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Paper Engineer Becca Zerkin (interview)

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When we did a review about The Walking Dead: The Pop-Up Book, we noticed that this amazing title is the very first pop-up book created by Becca Zerkin. What a great introduction! We already knew about the outstanding work of David Hawcock, who also engineered this book, but Becca was new to us as a paper engineer. Little did we know about Zerkin’s impressive resume…

Becca Zerkin first was an elementary school teacher and staff developer until she started making pop-ups. She studied paper engineering at the Center for Book Arts in New York and at Pratt Institute. She had a promising start as a paper engineer working with big names like Sam Ita and Kyle Olmon. For almost four years she worked alongside Matthew Reinhart in his studio (New York) and contributed to impressive pop-up books like Transformers, Disney Princess, Game of Thrones and Star Wars A Galactic Pop-up Adventure.

We are very happy that Becca was willing to answer some questions we wanted to ask about her latest work, teaching, new projects and her collaboration with Matthew Reinhart in New York.

The interview

BPUB – What inspired you to create pop-ups and change jobs to become a paper engineer?
BZ –I loved being an elementary school teacher. After 10 years, I was ready to try something new. I was first drawn to the idea of making pop-ups when I saw Paul O. Zelinsky’s books Wheels on the Bus and Knick Knack Paddywhack, with amazing pull tabs engineered by Rodger Smith and Andy Baron, respectively. I thought to myself, someone had the amazing job of figuring out how to make paper do that! It looked like a great combination of math, art, and play, and I dreamed that I could make it my job, too. So I set out to learn. I’ll always be grateful to Kyle Olmon for being a fantastic mentor and to Sam Ita for hiring me at the very beginning. They both taught me a lot. I’m very proud to call myself a paper engineer now!

BPUB – We’ve seen some children’s book reviews you’ve written for the New York Times and the Junior Library Guild. You already reviewed a pop-up book once. Do you have any plans to write more reviews about pop-up books in the future?
BZ – None in the offing. I really enjoyed writing reviews. I’m ready and willing!

BPUB – Do you also write children’s stories yourself? Have you ever considered writing a story of your own to create a pop-up book about?
BZ – I have indeed! I think some stories work better with pop-ups than others. I’d love to do a non-fiction book in which the movement of the pop-ups helps to show how things work.

“I love working with Up With Paper. The Creative Director there, Monika Brandrup, gave me a chance to prove myself when I was first starting out in the field.”

BPUB – We think that pop-up cards are a great way to introduce paper engineering to the bigger audience. You have created the most beautiful pop-up cards for Up With Paper. Can you tell us more about how this started and how you work on projects like this?
BZ – I love working with Up With Paper. The Creative Director there, Monika Brandrup, gave me a chance to prove myself when I was first starting out in the field.  She and Yevgeniya Yeretskaya give great direction, and we have a wonderful working relationship. Their freelance illustrators create beautiful work. Monika and Yevgeniya send the illustrations to me for engineering, and I try to run with their vision to make the most interesting, fun pop-ups I can. There are a lot of great engineers doing this work for Up With Paper.

BPUB – We know that one of the things you love most, besides making pop-ups yourself, is to teach others how to make pop-ups. Have you ever thought about starting a YouTube channel for pop-up tutorials or DIY pop-up projects to share?
BZ – I do love teaching! I’ve had the chance to teach workshops at the Cooper Hewitt Museum and Bank Street College of Education, and in several schools as a guest artist. I especially like teaching math and science concepts through pop-ups. I prefer teaching in person, and there are already some wonderful tutorials on YouTube by other folks. Check out Jess Tice’s Pop-Up Cards series by Howcast.

BPUB – During the workshops you give, you also focus a lot on the mathematical and problem solving part of creating pop-ups. Do you think it’s important for a paper engineer to have a good mathematical insight in order to design or create pop-ups?
BZ – I think all paper engineers have good spatial and mathematical ability, but some people think about it more consciously than others. I really enjoy that aspect of it because it brings math alive in a very tangible way. But if you only think about the math you can hem yourself in and not make creative new discoveries. You need to play around with the paper first to see what you can do. Then, if the art is going to be reproduced as a card or book, you need to make sure your measurements really work!

