The genius of pop-up books

The genius of pop-up books

Giovanni Blandino Published on 11/24/2023

One of the world’s greatest collectors of three-dimensional books, Massimo Missiroli, lives in Forlì in northern Italy. Every single one of us, at some point in our lives, will have flicked through one of the extraordinary books in his collection, open-mouthed with wonder.

Pop-up books – which are usually, though not exclusively, dedicated to children – contain ingenious cut-out illustrations. When you open a page, the illustrations rise up before your eyes, becoming three-dimensional.

But that’s not all! As well as collecting pop-up books, Massimo Missiroli also creates them – some people call him a paper engineer – and publishes them. The Biblioteca Malatestiana in Cesena recently dedicated an exhibition to his incredible collection, and we met him there and asked him a few questions, in an attempt to find out more about his story. Massimo told us about the moment he fell in love with 3D books and offered his insight into this inventive publishing niche, where practically every copy is made by hand.

Hello Massimo. Where did you get your passion for pop-up books?

I first encountered pop-up books in September 1978. I was walking through the centre of my hometown, when I spotted a book on display in a bookshop with 3D illustrations.

I had never seen anything like it as a child, perhaps because I was not an avid reader. It was the novel (at least for me) construction of these images that drew me in, more than the rhymes that accompanied them. I later discovered that I gatti di Gattolica was the reproduction of a book by nineteenth-century author Ernest Nister: I now also have the original, The Children’s Tableaux, in my collection.

I bought the book, came home, and read it over and over again. The following afternoon I went back to the shop, asked if they had anything similar, and bought them. And that was how my collection and my passion for pop-up books began.

You have over 5,000 books in your collection, making it most probably the world’s largest collection of pop-up books… is that right?

I should say that while my collection is big there are lots of very sizeable collections out there, including some unofficial ones.

It’s hard to estimate how many pop-up books have been published in the west since the mid-nineteenth century. Some say just under 10,000. Then there are all the mini-books, pop-up cards and various items, either self-published or produced by small publishers, that are referenced in other volumes but that have never been found.


Give us a brief history of pop-up books: what was the first 3D book ever made?

Research on this topic is still ongoing, despite it being a relatively recent phenomenon. The theories posited are based on the books amassed by collectors, or, occasionally, those found in the public libraries of some major cities.

Some people date the beginning of the history of the pop-up or movable book to the thirteenth century, because a small scrap of paper was found inside a handwritten book from that period in a French abbey, attached to the page with a cotton thread, proving that it was designed to move. Others pin it to the eighteenth-century harlequinades, or turn-up books, or Peter Apian’s early sixteenth-century Cosmographia.

I prefer not to tie the history of pop-up books to a single author or publication, but rather to the second half of the nineteenth century, when the social aspect of reading and children’s literature began to spread more widely, and when pop-up books began to be printed in large runs and sent all over Europe.

How have three-dimensional books changed over time?

The paper engineering in pop-up books has undoubtedly become more complex and elaborate, particularly over the past twenty years, as authors try to amaze and enthral readers with new large-scale solutions. However, one thing has remained unchanged in over 150 years: even today, each copy is handmade, just as they were in the past.

How important are pop-up books to the world of publishing today? And why do you think these unique objects still capture people’s imaginations?

Pop-up books have always represented a small part of the children’s publishing market. Then production fell even more after Covid.

As far as I know, no more than 60 or 70 new pop-up books are printed all over the world every year, excluding the fast-growing Chinese market.

I believe the distinctive nature of pop-up books stems from the excitement and fascination they bring to children and adults alike when the page opens to reveal the magic of how the card is folded. But it’s difficult to make comparisons: pop-up books are unlike anything else in the world.

Massimo, at a certain point you took the leap from collecting books to designing them, joining the highly exclusive group of people around the world dedicated to this precious art. How did it happen?

It was all thanks to the Municipality of Ravenna’s preschool teachers.

During the second half of the 1980s I was an image-based teaching consultant for them, and we worked together on pinhole photography, hand-drawn slides, cartoons, flipbooks and video books. One teacher, knowing that I collected pop-up books, asked me to design a Christmas card to make with the children.

I was unsure and said I would think about it: I had to admit that I didn’t know how to create a single fold. But when I got home, I started looking at my books differently.

I prepared the card: it wasn’t much from a paper engineering perspective, but  the teachers and I had fun, and the children had a whale of a time. So I signed up for my first course to learn how to build pop-up books.

I moved on from single cards to books, and decided to send my work to publishers to see what they thought of it. I found that attending the Children’s Book Fair in Bologna helped me a lot, first as a visitor and later as an exhibitor. After a few projects that stalled for various reasons, in 1997 I published my first book in the United States, Iciest Day Ever, with illustrations by Richard Scarry.

A 1932 3D edition of Pinocchio. Image:

What attributes do you think a pop-up book creator should have?

I think they need their own personal vision of how the space should be used within a book. It’s not just about the technical aspects: they must also have their own way of describing the three-dimensionality and choosing and laying out the most appropriate folds, volumes and movements.

A Massimo Missiroli avatar in front of the covers of some of his books (image: Massimo Missiroli)

Do you have any advice for people who want to get involved with this art form?

Plenty of practice, experimentation and commitment, based on real passion. And look closely at the work of other paper engineers, particularly from recent years.

Another part of your journey into the world of pop-up books saw you open your own publishing house dedicated to the format…

I decided to launch a publishing business during Covid because the crisis that had enveloped all sectors had made it very difficult to get things published, and I had lots of projects I believed in and wanted to see brought to fruition. I began with Inferno from Dante’s Divine Comedy, producing 3D versions of Gustav Doré’s illustrations, then followed this up with books dedicated to Che Guevara and Charlie Chaplin. I still have plenty of ideas swirling around my head… watch this space!

Do these books need any special attention from a printing and publishing perspective?

After printing, the books are built by hand, one at a time: fold by fold, mechanism by mechanism. To give you an idea, I often say that creating a pop-up book sometimes has more manual operations than assembling a car. It takes an exceptional level of expertise. Just imagine brushing a 1 x 1 cm piece of card without any glue dripping onto the page: incredible manual dexterity.

Between the 1970s and 2000s, almost all of the pop-up books published globally were printed and assembled in Columbia. Then production moved to China, leading to a substantial growth in capacity. In recent years, this incredible manual skill has been combined with the work of ingenuous paper designers, who can create true masterpieces of papermaking technology.

A book, now a collector’s item, from the Panascopic series by Czech author Vojtěch Kubašta. Image:

What are your three favourite pop-up books, if you have them? And are there any you would particularly recommend to Pixartprinting blog readers?

I don’t have three particular books to recommend, but I do have a whole series: the Panascopic series by Czech author Vojtěch Kubašta, which were published in the UK in the 1960s.

I like them so much that when I find one I always buy it, even if I already copies of it already. I’m such a collector!