Discover more from Understandably by Bill Murphy Jr.
Q&A With Sandy Boynton
Spoiler alert: "Because it rhymes with, 'And when the moon is on the rise...'"
Hey, it’s the full Q&A of my email exchange with Sandra Boynton… (You can find the original article here.)
Q: My questions are in italics, like this.
SB: Boynton’s answers are in bold with the red heading, like this.
Q: I write a lot about entrepreneurship, so can you start by telling me what it’s like to work for yourself and be your own boss for 40+ years?
SB: Being my own boss is certainly a perfect dynamic for me: I get to order me around; and then I manage to slyly defy and/or redefine those orders.
I actually started in business in the summer of ‘59, at age six, at my grandparents’ home in the Catskills. I went around neighbor to neighbor, selling for 10¢ the lovely yellow flowers I had picked all by myself.
It turned out they were ragweed. Some people paid me 10¢ to keep the flowers.
It could have turned into quite a robust protection racket, but I had to start first grade in the fall.
Q: I’ve read a bit about your house/barn setup [her home office]. Can you tell me the key things you’ve learned over the years about making your work environment work for you? What’s most important?
SB: Good question. Um...homeyness, I guess? Books, paper, technical pens, colored pencils, watercolors, outdated but very workable office supplies, evocative clutter (megaphone; roller skates; Space Cadet metal lunchbox).
Old wooden tables and bookshelves, industrial stools. Old signs; I love hand-lettering and typography and odd phrasing. (Favorite: “Hi NEIGHBOR See You At The PICNIC”.)
I like natural light, plus—if more light is needed—warm lighting from old fixtures. Plus, incongruously, a computer.
Q: What would you insist on if you were doing this but you didn’t have the [financial] resources to create such a great space?
SB: I’m a flea market and junk shop kind of person. Most of the things in my space are the same things I’ve had all along. They maybe took resourcefulness, but they didn’t really take “resources.”
Quick interruption: You’re reading the amazing, unbelievable, (and yet free) email version of the daily Understandably… daily newsletter. People are always saying nice things about it.
So now would be a really good time to sign up for free to try it yourself...
Q: What can you tell me about your process: A lot of parents wanted to know if you write the stories first, or the rhymes, or work on the pictures?
SB: It’s all oddly simultaneous. Or at least rapidly and changeably sequential. But I usually do the cover first, probably to persuade myself that the book somehow already exists.
Q: Where do you get the ideas from to begin with?
SB: I don’t really know. I suppose it’s some bizarre alchemy of genetics, context, temperament, memory, affinity, and chance.
Q: Who would you say you rely on in your work? Do your grown children read your drafts and offer feedback? Or colleagues that you trade notes with? Or do you just kind of “get it” with your gut feeling about what works and what doesn’t?
SB: I can take it most of the way on my own, by working and reworking things till they seem right to me. (Which can take me quite a while!)
From that point on, I have a small and exceeding reliable advisement group, which consists of all four of my truly terrific children, plus my truly terrific editors at Workman and at Simon & Schuster.
For art/design questions, it tends to be my printer, Terry Ortolani, that I collar. I met Terry at a press check years ago, when he was practically a kid, working at a now-long-gone printing plant in Buffalo NY. I was floored then by his knowledge, insight, and eye for detail. Not to mention his unfailing thoughtfulness.
He now has his own company, and is the only board book printer left in the USA. He’s a good friend, and essential guide in this much-changed world.
My most recent book—YOUR NOSE! (Workman Publishing; pub date 3/31/20)—actually went through a quite different process.
It was unexpectedly transformed by my social media followers. I had just started to work on it, and posted a mention of the project along with a sketch of foxes I was working on.
A number of people responded with references to “booping”. I had no idea what that was. So I (warily) went to look it up...and discovered all these wonderful, affectionate nose-tap photos and clips all over the internet.
So then the “Boop!” gesture and word then became a key part of my book, and I think made the whole thing coalesce.
Q: Do you work with assistants?
SB: I don’t have an assistant, though I did for a while. There are definite upsides, but I don’t really like (and am not very good at) being responsible for someone else’s time and motivation.
Q: There are 36 years between “But Not the Hippopotamus” and “But Not the Armadillo.” That’s a heck of a gap. (I keep thinking of Richard Linkletter’s movies!)*
What prompted you to go back and revisit this? The original kids whose parents read it to them are now parents themselves!
SB: It’s another instance of the upside/downside of social media. I had for years gotten questions at book-signings about what happened to the armadillo.
And I had thought this was odd. I assumed it was clear—at least, in the world of the book, and in my work in general—that things turn out.
But in these past few years, I’d been getting a number of messages from parents whose tiny child REALLY needed to know. That matters, so I would give individual reassuring replies, saying in various ways that the armadillo was happy.
It eventually became clear to me that I should try to gently close the narrative circle.
