pasta from her magic pasta pot spills over the page and at the reader.

Who knew that turning a page in a book could reveal such surprises?

But every page in a pop-up must be spectacular, said dePaola, who hand-painted every 3-D scene and character in “Strega Nona.” He called that task a puzzle because it involved painting flat pieces of paper that he had to imagine popping to life.

“Pop-ups are more of an event than a story. When you are pacing a book, you can have some quiet time and adventure time,” dePaola said. “With a pop-up, every page has to be an adventure.”