The Next Generation of Pop-Up Artists: Patricia Fry
New York, New York
Looking back at pop-up books from years gone by we notice that this seems to be a male dominated industry.
That is why it is refreshing to see many current and upcoming titles created by an emerging group of women
paper engineers. One of these rising stars is not new to the pop-up world. Patricia Fry has been working for
years as a full-time paper engineer and has been behind the scenes on some of Sabuda and Reinhart’s best
creations. This October we will get a chance to see Fry’s adaptation of a classic tale, The Nutcracker. Her debut
is a wonder of color and composition, and she is well on her way to creating some very spectacular scenes. This
title is a debut of another sense as well. It is one of the first complex pop-up books I am aware of that used full
laser diecutting to create Fry’s intricate three dimensional forms, instead of the standard steel rule die mold.
Recently, I had a chance to ask Mrs. Fry a number of questions regarding her work and she surprised me with
enough information to fill an entire newsletter.
Kyle Olmon: Can you please share some of your background?
Patricia Fry: I was born April 11, 1978 to Don & Penny Peterson. I spent my childhood in the small town of
Snowflake, Arizona. I lived down the street from a creek and the park and loved to create and play games with my
siblings (2 older brothers and 3 younger sisters). My dad was a chiropractor. In his spare time, he liked to carve
his own boomerangs and engineer Jacob’s ladders. He was a kid at heart and loved to play games with us. In
high school, my family moved to Mesa, Arizona and then Rainier, Washington (after my father passed away) where
I finished my last year of High School. My mother taught school in my teenage years. I remember helping her out
in her literature projects by illustrating favorite stories she liked to tell or transforming a reading loft into a tree
house with butcher paper. I’ve loved art all my life and pursued it more as a hobby. In junior high, I figured a
career in art was reserved for the art teacher’s son. Thank goodness, I disproved that flawed logic.
My career aspiration was to become a school teacher and I’m glad I did. I had admired my many great teachers
and decided that I’d teach elementary school because I wanted to teach all the subjects, not just one of my
I attended Brigham Young University in Elementary Education
and graduated with my Bachelors in Science in 1998. By then, I’d
met and married my husband James Fry and we moved to New
York City for his graduate school. I began teaching Mathematics
K-6 at P.S. 83. I wanted to show how mathematics is all around
us and applicable in our lives. That same year, I began a
Masters in Art degree in Teaching & Curriculum at Columbia
University’s Teacher’s College, but put it on hold for the next three
years as I taught first-graders (and second graders) in
Washington, D.C. how to read, write and appreciate literature and
learning. My own appreciation for children’s literature grew so
much so that I decided to create it myself.
KO: How did you get introduced to pop-ups?
PF: All through college, I created birthday and anniversary pop-up cards for my family members. I don’t know what
inspired me to start or why it was always 3-dimensional. Even from a child, I remember adding 3-D objects to my
flat drawings-creating tactile books (pigs with pink buttons for noses, ballerinas with mesh-like tutus). It was so
fun, maybe therapeutic, to create a pop-up card using odd scraps of construction paper. Most of the time, I didn’t
have a clue what I was designing until it was half done. Each card was original and explored a new idea or
concept. I received a very practical book from my sister-in-law titled The Pop-Up Book: Step-by-Step Instructions
for Creating Over 100 Original Paper Projects by Paul Jackson. It exposed me to another type of pop-up--the kind
that are created from one piece of paper, cut and folded in the opposite direction. I was intrigued. My sister,
Wendy, said to me on more than one occasion, you ought to design children’s books.
When my husband and I moved back to NYC, I picked up where I left off at Teacher’s College to finish my Master’s
degree with the intention to become a children’s book creator. I focused on literature and art. I even set up a
Children’s Book Writing Club among fellow students.
One particular class, The Art of the Picture Book, taught by Professor Barbara Keifer (now at Ohio State University),
offered a pivotal learning experience for me. She shared examples from all genres, including novelty books. Even
though I’d seen pop-up books before, a light bulb went off for me. I borrowed and studied her Mother Goose by
Robert Sabuda and The Elements of Pop-Up by David Carter.
One of our class assignments was to create a children’s book. I decided it’d be a pop-up book and I’d apply as
many techniques from David Carter’s book as I could.
After graduation, I continued to take art and writing classes. I knew that for me to break into the Children’s book
arena, I’d have to do something more than just illustrate and write. That’s when I embraced my pop-up art skills
as a viable career option, not just a hobby.
