Introducing the Altered Book

I have been obsessed lately, and it has something to do with books but not exactly what you would guess. We could go easy on me and call it distracted instead of obsessed. I just know that I have to keep myself as far as possible from the temptation while I am otherwise engaged with responsibility, which is most of the time.

At Buxton Village Books. This book might be the art of Carol Owen.

Over the summer, we managed to take a few Covid-careful mini-vacas. One of them was for my mother’s 60th and we stayed in an Airbnb in Buxton which you may know as the town where Cape Hatteras is located, as well as the famous lighthouse. Turns out it’s a town full of townies, but that’s another story. Along the main drag (and on the Outer Banks there is often only one drag between shores) sits a little, white house on the Sound side with a sign out front: Buxton Village Books. This book store is somewhat famous and it is a lovely place: I wouldn’t miss it when visiting despite it’s somewhat inhibitive hours. When checking out at the counter, I looked up and what did I spy? I don’t know. They looked… interesting. I reached out and carefully removed it from it’s shelf away from little hands and started to rifle through. Then I called my daughter and we looked together.

It is called an altered book. Perhaps you have encountered them, perhaps not. It is not exactly a book, though physically it is. It is a piece of art work somewhere between a scrapbook and a portfolio. Of course they can be drastically different but the gist is this: an artist takes an old, hardcover book that is no longer of use, rips out half the pages (sacrilege! But still…), gives it a new cover and usually a theme, and then fills every page with visual creativity, often concentrating on interactive elements. I was in love, though the mermaid-themed book I was holding was too rich for my vacation budget. I thought, “Oh man, I totally want to make one of these.” (If you aren’t aware, besides my being a writer and my enthusiasm about books, I am an artist. I say that I’ll enjoy and have aptitude at anything creative as long as it doesn’t set off my ADHD (read: knitting and jewelry-making). Included in this is visual arts, my preferred mediums being paint and collage. I have sold stuff here and there, had some shows. I’m not the best but I’ve spent a lifetime creating art.)

Fast forward almost no time at all and I was at home planning my curriculum for the homeschool co-op class I am teaching this year (that is not ninth grade English), middle school and high school art. I had already decided to simplify everything by making it a 2D, paper-based exploration of mediums that would concentrate on experimentation and actual art as opposed to lecture or detailed technique. Then I thought of altered books. (I also thought of book nooks, but the board made me pick one.) This would make an excellent year-long project, right!? And then I could do one, too. (That’s me ignoring my near-perfect track record of NOT doing projects—even the ones I want to—along with my student(s).)

Working on Matilda.

Lo and behold, the pandemic has taught me something and darned if I am not actually doing the altered book project with my students. After doing some basic sketching and contour drawing in class, while diving into charcoal and ink-with-watercolor, I set them their weekly tasks of finding the right sort of book, ripping it up, repairing it, etc. This week we are all supposed to be doing out first page(s) of our themed books. My theme is “Heroines of Juvenile Fiction” and my first page (which is done, actually) is Matilda (as in Roald Dahl’s Matilda). The pull-tab makes static on the “telly” and the wheel makes things levitate around the room. I used collage and ink-with-watercolor to pull it off. (I have demanded that they give me a theme, at least ten different techniques/mediums, at least ten original drawings/paintings, and at least six interactive elements.) They are almost as enthused as I am. I have a lot of passion about some things.

My son working on the cover to his monsters-themed book

Interested? You should be. (Advice: you should also limit your trips to Hobby Lobby and pay with a set amount of cash.) Below are the directions that I gave the kids. We are learning as we go and I started off by watching a few YouTube videos, all by women walking me through the beginning stages of the process. Everyone in the class is excited and my son and I are spending time together at the dining room table, coming up with very different books while having both quality time together and a nice, creative experience.


STEP 1: Find and purchase a book that you will be completely altering during this process. Good places to look might be a thrift store, used bookstore, or antiques store. You can choose a children’s picture book or a chapter book, but it must be hard cover and you don’t want it to be TOO long. You might want it to be pleasing to the eye, especially the cover, because you won’t necessarily be covering EVERY square centimeter of the entire thing. Bits and pieces might show where you incorporate them into your art, especially if you find something with great illustrations. The binding should be holding together well. It should be sewn together, not glued and the paper should be matte, not shiny.

STEP 2: Choose a theme. It could really be anything, but it will help to reign in your ideas and make the book one, unified project if you pick a theme. Mermaids. Monsters. Dogs. Harry Potter. Whatever.

STEP 3: If your book is long/thick, find the centers of the sewed-together sections and remove pages. You want the book to hold up, but you need space for your art and all the stuff you’ll be cramming in there.

STEP 4: Repair your book so that it makes a good altered book. Use fun Duck tape or masking tape (masking tape is the best for painting) to secure the binding and enforce the edges of pages and corners. Don’t do every page of the book if it’s too thick as you’re not going to use all the pages (see STEP 5).

STEP 5: Prepare the book by gluing together several pages to make one (depending on the length of the book. You might not have to do this at all). You can also prepare some pages ahead by covering them with gesso, paint, or collaging in all sorts of papers. You might want to glue some pages together so that there is a pocket accessible by the top or even side. You can also cut a page in half and glue the top and bottom to create a pocket. You’ll fill those pockets later. You don’t have to completely finish this step before moving on. It could be done as you go.

STEP 6: Start filling those pages! One (which means two) at a time, cover them completely (or almost completely) with an original piece of your artwork. You can do the cover first or you can save the cover for the end. Think about adhesives (like two-sided tapes, glues, and Modpodge). Experiment. Learn as you go. Use the mediums we are using in class. Use things that you find in your home. Use things you find at an art store. (The scrapbooking section might be especially helpful.) Use things you find at a scrap store. For this project, you should be featuring actual drawings and paintings of yours. Also think about interaction. It’s really nice to have flaps to open, pockets to hold surprises, and all sorts of other interactive elements in an altered book. Things can hang out the edges. Make it YOU.

(For more thorough directions, there are at least half a dozen how-to books out there. Look ’em up. Our library didn’t have any, but you could purchase one for $15-$30 (or less used). I have my eye on Altered Books Workshop by Bev Brazleton, which could be handy for technique (though, again, so much is available on YouTube tutorials) and also for my students to look at).


One thought on “Introducing the Altered Book

  1. Fun projects! Once completed and set on a stand, they make for great visuals and conversation starters. Visitors gravitated to my wife’s altered books and ignored mine. LOL!

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