Sandra Boynton’s Captivating Universe

Her picture books have sold 75 million copies in the past four decades. What’s the secret to her far-reaching appeal?

Timothy Sean O’Connell

I knew I was in the right place when I spotted cartoon-fowl statuaries flanking the gate of a rural drive. Bright, fat beaks and combs bulged out from stoic, teardrop bodies. These were unmistakably Sandra Boynton chickens.

Since the early 1970s, Boynton has herded her animals onto greeting cards, calendars, and songbooks. But she is best known for her board books, written for the youngest children and the parents who read aloud to them. She has published more than 60 of them, including the perennial best sellers Pajama Time!; Moo, Baa, La La La!; Barnyard Dance!; and The Going to Bed Book. Together they have sold some 75 million copies. Two more titles joined her menagerie this year, Dinosnores and Silly Lullaby. They bring Boynton’s usual oddball joy—snoring reptiles and owls that moo—to a new succession of bedtimes.

“Everyone needs chicken sentries,” Boynton explained when I arrived at her studio, a red barn that sits behind a centuries-old farmhouse in western Connecticut’s Berkshires. With her publishing royalties, she has outfitted her real farm with the storybook trappings of her fictional ones. The barn’s two-and-a-half-story interior looks less like Boynton’s studio than Boynton’s Country Store. On display are books, cardboard stand-ups, records, hundreds of critter-emblazoned greeting cards, and stuffed animals (an enormous, fuzzy pig fills a rustic dining chair).

Chicken sentry
Timothy Sean O’Connell

Boynton reached for a copy of Blue Moo, her 2008 Grammy-nominated album of kids’ songs, which includes B. B. King singing the Boynton-composed “One Shoe Blues.” While working on the accompanying picture book, she started acquiring memorabilia from the 1950s as design references, and she didn’t stop after the album was released. What was once an unused conference room on one side of the barn is now a whole diner, complete with vinyl counter stools, red-cushioned booths, and a working pay phone. The rest of the decor, from the fridge to the ceiling to the colander of fresh cherries, all matches the sea green of Blue Moo’s cover. “Before, it was kind of a depressing room,” she said. “This is no longer a depressing room.” Here, nestled among fixtures that recall her own childhood, Boynton cooks up stories for kids who are just beginning theirs.

“Where did you ever get such a crazy, scary idea for a book?” That’s the question the author and illustrator Maurice Sendak set out to answer in his 1964 Caldecott Medal acceptance speech, for Where the Wild Things Are. Children, he observed, have dark emotions and anxieties, just as adults do. Appealing to their disquiet, Sendak concluded, “gives my work whatever truth and passion it might have.”

Eight years later, as a Yale sophomore, Boynton applied to a children’s-literature seminar that Sendak taught there. A portfolio was required; she submitted a bestiary she had written and drawn in high school. She was accepted, so she figured Sendak must have liked it. Not so much. When the two met, Sendak dismissed the portfolio as “greeting-card art.” But that only emboldened her. “It occurred to me that making and selling my own greeting cards would be a much better summer job than the waitressing I’d done unhappily the previous summer,” she told me.

And that’s how it started. The animal characters that define Boynton’s oeuvre—birds, sheep, chickens, hippos—first made their appearance on cards, which she started selling to Recycled Paper Greetings in 1974. The cards, though cute, were wry instead of mawkish. “Things are getting worse,” an unnerved-looking hippo says on one. “Please send chocolate.” They proved wildly popular, and eventually Recycled Paper printed anything Boynton sent along.

Two years later, as a graduate student at Yale, Boynton made a children’s picture book called Hippos Go Berserk! As we were talking, she opened an archival box dated 1976 and pulled out the original—a pile of thick cards, painted sparsely in primary colors. “That’s what I knew to draw on,” Boynton said of the boards she used long before board books became ubiquitous. When a traditional publisher rejected the title, Recycled Paper picked it up. Since then, Hippos Go Berserk! has sold more than 2 million copies.

It may seem like a simple counting book: “One hippo, all alone, calls two hippos on the phone.” But it also channels Sendak’s sense of terror. Hippos pile into a house—overdressed, with a guest, in a sack, through the back. Chaos builds as the number of hippos on each page climbs, then it dissipates as the book counts back to one. It ends on an unexpectedly tragic note: “One hippo, alone once more, misses the other forty-four.”

