Hippo an­niver­sary

Boyn­ton’s kids’ books, cards have en­dur­ing ap­peal

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY ELLEN MCCARTHY

San­dra Boyn­ton marks 40 years since her first kids’ book came out.

San­dra Boyn­ton lives on a farm in ru­ral Con­necti­cut. She works out of a con­verted barn, sur­rounded by pigs in over­alls, frogs wear­ing cow­boy hats, a clutch of be­mused chick­ens and a few skep­ti­cal sock pup­pets. Stand­ing there, you get the feel­ing that at any moment they might all come alive and break into a high-step­ping song-and-dance. Which they prob­a­bly will. Be­cause this is Boyn­ton’s world, and in Boyn­ton’s world, an­i­mals do what­ever she wants. And what she wants them to do, mostly, is make her smile.

It’s nice that along the way the charm­ing crea­tures have sold tens of mil­lions of chil­dren’s books and hun­dreds of mil­lions of greet­ing cards, recorded six al­bums, nabbed a Grammy nom­i­na­tion, and co-starred in a mu­sic video with B.B. King. They’re not slack­ers, th­ese furry and feath­ered friends. They al­ways do their job — they make Boyn­ton smile. And then they go out into the world and do the same for un­told mul­ti­tudes of kids.

San­dra Boyn­ton hangs back at the farm. There’s al­ways an­other crit­ter to con­jure to life. Al­most ev­ery wak­ing moment she is work­ing, bring­ing more light­ness, more laugh­ter into her world. And, thank good­ness, into ours.

Chil­dren’s au­thor San­dra Boyn­ton has tea with char­ac­ters from her books in her Con­necti­cut stu­dio. She says she is al­ways “try­ing to cre­ate safety” in her works.

Per­haps you’re so in­ti­mately fa­mil­iar with Boyn­ton that you can re­cite her books by heart. Bow to the horse. Bow to the cow. Twirl with the pig if you know how. Or per­haps you’ve never heard of her.

She is both ubiq­ui­tous and anony­mous. She’s one of the best­selling chil­dren’s au­thors and card de­sign­ers of all time, yet rarely rec­og­nized even in her own small town. This year marks the 40th an­niver­sary of her first kids’ book, and this month she’ll re­lease her lat­est record, “Hog Wild! A Frenzy of Dance Mu­sic,” which in­cludes the Laura Lin­ney/ “Weird Al” Yankovich duet the world has been wait­ing for. But chances are, if you’re not cur­rently driv­ing a mini­van with car seats in the back, you might miss it.

Boyn­ton is 64. She wears Con­verse sneak­ers, jeans and her feath­ery blond hair pulled back in a pony­tail. Red read­ing glasses hang around her neck. On a sunny day in July, she pops them on to in­spect an im­age on her com­puter screen of a di­nosaur walk­ing out of his house. Then she adds a vase of red flow­ers. Be­cause: Why shouldn’t a T. rex have some­thing lovely and civ­i­lized?

This is the ir­rev­er­ent whimsy at the heart of Boyn­ton’s world. A world she’s been cre­at­ing and re-cre­at­ing for 60 years. As a 4-year-old in Philadel­phia, she was hos­pi­tal­ized with en­cephali­tis. She doesn’t re­mem­ber much ex­cept that it was scary, and that Bruce, a slightly older boy in the same ward, al­ways looked out for her, but she knew, some­how, that he wasn’t go­ing to make it.

Some­where around the same time, she il­lus­trated a short pa­per book. Here’s the text: “Once there was a funny an­i­mal. He had a birth­day party. All the an­i­mals came. They did not like it, so they left. The end.” The­mat­i­cally, it’s not that dif­fer­ent from the 50-odd books she’s pub­lished since.

Her in­ten­tion then? And now? “I think,” she says, “try­ing to cre­ate safety.”

Boyn­ton grew up Quaker. Her mother was a point­edly funny home­maker, she says, and her fa­ther a bril­liant English teacher and head­mas­ter of the school she and her three sis­ters at­tended. She en­rolled at Yale with dreams of be­com­ing a the­ater di­rec­tor. To help pay for col­lege, she painted the car­toon-style an­i­mals she’d been sketch­ing since child­hood onto blank gift cards and sold them to spe­cialty shops. Over the next two years she wa­ter-col­ored 60,000 cards by hand.

