'The sun has set not long ago...'

'Now everybody goes below...' I interviewed author Sandra Boynton over email. Also: 7 other things worth your time.

Bottom line upfront: I did an interview over email with children’s board book author Sandra Boynton. You can read the whole transcript here.

Quick plug: This is the amazing, unbelievable, (and yet somehow free) email version of the daily Understandably… daily newsletter. People are always saying nice things about it. Maybe you should sign up and try it yourself...

My wife and I each come from big families. A few years back, when my daughter was about 2, we were visiting family in New Hampshire.

This was what I think of now as prime Going to Bed Book era now. We probably read that book, (written by Sandra Boynton in 1982) to our daughter 100 times over the course of a year or so—an easy regular in our multiple book bedtime rotation.

We were all sitting around the table during that visit, and I started reciting the first lines:

The sun has set not long ago

Now everybody goes below...

I'll quit here so I don't get into copyright trouble (full text), but everyone around the table joined in: my wife, me, Grandma, my wife's sister who is our age but whose kids are now grown up. I think a few others, too.

The book is only 112 words long, but still. Some of us had read it the night before; others had last read it years ago. But we’d all memorized it.

(I'll bet there at least a few readers of today's newsletter who can pick it up without reading and rattle off the whole thing.)

Last month, The Wall Street Journal ($) did a nice interview and profile of Boynton.

I’d known she was a prolific author. If you became a parent during the 2010’s, odds are pretty good that other parents gave you some of her books.

Yet, I hadn't quite understood the totality of her success: 70 million books sold over the last 40 years.

Besides The Going to Bed Book, shelves across the U.S. are likely adorned with titles like: Moo, Baa, La La La! (1982), Barnyard Dance! (1993) and What’s Wrong, Little Pookie? (2007) — and many others.

“Slight, thoughtful and kind-eyed, as soulful as any of her characters,” Warren Bass called her in the WSJ, adding:

Ms. Boynton lives in the foothills of the Berkshires, near her children and two doted-upon grandchildren. Her husband, the writer and Olympic medal-winning canoeist Jamie McEwan, died in 2014 of cancer.

She works out of a converted barn, with a cozy studio upstairs and a full-scale 1950s diner on the ground floor—complete with red stools, a vintage Wurlitzer, a huge stuffed chicken in one booth and a hulking oscillating fan draped with a sign reading, “I’m a big fan.”

As a writer: that combination of (a) widespread devotion, (b) financial success, and (c) the ability to work and live in whatever is your equivalent of a converted barn in in the country with a vintage Wurlitzer— that's basically the dream.

So, I seized the moment, and I reached out to Boynton for an interview. We wound up doing it over email.

I'll link to the full transcript here. (It’s very specific at some points, but if you’re a parent or grandparent and you know her books, you might like it. As an example we explore the question of why the animals in The Going to Bed Book take a bath before they exercise.)

Here at the main event of Understandably, so to speak, I thought I’d focus on just one thing we talked about, which was what she considered to be her big break.

(Fitting, since I got her email back VERY late Saturday evening, just after I’d been looking through all the responses to our big break open thread.)

“The big break in my life was having the excellent parents I had,” she wrote. “Truly.”

OK, forget that thing I said about wanting the audience and the financial rewards and my own version of the vintage Wurlitzer. I think what I want is to be a good enough dad that my daughter will one day say her mom and I were one of her “big breaks.”

Boynton’s mother was an artist. Her dad was an English teacher at Germantown Friends School, "a superb Quaker school in Philadelphia," where Boynton and her three sisters attended (tuition-free!) from kindergarten through 12th grade.

“It was the best education imaginable, in every way,” she wrote. “I think there’s not a single thing I’ve done in my creative life that isn’t firmly rooted in that time.”

After high school, Boynton went onto Yale University, and she took an entrepreneurial path—writing and selling greeting cards—before ultimately shifting to children's books.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the years interviewing people who work very hard to identify customer problems, build businesses, and make a buck (sometimes a lot of bucks).

But, it was nice to have the chance to talk (OK, email) with someone who basically just made it work, and still works for herself.

Plus that thing about about taking a bath before a nighttime workout session has bothered me for years.

7 other things worth your time

OK, this is potentially going to be a bit of a downer after the fun I had with that interview, but Coronavirus and the election and all that stuff continues.

  1. The U.S. is advising nursing homes to restrict visitors because of the disease. (Axios). Also, Harvard is canceling all in-person classes for the rest of the semester (Harvard Crimson), and the entire U.S. city of New Rochelle, NY is now “on containment” (NPR). And the Pope prays that priests will “have the courage to go out and go to the sick people despite fears of the coronavirus. (Daily Mail)

  2. Here’s what it was like making easy money as a paid online influencer for Michael Bloomberg: “I also work as a tutor and I get paid minimum wage, so I’m used to long hours and low pay. I was severely overpaid for what I actually did [as a Bloomberg influencer]. Maybe I just don’t understand how adult work culture works.” (FiveThirtyEight)

  3. President Trump is talking about waiving payroll taxes for U.S. workers until after the November election. (Markets Insider)

  4. In Britain, people are being offered $4,500 to willingly be injected with a “far less serious” strain of the coronavirus as part of the quest to develop a vaccine. (CBS Local)

  5. Tesla just produced its 1 millionth car. (Electrek)

  6. “The mayor of a small French town on Tuesday defended hosting a record-breaking gathering of 3,500 people dressed as Smurfs at the weekend, after accusations that the event increased the risks of spreading the coronavirus.” (Agence France-Presse)

VERY IMPORTANT: Yes, I know the band is called “Rage Against the Machine,” not “Rage In the Machine.” I just made a typo yesterday. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Can everyone please stop emailing me about it now?

Photo credit: Workman Publishing. Sandra Boynton’s latest board book is called Your Nose, and it will be out March 31.

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