Boynton’s books oscillate between order and disarray, wisdom and nonsense. The Going to Bed Book, a gentle lullaby about nightly routines (not unlike parents reading stories at bedtime), somehow makes these rituals seem at once benign and oppressive, before suggesting an absurdist reprieve: “And when the moon is on the rise, they all go up to exercise.” Like Fred Rogers, Boynton treats children, even very young ones, with deep respect. Like Sendak (whom she calls an “unfailingly and affectionately supportive” mentor), she accepts that kids already encounter the distress of adulthood. But Boynton also makes a space for children and adults to occupy together. Take this line about a throng of Halloween chickens: “One heard a robot intone: Trick or treat.” Suzanne Rafer, Boynton’s editor of 38 years at Workman Publishing—one of two publishers that print Boynton’s books—passed on sales agents’ objections to the verb intone: “We’re reading this to a zero-year-old.” Boynton’s reply: “All language is new to a kid. Why not invite them into a vocabulary that’s special from the beginning?”

Boynton’s books work best when they address adults and children together. In But Not the Hippopotamus, the title character does not partake in other animals’ activities: “A hog and a frog cavort in a bog. But not the hippopotamus.” At the end, the group invites her to join and she agrees: “But YES the hippopotamus!” Joy and comfort seem assured. Yet, just then, on the final page: “But not the armadillo.” Like all good literature, it leaves interpretation to the reader.

The ambiguity disturbs some parents. My child is very upset, they complain. He wants to know what happened. “The armadillo is fine,” Boynton always reassures them. For years, readers begged for a follow-up that would resolve the matter. Last year, she finally gave in and published But Not the Armadillo. After pages of gratifying, mostly solitary activities—napping, strolling, picking cranberries—the book invokes the earlier story’s ending: “A happy hippo dashes by. She wants to run and play. But not the armadillo. No. He goes the other way.” Don’t sit out if you want to join in—that’s the hippo’s lesson. But equally valuable is the armadillo’s: You don’t have to take part if you don’t want to. It’s a profound message for a parent, let alone a toddler. As Jon Anderson, the president and publisher of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, put it to me: “There’s something almost Samuel Beckett about it.”

I had traveled to Boynton’s studio to find out how she makes a board book. She took me upstairs, where we perched on stools in front of her computer, whose desktop featured a phalanx of pop-eyed chickens against a black backdrop.

She opened a folder of Word files containing the text for Dinosnores. She had set up the book’s 11 spreads on a single page, each numbered, like stanzas of poetry or song lyrics. Most of Boynton’s work is bite-size: A greeting card is an image and a line of text; a book is a dozen of them. That makes every element crucial.

Boynton obsesses over details. She pointed to the edges of a few board books nearby. They looked distinctly orange next to the white ones. “China,” she said disdainfully. Whenever possible, instead of printing offshore, she insists on using Terry Ortolani, who runs the only board-book printer left in the United States. He’s developed his own methods, including steps to ensure the thick pages don’t crack when folded and scored during the production process. But most of all, after 25 years of collaboration, he knows how to meet Boynton’s expectations.

She tends to get her way, and everyone who works with Boynton says that’s because she’s right, not because she’s truculent. The translator for her Spanish editions wanted baile for “dance” in Barnyard Dance!, but Boynton didn’t like it: “Danza sounds better.” It’s true; the lumbering D and the brusque Z better suit a square dance for livestock. They didn’t get past the title—Boynton fired the baile guy and did the translations herself.

Boynton illustrating
Timothy Sean O’Connell

She has also completely redrawn many of her books, in some cases more than once. In part, this is because technological changes have allowed her to sharpen the thin outlines around her cows and pigs. (Today, she draws both on paper and on her computer, where she composes her work in Photoshop.) But mostly, Boynton wanted her characters “to look the way they should look.” A green bathing suit switched to purple. A textured paint style became more solid. Most readers wouldn’t notice the changes, but they foster longevity. “It kind of blew my mind how she has this ability to maintain the original look yet give them a freshness that makes them pop anew,” Anderson told me.