Just be­fore head­ing to grad­u­ate school to study drama in 1976, Boyn­ton swung an in­vite to a greet­ing card trade show. Com­pany buy­ers were in­ter­ested, but they wanted her to give the char­ac­ters names and dis­tinct per­son­al­i­ties. “They were ba­si­cally try­ing to turn me into ‘Peanuts,’ ” she re­calls. “I said, ‘ That’s not what I’m do­ing.’ ”

Then she was in­tro­duced to the founders of a Chicago up­start called Re­cy­cled Pa­per Greet­ings. Mike Keiser and Phil Fried­mann liked her an­i­mals and of­fered to pay her $50 a de­sign. “I want a roy­alty,” she re­mem­bers say­ing. “They said, ‘It’s just never done.’ ” But in the end, they agreed.

Keiser re­calls that when Boy­ton signed on, the com­pany was do­ing about $1 mil­lion a year in sales. Within five years their an­nual rev­enue topped $100 mil­lion, al­most all be­cause of San­dra Boyn­ton.

“What a ge­nius,” says Keiser. He re­mem­bers walk­ing into a Mar­shall Fields store and watch­ing cus­tomers re­act to Boyn­ton’s cards. “They’d say, ‘Oh, aren’t th­ese cute. And they’re witty!’ Women would buy clutches of them.”

Her best­seller was a twist on the birth­day song: “Hippo Birdie Two Ewes.” To Keiser, “it’s prob­a­bly the best greet­ing card ever con­ceived by man.” Er, woman. At any rate, Boyn­ton’s de­signs made them all mul­ti­mil­lion­aires.

When Boyn­ton was at Yale, her mother had nudged her to take note of a class­mate who’d won a bronze medal for slalom ca­noe in the 1972 Olympics. “I said, ‘Mom there are 1,200 peo­ple in my class,’ ” Boyn­ton re­mem­bers. “And she said, ‘I’m sure he’s more in­ter­est­ing than all of them.’ ”

Boyn­ton’s se­nior year, she wound up in an act­ing class with the hand­some pad­dler, and by the end of the first se­mes­ter, she and Jamie McEwan were in love.

Boyn­ton dropped out of grad­u­ate school and de­voted her­self ex­clu­sively to the an­i­mals. Pub­lish­ers passed on a chil­dren’s book she’d writ­ten, so in 1977, Re­cy­cled Pa­per Greet­ings pub­lished “Hip­pos Go Berserk!” It sold 50,000 copies and got the pub­lish­ing world’s at­ten­tion.

Boyn­ton and McEwan mar­ried in 1978 and bought an early 18th- cen­tury farm­house in the Berk­shires. They re­con­structed an old barn, giv­ing it his-and-hers of­fices up­stairs and, even­tu­ally, a replica 1940s diner — com­plete with booths, stools and a mint-green re­frig­er­a­tor — where the whole fam­ily could hang out.

Here, for the past 35 years, Boyn­ton has shifted at­ten­tion be­tween her great loves: Jamie, their four chil­dren, and those spir­ited lit­tle an­i­mals that keep scam­per­ing out of her pysche.

Acow says Moo. A sheep says Baa. Three singing pigs say “LA LA LA!” Read through a bunch of lists of “best books for tod­dlers,” and San­dra Boyn­ton is, well, of­ten not there. She has no Calde­cott Medal. She's not fre­quently men­tioned in the same breath as Dr. Seuss or Mau­rice Sen­dak, who was one of her pro­fes­sors at Yale.

In Boyn­ton’s books, there’s no overt moral mes­sag­ing. No ar­rest­ing avant-garde vi­su­als. (Draw­ing, she says, “does not come nat­u­rally to me.”) There is only joy. Which is per­haps not enough for the crit­ics dol­ing out awards for lit­er­ary dis­tinc­tion.

But for par­ents of tiny hu­mans — per­pet­u­ally on the verge of col­laps­ing into in­ex­pli­ca­ble tears — joy is ev­ery­thing.

Darcy Boyn­ton, San­dra’s youngest child, reads all the pri­vate mes­sages to her mother’s Face­book ac­count. “We hear a lot from par­ents whose kids have been re­ally sick or who had re­ally tough times as ba­bies and young chil­dren and talk about how my mom’s books helped them get through that time,” she says.

In per­son, San­dra Boyn­ton is warm and funny, with a throaty voice and a soft, easy smile. She’s not an in­tro­vert, but those who know her best say she’s some­how been able to hold on to child­hood sen­si­bil­i­ties that most of us sur­ren­der.

So the books, the draw­ings, the songs — “They’re for me,” she says. “They’re for me as a child. Things I would re­spond to.”