But I wasn’t sure how to write a book that wasn’t just an echo of the hippo’s story. Yet I thought I should try. I also supposed that many people would want and expect a familiar, predictable sequel. But I hoped to show something different than But Not the Hippopotamus shows, otherwise why do it at all?
The But Not the Armadillo perspective turned out to be this: Some individuals truly prefer not joining the group. They like going their own way, at their own pace.
*Side comment: Time is a bizarre thing.
Q: It seems to me that you’ve been smart and successful from a very young age. But are there things you wish you’d done differently from a business perspective over the years?
SB: This is the cue for my rousing, defiant rendition of Piaf’s “Je ne regrette rien”...
I’ve been unusually fortunate in the companies and people I’ve worked with, and the journey has been fascinating and varied and glorious and fraught and disillusioning and uplifting and everything.
I wouldn’t know what to change, because the Oops! things and the Ack! things often make way somehow for the irreplaceable revelations and joys.
Q: Do you have advice for people trying to get a start in (a) children’s books specifically or (b) artistic careers in general?
SB: I started in children’s books a while back (Charles Dickens and I were at University together), so I honestly don’t have advice or insight in these very different days.
As for an artistic career, or probably life in general, it seems to me that to be peaceful and content, you don’t have to know precisely what you want. It may even be better if you don’t.
But I think you do need to be very clear what you DON’T want, and steadfast in the not-doing of those things.
Q: Is there a “big break” that you point to? And one of my favorite questions: What made that “big break” possible? Sometimes in person I like to push people to go back to the first “big break” that they weren’t at least partially responsible for making happen themselves.
SB: The big break in my life was having the excellent parents I had. Truly.
My mother was a remarkable artist, my dad was an English teacher. And because he was a teacher at Germantown Friends School, a superb Quaker school in Philadelphia, his four daughters went there tuition-free, K through 12.
It was the best education imaginable, in every way. I think there’s not a single thing I’ve done in my creative life that isn’t firmly rooted in that time.
Q: I think it was in the CBS Sunday Morning interview that I saw: You talked about working almost nonstop, 8 a.m. to midnight each day. Is that the case? Does it feel like “work?” What keeps you going at that pace?
SB: It is truly the case! Weird, right? The business part feels like work at times, but the creative part is endlessly interesting.
Q: This is always better in person, but: Can you tell me anything about you that doesn’t come up in interviews much, but that your fans will find interesting/cool?
SB: I directed a short musical film—“One Shoe Blues”—starring B.B. King and sock puppets.
Q: And if we haven’t talked about this yet, can you tell me a bit about your days writing* greeting cards?
[Note: I had an incorrect impression — I thought she’d only worked on greeting cards for a couple of years, but it was a much longer run. Also, Sandy corrected me here: *drawing and writing]
SB: It would be difficult to summarize 23 years!
I met the two energetic, funny, visionary founders of Recycled Paper Products at a trade show in NYC when I was 21. They were old: 27 or 28.
I had just graduated from college and was on my way to grad school. I’d been selling my cards to stores myself, and I wanted to find a company to take over the production/business end of things. They were the completely perfect choice.
We had an amazing run together. They also were my first book publisher: Hippos Go Berserk started with them. I haven’t caught up with Phil Friedmann in a while, but I get to spend time with Mike Keiser, who is now legendary for his renegade, impossibly beautiful golf courses.
Q: OK, a few questions (some are very specific) from the ‘Mommies & Daddies’ group in my town: I’m sure you can guess... A lot of parents wanted to know why the animals [in ‘The Going to Bed Book'] take a bath before going to exercise?
SB: Because it rhymes with “And when the moon is on the rise”, and it’s unexpected, and makes for an energetic full spread at the right moment in the book.
Plus it’s historically accurate.
Q: Is Pookie a boy or a girl?
SB: I think mostly Pookie is the gender of the child being read to.
Q: “How does she stay so positive? I see her subtle edge in politics but wonder how that plays in her head so that it comes out in her art.”
SB: I’m pretty sure my work (which is admittedly quirky) has always had the same underlying values and perspective. I’m very grateful that by and large it connects with people.
Q: “What inspires her stories? They’re simple, yet he’s totally entranced every time we read it. How does she manage to keep their attention? (Moo Baa La La La is read at least 20x a day in our house... literally)”
SB: I wish I knew! Thank you for reading it 20x a day!
Q: “Does she work on a lot of stories that don’t become books?
SB: Not really. So far, mostly everything I start on manages to become a finished song or book. (Sometimes both.)
Q: How is it possible that she has a cartoon for every real and kind of made up holiday. I think I recently saw a cartoon of hers for National Pie Day.”
SB: Fifty years of drawing goes a long way!
Q: “Is Pajama Time a story or a song? I always flip flopped between reading it and lame mid-30s girl rapping it. Fortunately my kids still think I’m doing it right (for now).”
SB: It’s originally a song from my album/songbook Philadelphia Chickens. But your version is surely terrific.
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