Dorothy knew she wasn't in Kansas anymore when she and her little dog Toto arrived in Oz. Similarly, artist and pop-up book creator Robert Sabuda is no longer in rural Pinckney, Michigan; his hometown. Sabuda has traded the dusty Michigan road for his chosen path to the upper west side of Manhattan. Parallels exist between Sabuda's life and that of Dorothy, the main character of L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, even beyond the experience of childhoods spent in rural middle America. Most importantly, both Sabuda and Dorothy had fantastic dreams that came true.
Although his family lacked monetary resources, Sabuda (born 1965) never lacked inspiration. His life in tiny Pinckney, Michigan provided a sound, if unlikely, foundation for his future vocation. The artist's father was a mason and a carpenter who demonstrated the art of constructing a three-dimensional structure with meticulous precision, never realizing how his son would benefit. Sabuda's mother gave her son discarded manila file folders from Ford Motor Company, where she worked as a secretary. The old file folders were perfect for use in art projects such as pop-up cards and books. His mother also ran a dance studio, teaching her offspring the proper movement, rhythm, and sequencing of a dance routine, as well as the value of drama and balance.
From these experiences and more, Sabuda's books trace their beginnings. One particularly life-changing event in Sabuda's childhood occurred atthe dentist's office. His mother suggested that they read a book inorder to allay his fears of the dreaded dental drill. The books in the waiting room turned out to be pop-up books, and that discovery markedthe birth of Sabuda's passion for movable books.
From that time on, friends and family gave the boy pop-up books for every occasion. He began a quest to design his own movable books; his parents owned the first original Robert Sabuda pop-up book, created when he was eight years old.
Soon he made pop-up cards for his sister, brother, friends, and teachers. Sabuda fondly remembers some of his favorite books as a youth: Frog and Toad, by Arnold Loebel, Flat Stanley written by Jeff Brown and illustrated by Tomi Ungerer, and Clifford: The Big Red Dog by Norman Bridwell. The young artist developed an interest in history and particularly enjoyed Jean Fritz's books for young people. Pinckney did not have a bookstore, but Sabuda delighted in ordering books offered by The Weekly Reader. At the public library, the boy discovered a how-to book on making marionettes, a helpful prelude to pop-up book making. Art and books filled his life.
Drama was also important to the budding artist. The boy loved both The Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum, and its movie version. When he was in the fourth grade, Sabuda wrote, produced, directed, and starred in his own production of The Wizard of Oz. The boy portrayed his favorite character, the Scarecrow, whose role was immensely magnified by the play's youthful adaptor! Perhaps it was about that time that the future artist first attempted a movable book version of Oz.
Sabuda was encouraged to draw and create by his teachers and his
family. The boy pleased his teachers through his creation of imaginative bulletin boards. High school offered still more opportunities, when his art teacher, who was also his mentor, emphatically stated that Sabuda would go to Pratt in Brooklyn, New York. His teacher's encouragement, his abundant talent, and his relentless drive to create, led Sabuda to pursue and earn, as a scholarship student, a B.F.A. in communications design from Pratt Institute in 1987.
While a student at Pratt, Sabuda serendipitously served as an intern
for Dial Books for Young Readers. Mostly menial tasks occupied his time at Dial, but the exciting chore of opening crates of original art guided Sabuda toward a career in children's book illustration. Unpacking originals by Barbara Cooney, Rosemary Wells, James Marshall, and others, Sabuda realized that his destiny was to be a picture book artist. Before he could depend upon making a living in children's books, however, the artist had to supplement his income by accepting jobs such as designing boxes for ladies' underwear and illustrating coloring books. Sabuda's book illustration debut came with the publication of The Fiddler's Son, by Eugene Bradley Coco, published in 1988. Many other titles followed.
The artist began his career in picture book art primarily as a linoleum block printmaker. Since the early books, however, he has varied his style and employed innovative media. Books that showcase Sabuda's versatility and give his so-called flat art books surprise elements include Tutankhamen's Gift (1994), cut-paper and paint on papyrus; Arthur and the Sword (1995), liquid lead and glass dyes on Plexiglas; The Paper Dragon (1997), by Marguerite W. Davol, painted tissue paper cut in Chinese style and displayed on gatefold pages; and Blizzard's Robe (1999), brilliantly colored batik.
Sabuda never wants his books to be easily identifiable as his
work-although the pop-ups are unmistakably his, due to their complexity and perfection. In fact, Sabuda is widely regarded as the wizard of pop-up engineering. His first published pop-up was The Christmas Alphabet (1994), followed later by The12 Days of Christmas (1996), both of which have become best-selling holiday classics. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: A Commemorative Pop-Up (2000) has been considered his masterpiece. Its linoleum-block print medium adheres to the style of the original W.W.Denslow illustrations, yet the intense visual power of the pop-up is all
These days, Sabuda's yellow brick road leads him to his studio in
Manhattan. There with his partner, Matthew Reinhart, Sabuda works diligently on his movable books and other book illustrations. Frequent trips abroad to oversee the production of the pop-ups, in addition to work-related conferences and appearances, further occupy Sabuda. He also works out at a gym almost daily, and practices yoga, as well as meditation.
Far from Pinckney, Michigan, the pop-up engineer and artist has not
left his childhood completely behind. Each time he engineers one of histhree-dimensional books, Robert Sabuda endeavors to pass along the sense of wonder and amazement he felt the first time he opened a pop-up book.