Wendy Luke­hart chooses the chil­dren’s books for the D.C. pub­lic li­brary sys­tem. When she con­sid­ers the au­thors whose books she has to re­plen­ish again and again, Boyn­ton is at the top of the list. And to Luke­hart, Boyn­ton de­serves a rank be­side Seuss and Sen­dak.

“I just think she’s bril­liant,” she says. “The won­der­ful thing about her books is that you can use them to de­velop chil­dren’s sense of hu­mor. You’re help­ing them learn about the un­ex­pected and am­bi­gu­ity and sur­prise.”

Boyn­ton's char­ac­ters have no race, no gen­der, no age. The an­i­mals are Everychild, with black dot eyes and curved mouths that con­vey ev­ery shade of hu­man emo­tion. In­clud­ing the dif­fi­cult ones. “There’s also a wist­ful­ness in it,” Boyn­ton says of her work. “I guess I think things aren’t truly joy­ful if they don’t have a ground­ing com­po­nent.”

Boyn­ton isn’t much of an ad­vice giver. But there’s one bit of wis­dom she does like to dole out: “You need to know what to say no to.”

She’s said no to an aw­ful lot: li­cens­ing agree­ments, tele­vi­sion se­ries, Boyn­ton-themed tchotchkes at gro­cery-store check­out coun­ters. The few prod­ucts she has sold have been kept com­pletely un­der her con­trol.

“It’s all her,” says Suzanne Rafer, her long­time ed­i­tor at Work­man Press. “She’s very se­ri­ous about her work and pays ex­treme at­ten­tion to ev­ery de­tail.”

One idea she said yes to was mak­ing mu­sic. But af­ter com­pos­ing her first few songs, she cut out the pro­ducer who re­cruited her and be­gan put­ting to­gether her own records with Mike Ford, her long­time col­lab­o­ra­tor. The list of bold­face names to ap­pear on her al­bums is jaw-drop­ping: Meryl Streep, Ali­son Krauss, Ryan Adams and Kate Winslet, among oth­ers. Some she has con­nec­tions to — Streep’s kids went to the same high school school as hers — but most she has sim­ply cold­called.

In re­cent years, Boyn­ton be­gan mak­ing videos to ac­com­pany the songs. “Jamie used to say that my books sup­port my record­ing habit,” she ad­mits. And that’s fine with her, be­cause mak­ing mu­sic and videos is where she feels most at home. She’s di­rect­ing, just as she set out to do.

Jamie was al­ways her sound­ing board, “just my best ed­i­tor and check,” she says. He was also “the great­est per­son in the world.”

To­day the lights in Jamie’s of­fice are dark. He died of can­cer in 2014.

Sit­ting in a booth in the diner, Boyn­ton looks out the win­dow and far away as she talks about Jamie’s ill­ness. “I don’t even go there very much in my head,” she says. “I’m sorry.”

She doesn’t be­lieve in the idea of pass­ing grief. “To me, for a healthy per­son it never ends,” she says. Her so­lace comes from their grown kids — all of whom sing on her new al­bum — and her work. For her, the act of cre­at­ing feels like “a place of not ex­ist­ing — of be­ing in a kind of zone.” She has never not been able to ac­cess that zone, she says, and — like a child who just wants to play — al­ways rel­ishes be­ing there.

“I’m ob­vi­ously cre­at­ing a world that in cer­tain ways is sim­pler and more benev­o­lent than it can be,” she says. “Ex­cept I think that’s a kind of truth about the world, too. The world is so many things. So to say this is a skewed re­al­ity — well, it’s all a skewed re­al­ity. Why not skew it in this di­rec­tion? Why not posit a kind of benev­o­lence? And hu­mor.”

JESSE DITTMAR FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

PHOTOS BY JESSE DITTMAR FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Chil­dren’s book au­thor San­dra Boyn­ton, at top out­side her home and of­fice in ru­ral Con­necti­cut, pub­lished her first chil­dren’s book, “Hip­pos Go Berserk,” 40 years ago. Be­sides the books, her whim­si­cal barn­yard cre­ations can be found as plush an­i­mals and desk cal­en­dars, and the greet­ing cards with the il­lus­tra­tions gave Re­cy­cled Pa­per Greet­ings a phe­nom­e­nal boost. The au­thor also records mu­sic. Her lat­est, “Hog Wild! A Frenzy of Dance Mu­sic,” above, will be re­leased this month.

A con­verted barn in ru­ral Con­necti­cut serves as a stu­dio for San­dra Boyn­ton, and it also houses a replica of a 1940s diner where she and her fam­ily would hang out.

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