Where They Are Now

Board-book bard

Sandra Boynton ’74 talks about drawing—and singing in pig latin.

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

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Sandra Boynton ’74 first became famous in the 1970s for her quirky greeting cards. She has since written more than 50 books, the vast majority of which—including Little Pookie, Your Personal Penguin, and Moo, Baa, La La La!—are for children. She illustrates their cast of penguins, hippos, mice, and other animals herself. She has also produced five albums of original songs. She lives and works in the foothills of the Berkshires.

Y: How hard is it to write for children?

B: I don’t think of it that way. I’m not trying to strategize about what’s appropriate for children, or what makes sense for children. I write and draw my books really for myself, in the way that makes sense to me. Testing them out on my kids was great—you quickly find out where your text or art has fallen short.

Y: Your books for children are songlike, yet quite simple compared with the songs you’ve recorded.

B: To me they’re very different enterprises. For board books, the work is to find an easy interplay between the words, the drawings, and even the tempo of layout and page turns. But when you write and produce songs, the considerations shift to lyrics, melody, structure, arrangement, and the details of production and recording. I think my favorite place to be is in a recording studio. Or, failing that, a doughnut shop.

Y: Is it difficult to move from complex classical work to parodies of Gregorian chant—as you did in Grunt: Pigorian Chant—to the straightforward country-tinged songs you are best known for writing?

B: I think they’re all complex. You could say Gregorian chant is simpler. If you’re doing recorded popular music, it is layers upon layers of sound: what things are reverberated, and how far forward are they in relationship to other sounds. It is an auditory 3-D sculpture. It was fairly easy for me to write Grunt because I had a choral and classical background. The hard part in the recording with Fenno [Heath ’50, ’52MusM, the late conductor of the Yale Glee Club] was learning that people couldn’t sing pig latin.

Y: Perhaps the easiest way to sing pig latin is to forget what it means and just sing the syllables.

B: That’s what we ended up having to do, to get people to stop tripping over themselves.

Y: Do you ever sing on your albums?

B: I’ve made stealth appearances on all of them. And I was the principal kazooist on Boléro Completely Unraveled, being the only person we could find with the precise level of musical incompetence we needed.

Y: Did you seek out unusual animals for your books, like hippos and penguins, or were you naturally drawn—so to speak—to them?

B: I don’t have much say in the matter. They seem to just show up and insist on getting involved.

Y: With illustrations as simple as yours, how hard is it to draw distinct facial expressions?

B: It’s a lot easier now. I like to draw very much but I’m not a very natural artist. I sometimes say I learned to draw about halfway through my career.

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