Small-statured, with an oval face and blond hair pulled back, Boynton typically works alone, with some help from her four grown children and her songwriting partner, all of whom live nearby. Though her work has broad appeal, she derives inspiration from specifics. “I think one of the reasons my cards worked is I didn’t ask, ‘What does a daughter want to send to a mom on Mother’s Day?,’ and instead said, ‘What do I want to send to my mom on Mother’s Day?’ ‘What does my friend Jane want to send her mom on Mother’s Day?’ ” The Dinosnores characters are no less idiosyncratic. They were once a set of bedsheets Boynton printed 20 years ago; she rediscovered them after looking for a pillowcase and remembered that her son Devin had loved them. “And I went, ‘Oh my goodness, I should make this a book.’ ”

Sendak was adamant, Boynton told me, that a picture book’s art should do much of the story’s work. “The writing,” she said, “should be spare and efficient and evocative.” This is easier said than done, of course. One day last October, she struggled through six drafts of Dinosnores. She’d written down “honk shoo,” the obstreperous sound that dinosaurs make after “they all settle down in a dinosaur heap,” early in the morning, but only as a notion: “And the big dinosaur / has a snore like / honk shooo!” By the afternoon, three honk shoooooos appeared alone on a spread. A fourth arrived the following morning, and it made all the difference. The incantation was excessive—annoying to say and to hear, especially at the volume the type size suggested—which was exactly the point. She made a crucial alteration later, when drawing the page: “honk shoooooo!” became “honk SHOOOOOO,” guiding the parent-reader toward her desired rhythm, a soft, inhaled snort followed by a long, breathy groan. “It’s a constrained amount of space. I’m just moving pieces and words around to get it,” Boynton said. “It’s really like working out a puzzle.”

Timothy Sean O’Connell

Boynton’s editors and publishers told me that the work lands on their desks essentially complete. She’s less certain. “I look at these things,” she wrote in an email about the Dinosnores drafts, “and think, How do I have a career?” Emails between Boynton and Rafer show that from that point on, they continue to perfect every element before sending a book to print. The two disagreed about the final page of Dinosnores, for example: “Thank goodness those dinosnores live far, far away,” it reads. “It’s got that extra syllable,” Rafer told Boynton, hoping for dinos instead of dinosnores. Still, Boynton kept it in. The rhythm is “very Mozart,” she told me, making the word form a quick triplet, di-no-snores.

Rhythmic surprises—including beats that initially seem off—pervade Boynton’s work. I still trip over the first page of Hippos Go Berserk!: “One hippo, all alone.” Trying out different options on your kids is one of the books’ delights. Though joyous, early-childhood parenting is also weird and lonely, waves of affection breaking up against rocks of irritation. Teasing out the rhythm of a Boynton book offers a mental refuge from the tedium of reading to children who never tire of hearing the same story.

Boynton fauna are mostly barnyard or woodland creatures. Cows, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats; the occasional bear or rat or squirrel or bunny. Even the snakes are tame, more garden than jungle. So what’s the deal with all the hippos? From her earliest greeting cards—“Hippo Birdie 2 Ewe”—to her most memorable board books, hippos weigh heavily on the page. “My beloved older sister Judy loved hippos from the time she was little,” she said, adding that Judy, to whom she was extremely close, had died some years back of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Boynton then retrieved from a nearby armchair one of her sister’s old stuffed toys, a plush incarnation of J. J. Morgan, a television-celebrity basset hound from the early 1950s. The dog still wore the matted love of a childhood half a century gone; its round muzzle reminded me of Boynton’s creatures.

I realized then that, apart from a wayward doe, I hadn’t seen any real live animals on Boynton’s farm, despite the fact that we were deep in dairy country. The surrounding landscape was stippled with brown or black-and-white cows grazing beside barns and silos; at a nearby filling station, even the bathroom wallpaper had a bovine theme. When I asked Boynton about her lack of animal company, she explained that she’d once had two dogs, but they’d died shortly after Jamie, her husband, passed away five years ago. The first had multiple myeloma, the same cancer that killed Jamie; the second, she theorizes, died from grief. “I would like to have a dog or cat around, but if it got sick it would just be too much for me,” she said. “I just can’t go through that again.”

I was tempted to imagine that the bulbous hippos and yapping dogs on Boynton’s pages somehow sublimate her grief into happiness, or her love into tribute. But before I could articulate this Hallmark idea, I realized that she would be allergic to it. Nobody escapes loss, any more than we escape delight or triumph, confusion or loneliness, waking up or going to sleep. “My characters are all pretty confused, in a very benevolent way,” Boynton said. Like the parents reading her words, or the children listening to them, they are just trying to muddle through life. “I mean, my animals aren’t really animals,” she said. “They’re humans.”

This article appears in the November 2019 print edition with the headline “The Bard of Bedtime.”