Seriously silly: A dad-to-be gets advice from children’s author Sandra Boynton

  • Author Sandra Boynton

  • My aunt in Nebraska sent me this Sandra Boynton box set.

  • Photo courtesy of The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art

  • “Lovecat.” © 2017 Sandra Boynton. Courtesy of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art

  • “The Good Old Days II.” Collection of Sandra Boynton. © Ronald Searle. Courtesy of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The literary canon is full of famous first lines: “Call me Ishmael.” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” But a classic line that gets left off best-of lists is one that countless children and adults will recognize: “A cow says MOO. A sheep says BAA. Three singing pigs say LA LA LA!”

It has been 35 years since Connecticut-based children’s book illustrator-author Sandra Boynton dropped that line to begin her “Moo, Baa, La La La!” — a board book that, released in 1982, is seven years my senior, and that I had admittedly never read until a big delivery box showed up on my doorstep a few weeks ago.

At 28, my wife and I are only about six weeks away from the birth of our first child, a girl, and we have been inundated with hand-me-downs and gifts: bibs, bottles, binkies and impossible amounts of baby clothes. This particular package was from my bibliophile aunt, Lynette, who works as a kindergarten teacher just outside of Omaha, Nebraska, so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to see a box set of Boynton’s Greatest Hits sitting atop a mound of other kids’ books.

One of the perks of being a journalist is getting to talk to everyone and anyone, so I decided to give Boynton a call at her home in Conncecticut. I was curious what advice she would have for me, as I prepare for parenthood.

“You already have the right instincts!” Boynton said when I wondered aloud whether our little Sasha (we’ve already agreed on a name) would grow up reading, writing and playing guitar like her father. “Don’t try to turn her into anything,” added Boynton, a mother of four grown children. “Just keep trying to discover who she is, and honor that, and find ways to share the things you love with her.”

Boynton has been sharing her love of drawing and writing since, as a child growing up in Philadelphia, she wrote her very first illustrated story at the age of four: It was titled “A Funny Animal,” and it was “very existential,” she said. The entire text read: “Once there was a funny animal. He had a birthday party. All the animals came. They did not like it, so they left.” 

After graduating high school in Philadelphia, Boynton really wanted to attend Hampshire College, but those were the college’s early years, and her mother warned her not to attend the relatively unknown new school. She chose Yale instead, but she does have a family connection to the Pioneer Valley: Her son went to Amherst College. 

And, recently, Boynton was back in the Valley as one of 10 artists highlighted in an exhibition currently at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art titled “Collecting Inspiration: Contemporary Illustrators and their Heroes.”

Boynton’s muse in the “Collecting Inspiration” gallery is the British cartoonist Ronald Searle, whose “The Good Old Days II” is paired with her 2017 “Lovecat.” The similarities are immediately obvious. As Boynton said in gallery notes: 

“In 1973, I studied in Paris for the winter/spring semester. The greatest joy of my time in the City of Lights & Butter was the Ronald Searle exhibition at the Bibliotèque Nationale. His cats particularly captivated me. My own career as a cartoonist began the following summer ... Though I lack the intricacy and sublime spattered recklessness of Searle’s pen, my art does echo his curious benevolence and bewilderment. And my own cartoon cats have an oblique affinity to those upright Searle cats I’ve adored from the start.” 

The Boynton Book

Four decades have passed since Boynton published her first children’s book, “Hippos Go Berserk!” Since then, she has become one of those authors who has essentially pioneered her own genre: The Boynton Book, which consists of anonymous but highly expressive cartoon animals. Her drawings feature sharp black lines and sparse coloring; they’re simple but far from simplistic. 

“I just always assumed people used up the black crayon first,” she told me, describing her own drawing style. 

She has also managed to build an empire with her work. While at college, Boynton designed greeting cards, which she sold store-to-store, before the booming popularity of those cards earned her millions. Now, in addition to being the author of a handful of New York Times best-sellers, she’s also a musician who has a platinum record and has worked with some of the biggest names in the business. Some of my personal favorites: Brian Wilson, B.B. King and Alison Krauss, and I’m definitely planning to learn to play her song with Ryan Adams, “When Pigs Fly,” for Sasha. But what stood out for me is that her newest record, “Hog Wild! A Frenzy of Dance Music,” includes an appearance by “Weird Al” Yankovich — the first artist I ever saw in concert.

Boynton’s greeting cards and music are still immensely popular, but more than anything, children devour her board books — they eat them up, both figuratively and literally. She joked that she gets personally offended if a parent asks her to sign one of her board books and it isn’t covered in teeth marks. 

“I seem to have the propensity for the short form, so board books are perfect for me,” she said. 

And it’s not just other people’s children who are drawn to her work. Boynton’s own brood also sing on her newest record, and it is far from their first collaboration together. When it came to her books, “I tried a lot of them out on them,” she said of her kids, adding that friends can’t always be trusted to give honest feedback, but a child won’t hesitate to say whether she likes or hates your work and why. Just seeing when her own children laughed was a way to tell whether her humor would land with others. 

After hearing Boynton talk about her own children and their role in her creative process, I wonder what role Sasha will play in my regular work as a journalist. Maybe I could teach her to file public records requests from an early age? But then I remember Boynton’s words.

“You can’t make your child be anything they aren’t,” she told me. “But what a luxury to have this person in your life! You get to watch them grow, and unfold and discover.”

Part of the challenge, she said, is to view every experience as a learning opportunity for your child. That’s something Boynton does in her own work. “I don’t draw that line between educational and non-educational,” she says. “The last thing people need is didactic books at any age.” There’s no need to oversimplify things for children, she added. 

The line between silly and serious should be blurred, too, she said. Much of her work, after all, is marketed as “serious silliness,” as I noticed while looking at the back of my Boynton’s Greatest Hits Volume One box set.

“I think that sometimes people think ‘silly’ means trivial, which they shouldn’t,” said Boynton, who is currently working on a collaboration with New Yorker cartoonist George Booth — it marks her first time writing for someone else’s drawings. “I’m very serious about my work, and I’m serious about trying to make sure, insofar as I can, that it’s valuable, that it works, that it’s an interesting experience.”

Boynton’s philosophy seems to match the unfettered joy of the animals in her books.

“I actually work all the time because I love it,” she told me. “I’m basically a professional kindergartner.”