But I needed a mentor, an expert in the field; I did research on pop-up books and pop-up artists. I’d sit in
bookstores and the Cooper Hewitt Library, which collects rare pop-up books and other novelty books, for hours
and take notes on the different techniques. From that, I decided that I wanted to work for Robert Sabuda. He was
speaking at an SCBWI event in NYC that very next week; he critiqued my first pop-up book and we talked about
pop-up. A couple months later, he spoke at Cooper Union to my class. At that point, I’d gotten the courage up,
with the help of my book art teacher Esther Smith, to ask if he took interns. By the next week, I was working with
Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart as their second designer, along with Sam Ita. Within the first couple of
weeks, my pop-up skills (and my finger strength) grew exponentially with cutting out Robert or Matthew’s pop-up
pieces--my mind was already folding and assembling. Each week, I was given more challenging tasks. I loved to
problem solve. I discovered that what I told my math students was really true--geometry and logic are useful!
I worked in the NYC studio for about 5 months before moving overseas. I continued to do some production work
for Robert and Matthew through the next year, as I started to create my own pop-ups. I never lost sight of my goal
to publish my own book. The following summer I secured an agent and began showing my work to publishers.
It was around Christmas time, as the Swiss vendors were actually selling roasted chestnuts and the Christmas
lights twinkled in the crisp night air of Geneva, Switzerland, when I mailed my first prototype spread for the
Nutcracker to HarperCollins. When I was offered the book contract, I was like a little girl opening presents on
Christmas morning. It was literally a dream come true. In fact, the ending of the Nutcracker story parallels the
feelings I experienced when receiving the news that I would be working on my very own book.
KO: What was your first pop-up book?
PF: Actually, my first pop-up books were Mother Goose and the Wizard of Oz pop-up books by Robert Sabuda. I
had never owned any pop-up books before, though I’d checked out many from the public library as an adult. (One
good thing about public library pop-up books is that they are worn out, making it so much easier to investigate
how they are engineered.) I imagine that if I’d been given a pop-up book as a kid, I would have dissected it,
sketched, and labeled it like I did a frog or pig in science class. But then, I put it (the book) back together.....Or
maybe I’d never open it for fear of making it look used--I didn’t understand when I was a child that your most
cherished books are often your most worn-out.
KO: Has working as an elementary school teacher influenced the way you create art or design pop-ups?
PF: My background in literature influences me foremost. It first influences how I guide children as they learn to
comprehend text and begin to self-publish. Then, it influences how I approach my own book writing, composition,
and even pop-up design. I think about the flow, the patterning, each page leading to the next, the plot, character,
and climax--even when it’s a pop-up book. In this last book I worked on, The Nutcracker, I had to apply what I
knew in a different way. This pop-up book is more compact (even though it’s one of the thickest pop-up books out
there). The text was written for the basic reader--the age group I taught. The art and pop-ups tell most of the
story. (Honestly, the way I “read” pop-up books is that I admire the pop-ups for about the first 10 times I open the
book, then I read the text.) The text facilitates the pop-up experience, while, in turn, the pop-up part enlivens the
text. It helps that it’s also a cherished ballet; most readers will already by familiar with the story. I don’t need to
write three descriptive paragraphs about the Christmas tree rising because you actually see the tree rising when
turning the page. I taught my students to use the illustrations as another way to gain insight into the story.
Oftentimes, we’d look at the pictures before reading the story to see what we could gleam. I design pop-up books
with that in mind.
Also, I think of the child when I create the book. It helps to have been surrounded by so many children over the
years. I love seeing their wide eyes when they see a pop-up book for the first time.
KO: I read that Geneva has the second-highest quality of living in the world. Do you feel that the quality of life is
better then when we were in New York? What are some of your favorite things about Switzerland?
PF: I love both NYC and Geneva, Switzerland. Each is breathtaking. I love the accessibility of NYC. I love the art,
culture, night vibe, and quick energy of NYC. I liked how I could find any art product I needed and be able to afford
it. (FYI: Geneva is one of the most expensive places to live). It was there where I began to believe anything was
possible. New York City is the city of opportunity.
Switzerland is slower paced and I am able to focus more. In NY, I didn’t want to miss anything and I was running
around trying to see and do it all. My favorite thing about Switzerland is its beauty and it’s close at hand. I like that I
can swim in or take a stroll around a clear blue lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains. My studio window
overlooks the Jura Mountains. We’ve spent most of our dinners on the balcony, watching the sun set behind them.
KO: What was it like creating a book and working with a publisher overseas?
PF: I’ve lived overseas now for almost four years (The Netherlands for one year) and have seen a little of Europe.
