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Susan on Handmade Books for a Healthy Planet

by Jean Van't Hul
July 19, 2010


Susan Kapuscinski Gaylord, the author of Handmade Books for a Healthy Planet, believes that attractive, meaningful books can be made with recycled materials.

Here she talks about the bookmaking process and her reasons for emphasizing recycled papers.

Handmade Books for a Healthy Planet ***Note: Readers will have a chance to win a copy of Handmade Books for a Healthy Planet at the end of this interview.***

JEAN:  Susan, I’ve really enjoyed Handmade Books For a Healthy Planet and especially liked learning about all the different book types, from scrolls to accordion books, and their origins. What led you to write this book?

SUSAN:  The short answer: my love of making books, my love of the history of books around the world, my passion for using recycled materials, and my belief that our lives can be enriched by engaging our hearts, hands, and minds in creative activity.

A longer one:

I like to think of Handmade Books for a Healthy Planet as a how-to book with a purpose—promoting cultural understanding and environmental awareness through making books. I have always had a strong interest in cultures other than my own and especially the things they make. It comes from my mother who loved crafts and sought instruction from our neighbors. The shoemaker taught us how to make Ukrainian eggs. Another neighbor taught us to make German paper stars for our Christmas tree. I’ve also always loved history. When I started making books, it was natural to me to start researching the history of the book. It led me around the world as well as back in time. 

Over the years I have become more and more aware of our need to protect our planet. For the past four years, I have been using almost exclusively recycled materials in my workshops and that changed the way I approach the bookmaking process. I used to give directions for the book and cover paper to be precut to specific sizes. With recycled materials, we use the paper in whatever size it comes. The process is freer and more fun. I have been influenced by all the contacts I have made around the globe through my website, makingbooks.com. I realize that not everyone has access to the materials that I do. A request for measurements in centimeters as well as inches led me to forego measurements and rulers all together. In Handmade Books for a Healthy Planet, fingers and hands are used for measuring.


JEAN:  I’d love to hear more about your work teaching bookmaking to children… What is that like?

SUSAN:  I’ve been teaching bookmaking for twenty years. After working mostly with children, I am now concentrating on family workshops to get parents and kids making books together. I feel that this is important for both the children and their parents. As schools become more and more driven by standards and testing, there is less and less time within the school day for kids to engage in creative activity in general and creative writing in particular. Making books at home can add some balance. Once books are made, they call out to be filled: with words, with drawings, with the things that matter to us. The more books children make, the more they will write. In addition to improving their writing skills, they get to know themselves better as they tell their stories, record their interests, and express their feelings in the portable and private container of the book. I always encourage parents to make books along with the children. For one thing, it sends the message that this is a valuable thing to be doing, worthy of the parents’ time as well as the children’s. And I think sometimes the parents need the time to concentrate on something creative and relax even more than the children do. 

When I did teach in children in schools, I often worked with groups of forty to fifty kids. I led them through the process of making a book and then they worked on the content with their teachers after I left. The hardest part was having the kids save their books for the project the teacher had planned. They wanted to write in them right away.


Now when I work with families, that’s exactly what they get to do. Families bring a cereal box and a grocery bag and we make two books together. Then comes the fun part. There are markers, stencils, and a big box full of all kinds of papers for collage and everybody starts filling their books, kids and parents alike. There is always a wonderful energy in the room. I’ve had some humbling lessons in not judging people by their appearances. One of the most engaged parents I’ve ever encountered was a father with long hair, tight jeans, a muscle shirt and arms covered with tattoos. He gently helped his son and worked carefully and intently on a book of his own. 

JEAN:  What book making project do the children seem to enjoy the most?

SUSAN:  Of the projects in the book, the wish scroll is a favorite of kids. They love the idea of a scroll book that they can wear and the opportunity to write a wish. At one school, a child had had some treasured stones taken by a classmate. He made a wish for their return. With some behind the scenes intervention from the teacher, they appeared on his desk after recess. On my way out of the building, the boy came running up to me and said, “It worked. My wish came true.”


JEAN:  What is your favorite?

SUSAN:  My favorite kind of book is the accordion. They are easy to make, easy to come up with variations, and can be held in the hand and read or stood up so that all the pages are on display at the same time. My favorite book in Handmade Books For A Healthy Planet to make with children is the Curandero Book or a Book To Heal the Spirit based on a traditional bark paper book from Mexico. They write about what makes them feel better when they are sad and illustrate the pages with cut paper. I love to see the things they write.


JEAN:  You emphasize using recycled materials, such as newspapers and paper grocery bags, to make books. Can you share your reasons, and how it affects the process and the finished product?

SUSAN:  My moment of revelation came at home when I was putting the tag at the end of the string on a tea bag in the recycling bin and thought: “If I am this fanatic about recycling, why am I not using recycled materials in my workshops?” This change has had an impact beyond my expectations. Everyone is more relaxed; the process is as positive as the product.  