BPUB – You’ve worked for almost 4 years alongside paper engineer Matthew Reinhart in his studio in New York. Can you tell us what your work consisted of during this collaboration and how you divided the tasks while working on a pop-up book together?
BZ – I now live in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, so I’m not a regular fixture at the studio anymore. I sometimes work for Matthew remotely, which I really enjoy. He’s wonderful to work with because he has incredible vision and the persistence to push past the challenges the paper presents. Matthew creates the prototypes for all the pop-ups. My job is to translate his incredible pop-ups into two-dimensional, digital files called dielines. I take his pop-ups apart, scan the pieces, and draw the cutting and folding lines in Adobe Illustrator. Then I cut the pieces out using a special cutter/plotter machine and tweak the dielines until everything works perfectly. Sometimes I make suggestions to help pops work more smoothly. I also help to lay the artwork into the Illustrator files so that everything matches up perfectly. At the studio, we laughed a lot while we worked and listened to great music!

Matthew Reinhart about Becca Zerkin:

Becca displays this uncanny ability to merge technical thought and emotional understanding. Not only does she know HOW to make a pop happen, but she understands WHY a specific construction works best with the the story and what it will make the reader FEEL. Working with her in the studio is a joy (even though I am not always a joy to be around). We talk about family, work, future projects, anything, and it’s always just easy. Becca is a peer who I continue to learn from each day we work together, and also, more importantly, she is my friend.

BPUB – What was the most fun book or pop-up for you to work on in Reinhart’s studio?
BZ – My absolute favorite pop-up to work on was Optimus Prime in the Transformers pop-up book. Matthew made such a complex piece of engineering. I studied it for a long time before I started creating the dielines, visualizing which parts could be all of one piece, and how the pieces would attach to each other. I was very excited when I built the first version from the dielines. Before I pulled the tab for the first time to see if the truck would transform into Optimus, Jess Tice, my co-worker at the time, put on the theme song to Chariots of Fire. The pull tab worked beautifully, and we danced in slow motion around the studio.

BPUB – You’ve recently published your first large-scale production pop-up book, the Walking Dead, along with paper engineer David Hawcock. The horror genre was new to us in a pop-up book, but we think that horror and pop-ups are a great combination! How was it for you to work on a project like this?
BZ – Horror was never really my thing, but this book brought out a whole new side of me! I became addicted to the tv show (try binge-watching 4 seasons of The Walking Dead!), and as a true fan it was important to me to capture its essence. It was fun to be set free from my tame self and just go for the goriest, funniest, most shocking pop-ups I could imagine!

BPUB – What do you think about our platform BestPopupBooks? Do you have any feedback for us to make it a better pop-up book platform?
BZ – I think the site is very impressive, and I’m thrilled to be featured on it. What an honor to see Walking Dead on your top ten list along with such greats as Alice in Wonderland and Star Wars!  Wow! The design of the site is appealing and accessible. And the content is excellent — the photos and videos are top-notch, your interview questions are generous but also insightful, and your fans are clearly a thoughtful, knowledgable group. I have only one bit of feedback: I love your Gift Guide, and I’d like to see girls and boys (and moms and dads…) share the same list of suggested titles. Girls like dinosaurs and bugs, too! And women like zombies.

BPUB – Thank you Becca! We can’t wait to see more pop-up books engineered by you that we can share with our followers!
BZ – Thanks so much for your kind words about my work. I look forward to learning more about the world of pop-ups from your website!

Website Becca Zerkin: www.beccazerkin.com
Up with paper: www.upwithpaper.com
Video review: The Walking Dead The Pop-up Book

Watch our video reviews, discover books on our ranking lists, find the best pop-up books for kids and much more! We will also keep you updated on new pop-up book releases.