My brain is filled with art and architecture that influence my work. Some of my favorite parts of The Nutcracker are
influenced by something I saw in Geneva or elsewhere. Even though I will always be influenced by my past
experiences, being overseas has helped me focus on my own pop-up creations and work out my own technical
problems. I do miss, however, the camaraderie, creative energy, and instant feedback a studio of artists can
Thank goodness for internet. That’s mostly how I communicated with my editor at HarperCollins. The publisher
received hard copy samples of the pop-ups, electronic samples of the art, and finally a complete sample of the art,
text, and pop-up together. She would send comments via e-mail. I visited the publishing house once and it
turned out to be very productive. I was able to see early on in the art process what they were seeing. It was then
that I realized I needed to recalibrate my computer screen to reflect what the final print-out would look like.
KO: Why did you choose The Nutcracker?
PF: Well, my editor at HarperCollins actually suggested it to my
agent. I think it’s a marvelous choice for a pop-up book because
of its inherent action and magic. The first spread I created shows
the Christmas tree rising. Why tell about it when you can show it.
Since the story is Clara’s dream (or is it?), you believe anything
can happen--dreams have no boundaries. In one spread, I can
imagine the Nutcracker and Mouse King coming alive to finish
their duel. The story and the pop-up art are a good team.
KO: Have you ever seen the ballet?
PF: I saw the ballet when I was a young girl and I’ve seen the
ballet several times as an adult. I saw two different Nutcracker
ballets while working on the book--one was modern, which kept
me wide awake with interest and humor (I took notes in the
margins of my program in the dark), and the other was traditional
with rich tapestries and grandeur. While designing the pop-up
elements, I’d listen to the Nutcracker suite. I knew I was doing
something right when I started dancing between breaks.
KO: You wrote the adaptation, created the art and designed all the pop-ups - that makes you a triple threat in the
industry. Which was your favorite part of the bookmaking process?
PF: I enjoyed all parts of bookmaking process. The text was firmed up right at the beginning in order to convince
my editor I could do it. My first draft was twice as long as it’s final form and although it lost some of the fight
scenes and rich description, I am pleased with the succinctness and flow. I enjoy the pop-up creation part,
especially solving construction problems or adding 3-D components I didn’t think where possible. I loved the self-
imposed challenge of making everything as BIG as possible. I purposefully chose to make the book 8 x 9 inches
to see how much I could fit into such a confined space. After fine-tuning the pop-up pieces, I created
computerized dielines. I must admit I took more time than I should have perfecting those. I get huge satisfaction
from taking a pop-up section of five pieces and connecting them to make one so it’s easier in the end to put the
piece together--oh, I love it! As for the art, I felt the style needed to reflect the feeling of the story. I knew I was
going to collage together painted papers like one of my favorite illustrators, Eric Carle, but it needed to be softer.
When I visited Florence, Italy, I was captivated by marbleized paper and thought it’d be perfect for the book, so I
had to go back to learn how to do it myself. Creating the art required a lot of steps (marbleizing, collaging and
overlaying line art), but it was worth it.
KO: Women are often underrepresented in pop-up book creations, but there looks to be a new crop of female
paper engineers in recent years. Can you speak on this phenomenon?
PF: Someone once said to me that he thought there were more men than women in the pop-up field because of
differences in the male and female brains. I don't think that's the reason at all. I think women and men are
equally capable at paper engineering--if one has the inclination and dedication to do it. I can only share my
opinion, as I haven't conducted any "scientific studies" on the "phenomenon."
It may be irrespective of the art form and more related to the general increase of women in the entire workforce
over the last 50 years...or maybe there's more to it than that. Unfortunately, this field is like an iceberg; you can
only see a few above the surface, so it's hard to tell how many female paper engineers are out there. When I first
researched paper engineers, I only found a few people out there. I have since met more, some of which don't
create children's pop-up books, but instead create limited edition, artist books with pop-up features. Within that
group, there is a mixture of men and women--and they have other bookmaking skills that they showcase as well.
It may be harder to identify a "paper engineer" or a person with paper engineering skills, because they call
themselves bookmakers or book artists, etc. So, if I was conducting a study on the number of female verses
males in the paper engineering industry, I'd first acknowledge the difficulty of gathering a random sample.
Another possible contributing factor is how paper engineering is viewed and popularized today. Many pop-up
artists today are pushing the envelope of pop-up possibilities--bringing more attention to the pop-up components
of a book and, at the same time, more respect to it as an art form. It seems that only recently, in the last 10 years,
that pop-up books have gained in popularity across all age-groups. For example, adults are collecting
contemporary pop-up books, not just antique ones. I don't doubt that more than one of us didn't own or notice a
pop-up book until adulthood. Speaking more of young artists, how do most of us choose what we "want to be
when we grow up"? We look for role models. Today, the paper engineer has a name and a face that kids can
look to and ask, "Whoa, how'd ya do that?" Awareness in and demand for paper engineers and their books
(including "how-to" books) are increasing, thus making it a more accessible art form for everyone. And it doesn't
hurt that it's fun to do!
