Once upon a time, Ellie Levine opened a copy of “Alice in Wonderland” and tumbled down the rabbit hole.
Levine, a longtime Newton resident who now lives in Dedham, had purchased the book while taking a course called “Through the Looking Glass” at the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement, where over 14 years she studied subjects ranging from the Supreme Court to English literature.
“I went into Amazon, and I saw an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ pop-up book, and I said, ‘What’s this?’” she said. “When it came, I realized I had bought books like this for my grandchildren.”
The pop-up book turned out not to be germane to her course — which analyzed how Lewis Carroll used the game of chess as a metaphor for life — but it plunged Levine into the whimsical world of paper-engineered books.
“I didn’t know anyone else my age who was buying pop-up books,” said Levine, who is 88. “I didn’t know what I was buying. I just thought I was doing something joyous.”
A voracious researcher, she jumped on to the computer and bought pop-up books about subjects that interested her. “Nobody’s watching me, so I do what I want,” she said.
Now, a decade later, Levine has more than 300 of them. In November, she put them on exhibit at NewBridge on the Charles in Dedham, the Hebrew SeniorLife community where she lives.
Turn the pages of Levine’s books and anything might pop up: Fenway Park; the Titanic; the surreal structures of graphic artist M.C. Escher; ornithologically correct birds, accompanied by their actual songs; or a medieval castle (“Did you ever wonder what happened in the olden days when people went to the bathroom? It tells you,” Levine says).
About three years ago, Levine decided to get serious about the hobby, and began systematically assembling a collection that reflects the history and breadth of pop-up books, with examples of works by all its elite artists and paper engineers. She also joined the Movable Book Society, which has 400 members worldwide.
She uses her computer to keep detailed records of her books, classified under such categories as travel, history, ethnic, science, fashion, transport, fairy tales (with multiple versions of classics like “Alice” and “The Wizard of Oz”), and even horror books, such as an adaptation of Stephen King’s “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.”
Sticking to a budget, Levine scours websites such as Amazon and AbeBooks for bargain deals on secondhand books. Often they surface through estate sales or donations to the Salvation Army or Goodwill Industries.
With the patience and deliberateness of a teacher — which she once was — Levine explained the mechanisms behind the magic of pop-up books.
Pulling a paper tab sets off a Rube Goldberg-esqe series of movements as rivets activate, for example, the 10 mirthful musicians in “Knick Knack Paddywack” by artist Paul O. Zelinsky and paper engineer Andrew Baron (the latter’s pop-up books include a light-hearted look at menopause).
The key element of most pop-up books is the gutter between the pages. Open the spread (keeping your thumbs on the edges of each page), and the 3-D structure emerges. “The trick of being a good pop-up designer is having the design close for you happily and comfortably,” said Levine.
Her oldest books date from the 1930s, and her latest include works by such contemporary greats as Ray Marshall, whose “Paper Blossoms” opens up to create bouquets for your coffee table. It won last year’s Meggendorfer Prize, bestowed by the Movable Book Society for best paper engineering.
Luther Meggendorfer (1847-1925) is the grand pooh-bah of pop-up books. Besides perfecting the use of rivets, he incorporated such techniques as slotted paper screens that, with a tug, morph images right before your eyes.
While Meggendorfer created his wonders for wealthy children, the earliest movable paper devices, dating back 700 years, served as reference tools. Medieval monks devised volvelles, a small disk that is rotated over a larger disk, to indicate, say, when Easter will be in a given year or the changing locations of the planets.
For her exhibition, Levine prepared a brochure; showed videos that explained the origin, construction, and mechanisms of pop-up books; and obtained templates for making pop-up books from the curator at the University of New Hampshire Museum. She enlisted NewBridge residents and staff to help set up the two-day event.
Volunteer Natalie Wolf, who selected the 1,000 pieces of original art on display at NewBridge, gave Levine’s display a boost in prestige with her imprimatur, and a professional look with her presentation tips.
“I think it’s unbelievable for one person to have the amount she has and that she can tell you absolutely everything about each” book, Wolf said of Levine. “At our ages to be able to recall all that, I think, is even more amazing.”
Cynthia Shulman, former board chairwoman of Hebrew SeniorLife and a friend of Levine’s for 60 years, arranged transportation for residents from other Hebrew SeniorLife housing sites to tour the show.
“When we walked in and saw the displays on the tables, it was a ‘wow’ moment,” Shulman said. “That’s how everybody felt.”
Levine said her goal wasn’t just to show off her collection, but to foster a sense of community among the organization’s many separate residences, including those offering assisted-living and long-term care.
The exhibition also served to reunite women like Levine who had served as leaders of the women’s auxiliary of the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center for the Aged, Hebrew SeniorLife’s predecessor.
“We worked together as in the olden days on the dinner dances,” she said.
If Levine’s life were a pop-up book, its gee-whiz spread would be a room-size IBM computer from the World War II era.
After graduating from high school, she worked as a secretary at an Army base near Boston’s Castle Island. Among her duties was keeping records of the trainloads of armaments that were shipped off to Europe.
Noticing that no one seemed to know what to do with the facility’s computer, she suggested using its punch cards to track shipments and thus cut down on the mountain of paperwork.
“I make this proposal, and everybody is in awe,” she said. “How come grown-ups didn’t think of how to use that machine?”
Besides being in on the early days of computing, Levine witnessed the dawn of instant photography as a secretary at Polaroid Corp. after the war.
Later, after she and her late husband, Leonard, raised three children in Newton’s Auburndale neighborhood, she earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and taught school. She next earned a master’s in organizational development, and trained people to lead stop-smoking classes.
“So I had this wonderful, checkered career doing the things I wanted to do,” Levine said.
With her insatiable curiosity, there’s no telling what this grandmother of four will do for an encore.Steve Maas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.