The initial step of gathering recycled materials encourages self-reliance and creativity. When we realize that not everything has to be bought, that by looking creatively at what we discard, we help ourselves as well as the environment. We begin to see things not just for what they are but for what they can be. The world around us becomes a richer place. 


The process of making books with recycled materials is liberating. When we start by cutting a panel out of a grocery bag with a pair of scissors, the edges are crooked. We are freed from the burden of precision. When we start with a piece of paper that has writing on one side, we are freed from the fear of the blank page. When we start with a piece of paper that is headed for the recycling bin, we are freed from the fear of messing up.

When I first started using recycled materials, I encountered some reluctance. The education director at a museum said that she thought their clientele expected something better. I made some samples that she couldn’t help but be impressed with and everyone left with books they treasured and with the ability to easily continue at home. When I teach, I bring examples from my collection of objects made from recycled materials which includes a bag made from juice pouches from Afghanistan and earrings and a toy car made from soda cans from Africa. They all have traces of the former life of their raw materials showing which adds vitality and charm to the final product. Transforming one thing into another has magic.

Making books with recycled materials is not going to save the planet, but it can change our outlook and our approach to materials in all aspects of our lives. Perhaps the children who learn to look at something before they discard it will grow up to retrofit buildings and invent new ways of making things and sources for energy. It’s a stretch but you never know when a seed will be sown that will blossom into something fantastic.


JEAN:  Why books? What draws you to bookmaking as a creative outlet, both for  yourself and as something to share with children?

SUSAN:  Almost from the minute I made my first book in 1988, I knew that I wanted to share everything I learned with others. Books are an accessible form for creative expression because they are so familiar. They are things that we have held and read through the years. 

I became seriously interested in making books when my first child was two. The year of his birth had been a tumultuous one as it brought the sudden and unexpected death of my mother five months earlier as well as the miracle of new life. My medium at the time was calligraphy and I did a fifteen piece series called Childbirth Journey with abstract pastel drawings and words from my journal in calligraphy. After exhibiting it, I realized that the material was too personal and intimate for the wall and began to explore the book form. Here’s something I wrote at the time:

Books are intimate; they welcome personal encounters. 

Books are humble; they fulfill their potential closed as well as open. Books have depth; even the simplest of forms are rich with the possibilities of endless variation. 

Books have spirit; they are dwelling places for our thoughts and dreams. 

My first books used calligraphic texts that I wrote. Over the years my books evolved into the wordless, imageless, nature-based, sculptural Spirit Books. I rarely make books as an artist now but continue to teach and make them as gifts and mementos. 


Right from the beginning, I also made books for and about my son. As he grew, we made books together. I started working with other children when he went to pre-school. I met with his teacher and brought in some books that I had made. One was an accordion book with slits and a red ribbon running through for Valentine’s Day. She looked at the book and said, “Hand-eye coordination.” The first project I did was a Dinosaur Time Line. I soon was teaching lots of different kinds of books in schools and libraries. 

I also did teaching for adults and called my workshops Artmaking for Everyone: Simple Handmade Books. We focused on making books about personal experiences. The people who came loved it. Some became good friends. Eventually I concentrated on working with children because there was a lot more interest. That’s why I like the family workshops so much because I get to work with both adults and children.


JEAN:  If you could encourage parents to do one bookmaking activity with their  kids, what would it be?

SUSAN:  I’m having a bit if a hard time with this question because I can’t envision making only one book. The thing I would say is that every house needs a collage box filled with bits and pieces of paper. Mine has been a source of hours of joy for me and those who come to my workshops. I cut up any interesting paper that comes my way— wrapping paper from a package, paper bags, the inside patterns on security envelopes, origami paper, art papers, etc.—into squares about an index finger long. I find that the smaller size wastes less paper and seems to stimulate creativity in a way that large pieces of paper don’t.

JEAN:  Anything else you’d like to add?

SUSAN:  Make books! Have fun! Share and enjoy!

JEAN:  I love the idea that using recycled materials can be liberating and free up creative energy for the process. Thank you, Susan! 

To learn more about Susan, her book, and her bookmaking techniques, visit her Making Books with Children website where she has free tutorials for several book formats, including the index card accordion book that I want to try myself. You can also follow Susan on Facebook. And buy her book, Handmade Books for a Healthy Planet!

Let’s all make some books!

This post contains affiliate links.

HBHP.hi.res Readers who leave a comment by Thursday, July 22 at 12 midnight EST will be entered into a random drawing to win a copy of Susan’s book, Handmade Books for a Healthy Planet.

The random number generator picked #31, so Vivien wins the book!

I love making books with my daughter using empty cereal boxes, pages from catalogs, and other paper scraps. Another great bookmaking idea book is “Making Books That Fly, Fold, Wrap, Hide, Pop Up, Twist & Turn: Books for Kids to Make” by Gwen Diehn. So much fun with paper, pens, scissors and glue!


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