KO: Since this is your first book, can you share with us some of the unexpected challenges or surprises that came
up while developing the book?
PF: The whole process from beginning to end
was a lot more challenging than I thought it’d be,
but equally rewarding. I had worked with Robert
and Matthew and the rest of his team on other
books (but only portions, so I didn’t quite grasp
the entire process). I was constantly surprised
at the books transformation. Even though, I was
the creator, the feedback from my editor and her
team were invaluable. Sometimes, I felt
something was great just as it was, but by
following my editor’s suggestion it became 10
times better. I was also happily surprised to find
that I was wrong to think a particular pop-up idea
couldn’t work. The placement of Clara and the
Nutcracker in Spread 7 is an example of that, but
I won’t go into that right now.
KO: I understand you made all the marbled paper in the book. I know from experience that there is an art and
science to making such lovely papers. How did you learn?
PF: I rediscovered marble paper while visiting Florence. I thought I’d just take a class from someone in
Washington state when visiting my mother, but my wise husband chastised me, “You live right next door to Italy,
go back and learn from the source. I decided I must go back and learn from a master marbler. Again, as I did
before with pop-up, I looked for an expert in the field. I didn’t have to look long to find Enrico Giannini, a fifth
generation marbler. His daughter is now running the famous Guilio Giannini & Figlio paper shop which first
caught my eye. In fact, many of his beautiful sheets have made their way to Talas--a book art store in NYC and he
appeared on a Martha Stewart segment years ago. Marbleized paper was a dying artform when he came into it,
but he applied its use in more visible and varied ways. It’s not only found as endpapers in old leather bound
novels anymore. Its history, too, is interesting. It’s the way it had been used in the past (royal stationery and
courtly decrees) that signaled to me that it was the perfect medium for the Nutcracker Prince story.
Enrico Giannini walked me through the steps and techniques. He usually uses watercolor, but he knew I was
going to use acrylic so we experimented with that. He gave me tips for finding the right balance between paint,
water, and oxgall (yes, ox bile) and the Carragean (Irish moss) mixed with water--like what to do when there are
bubbles in my design or when my paint sinks in the “size” of viscous fluid or spreads too thin. The experimental
approach he took left me feeling free to try anything when I got home. We even tried window cleaner in place of
oxgall, and wallpaper paste instead of carrageen. Yet, I prefer the more proper oxgall and carrageen.
KO: Did you know that the "A' in E.T.A. Hoffmann stands for Amadeus, and that Mr. Hoffman adopted the name in
honor of Mozart?
PF: Wow, you’re a good researcher. I knew E.T.A. Hoffmann’s full name and even caught the extra “n” needed on
his last name before the book cover went out for printing, but I didn’t know he adopted the Amadeus. Did you
know that the ballet plot is actually based on a revised, less morbid, and shortened version by Alexander Dumas?
I had to focus the story as well, but Hoffmann’s original tells how the Nutcracker Prince came to be a cursed
wooden toy and what happens to Clara and the Nutcracker after that fateful night, but I won’t give the ending away.
The original story sounds even more fairy tale-like with its multiple stories.
KO: If you had to pick a "nom de plume" after a musician, what name would you choose to follow Patricia?
PF: Oh, you caught me off guard...let’s see. That’s a hard question for me because I’m not too good with
musicians’ names. For example, 5 years ago I said my favorite musician was “John Elton.” Hoffmann was also a
composer, so respectable musician names came easier for him. (Maybe I could choose his name as my nom de
plume, even though I haven’t heard any of his music). With my limited knowledge, I might accidentally choose a
musician who had an unfortunate demise or scandal, but that wouldn’t dampen my respect for her talent
necessarily. I’d much rather choose a book character like Sherlock Holmes or Nancy Drew because I like to solve
KO: Are you already working on another title? Can you share some of your future projects?
PF: It wouldn’t be very Sherlock Holmes of me if I told you, now would it? But yes, I am very busy on my next
To keep up to date with Patricia Fry and her future endeavors check out her new website at www.patriciafrybooks.
com which will be launched in October.v
Ed. note - This interview was published in the August 2008 edition of Movable Stationery: Volume 16, Number 3 by
the Movable Book Society. It appeared in an abridged form due to space constraints. The article above is
presented in its entirety.