Picture Book Basics: Pop-Ups

Last month, pop-up book virtuoso Trish Phillips showed some of the processes involved in designing her distinctive three dimensional books for children. Now, especially for our Picture Book Basics series, she turns to the nuts and bolts on how you can plan and build pop-up books of your own. Ready with scissors and glue? Over to Trish!

My previous article was a basic insight into my own process in producing pop-up books for Caterpillar Books, where I was lucky to have a lot of help and advice from their paper engineer at the time, Martin Taylor. 

In part 2 it’s your turn. Maybe you have an idea for a story and want to present it to a publisher as a pop-up or novelty, or it is a fun, personal project. Either way here are some hints and tips to help you get started.  

What’s the idea?
You have an idea for a story, but before you go any further there are a couple of points to bear in mind if it is aimed at a publisher. Firstly, keep it short. Due to high production costs, a pop-up usually will have less spreads than a picture book at around six or seven double page spreads rather than twelve. Or sometimes it will be a picture book with one pop-up page at the end. Of course for your own project you can have as many as you like. 

Secondly, not only are there fewer spreads for the story but on each spread there is less space for text as the pop-up will take up more room than a conventional illustration. 

So divide up your short story into your spreads, thinking about the pace, rhythm and page turn. Why not take a look at the writing features on Words & Pictures which might help?  


Now you have condensed your story into your spreads let’s have some thumbnails. Where will your text be? Where will your pop-up be? Allow space for everything, create a nice balance and don’t try to cram too much in.  

What’s the Pop? 

What do you want your pop to do? What is the purpose of it? Are the pop-ups to show movement or to create a 3-d scene? Are they for drama, for laughs or to scare? Get ideas from the great books that are around in the bookshops and libraries. You will soon see the different things they do and get a picture of what type of mechanism would suit your book. 

Initially sketch some ideas that you might like to happen and this will help you decide if it can be done. Shown here are early ideas for The Fish Who Cried Shark. Several of the ideas made it to the final book although not all worked or were appropriate. 

Another example below is from Clever Little Crocodile. The initial sketches below ended up quite different in the final version. 


A few basic tips which may or may not be obvious: 

  • A pop-up needs to be fixed to a pull tab or a folded page, or an additional layer on a page to activate it. 
  • When making your first dummy keep it small; say A5 folded to A6 (if you take a regular A4 and fold it in half twice it gives a good size and double thickness adds strength). 
  • Keep the pop-up piece very rough – literally just an approximate copy of the shape. It may take a few goes to get it right so don’t waste time getting into artwork detail at this stage. It is more about shapes, movement and balance on the page. 
  • Make the pop-up and test it fits! Crazy tip but many a time you will have a brilliant pop and think it is glued exactly where you want it until you close the page and find it sticks out. 
  • Use masking tape which is easily removable to temporarily stick pieces on to allow for constant adjustments. 
  • When you are happy with your page spread you can then make it larger and with thick cartridge or thin card, still keeping it white. Now you can go into more detail, but keep it fairly sketchy. This is after all just a 3-d dummy. 
  • Use all the facilities you have available as you would with illustrating i.e. Photoshop, scanners and printers so that you can reproduce as many copies as you need. This will also enable you to add text into your dummy if you are going to do that. 

Try some of these for size 

Here are a few ideas, see what you can do with them and adapt them to your story. 

Above is a layer on which you can draw or use as a base to stick on a figure or shape. Imagine the layer is just a small hinge on which to attach something. Made up of two parallel horizontal cuts joined by three vertical folds. 

Whatever distance you make the left vertical fold from the spine fold down the middle of the page should be equal to the distance of the second to the third vertical fold. 

The arrows on this rectangular cut out are only there to show the direction in which the pop-up will move as the page is opened, you don’t need to add them. Cut more and more shapes, experiment, as on this image. 

Another very useful base is triangular, which is simply made by cutting one horizontal line across the central vertical spine and two diagonal folds joining at the top. Turn the whole thing upside down and you will have a different effect. These can be improved on by sticking the triangle or rectangle onto the page rather than cutting out of the page.  

Angles and Moves

The bigger the angle, the more movement will be created and this applies to angles on the pop-up piece as well as the angle it is placed on the page. Change the cut, change the angle, make it off centre, add two together. 

This timeless book by Kees Moerbeek is a favourite of mine using the above methods for the faces and by splitting the page creates hilarious combinations of creatures. 

Kees Moebeek Beware of the Pog! (Child's Play, 1988)

Need Some More Help? 

When I was learning there were a lot of helpful books around but these two were invaluable: 

Paper Engineering for pop-up books and cards by Mark Hiner with 10 working models to make up yourself. 

Pop-up! A manual of Paper Mechanisms by Duncan Birmingham with over 100 mechanisms to make, this should keep you going for a while. 

Here are a couple of my own books which have easy to follow step by step projects to make:  

The Practical step by step guide to making pop-ups & novelty cards by Trish Phillips & Ann Montanaro 

How to make Pop-up cards by Trish Phillips 

Also, be inspired by David A. Carter the master of pop-ups, Jan Pienkowski’s many pop-ups, and Marion Bataille. Some others to follow are Martin Taylor, Paul Stickland, John O’Leary, David Hawcock and Ray Marshall to name but a few.

Long time SCBWI member Trish Phillips is an author, illustrator and paper engineer, her website is www.trishphillipsbooks.com
Twitter: trish_again Blog biglittletale


  1. Thank you Trish for such a marvellously in depth post, it's a real enlightenment on paper engineering - you could say it's lifted the flap on pop-ups :) !

  2. Great article Trish, can I share it please?

  3. Thanks for sharing, Trish. Fascinating to see how your book evolves from initial sketchbook ideas, too.

  4. What a brilliant article Trish - thanks! I'd sign up for a pop-up workshop with you any day. Would like to share too!

  5. This is great Trish - I'm going to have a go and I've just realised I'm all equipped because I have your pop up card book on my shelf already!

  6. Maybe it's time for another Pop up workshop Trish! The last one you gave a couple of years ago was amazing. Great article.


We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.