To be clear, this is not a piece of investigative reporting. This is a story about my wry, quixotic friend Sandra Boynton — whom I call Sandy, but whom I will refer to here as “Boynton” because calling her Boynton makes me sound more like a journalist.
If you’ve been a child, had a child or known a child in the last 40 years, you’ve met a Boynton book. More than likely, you have counted, sung and ABC-ed along with her bewildered cows, bright pigs and sullen ducks. You’ve danced the Barnyard Dance. You’ve barked dramatically in the voice of all 10 of the dogs in “Doggies.” Even if you’ve read these books 10,000 times, the child nestled beside you asks you to read them again. And you do so with pleasure, because the rhymes (“The sun has set not long ago / Now everybody goes below / to take a bath in one big tub / with soap all over — SCRUB SCRUB SCRUB!”) are never what you see coming. Like a swing hanging from an oak tree, the cadence manages to lull and thrill at the same time.
The same is true for the illustrations, which convey puzzlement, joy, vulnerability, love and movement — the bristling energy of life — with just a few pen strokes and whisks of watercolor. These are pictures for children. And for everyone else. Not to mention these books are very funny. “I have the best job imaginable,” Boynton says. And she does.
So, it certainly makes sense that Boynton, though she has published more than 70 books, continues to march forward — her most recent books include “EEK! Halloween!,” “Silly Lullaby” and my uncontested favorite, “But Not the Armadillo.” But a few months ago, Boynton decided to march backward as well: She wanted to redraw some of her early board books. Even though anyone with eyes could have told her they were already perfect. Could “Moo Baa La La La” be improved upon? Should van Gogh have gone back to swirl another star into the starry night sky?
She was quietly determined and, with her publisher’s blessing, spent two intensive months carefully re-creating seven of her iconic board books. And then she found that she didn’t want to stop. She wasn’t satisfied until she had redrawn ELEVEN of them. (“This is the ninth out of seven” her email said when she sent me digital images of the updated “Happy Hippo, Angry Duck”).
But why? “Not to change them,” she says. “Simply to sharpen the lines, rebalance the layout, gently correct some art awkwardness here and there. Printing has had certain limitations, particularly back when I started. And then there’s a wearing-out and straying-from-the-original that can happen over time. Worse, the eventual digitization of old film separations further compromised things.”
I knew Boynton was working long obsessive hours on this project. But looking at the updated pages she was emailing me as she went along, and comparing them with the Boynton books in my house, I couldn’t really see the difference. I hesitantly mentioned that. “Good,” she said. “That’s good. I know the books will be better — more effortless, more pleasing. But I’m not looking for anyone to consciously notice any change.”
I was out of my depth. Two full months spent on doing near-invisible work? To really understand what the heck she was up to, and how she was going about it all, I realized I should make the trip northward to her studio in the farmlands of the Berkshires, so that she could walk me through the history of Boyntonia and show me this redrawing process.
Boynton, who pretty much exploded the greeting card business while in grad school for drama at Berkeley, with things such as the birthday card “Hippo Birdie Two Ewes” and the Christmas card “Dependent Claus” (in which an anxious looking Santa holds a reindeer too close), showed me her earliest book, a prototype of “Hippos Go Berserk!” drawn in ink on board.
“I had transferred to the Yale Drama School,” she said. “I made this book as my January term project. I don’t know what it had to do with theater, but somehow they approved it.” She sent that prototype to what was then Harper & Row publishers. Soon enough, they rejected it. A college friend was working at Harper as an intern and asked Boynton if she wanted to see the internal readers’ comments. She did want to. And she remembers them. “Does the world really need another counting book?” the weary reader wondered. Another said: “In the middle of the book, the author begins to count backwards!”
I asked how many copies of the book have now sold. “A whole lot,” Boynton answered with a smile.
We went through more boxes. “Horns to Toes.” “The Going to Bed Book.” “Blue Hat, Green Hat.” Each box has the original art, and mechanicals with text-crowded tissue overlays indicating to the printer what color goes where and suggesting type placement. Inside the “Horns to Toes” box, there are two very different sets of original art. It turns out that Boynton had already once redrawn — long ago now, in the mid-1990s — some of her very first books, from the early 1980s. “The printed books had gone horribly wrong,” she explained. “The line had oddly thickened, the colors were dense and dreary. The publisher had changed printers a number of times along the way, with no one bothering to refer to my approved proofs.”
Then we stood at her computer desk, so she could show me how she went about this. It’s a large screen. She works in Photoshop. (“I love Photoshop!” she exclaimed.) She found the “Doggies” folder and opened a spread. She clicked on a layer of the many-layered file, to show me what the old book looked like. Then she switched to the new page and demonstrated how she traced over the old outline, using a mouse (“People who know what they’re doing would be incredulous — this is no way to work.”). Then came the watercolor. Sure enough, the page looked the same, but better. Maybe.
But still: Why go back when you could spend that time forging new trails for frantic chickens to follow?
“It’s really for me.” Boynton said. “The new technology, and the slow steady evolution of my own skills, mean that I’m finally at a point where I can manage all the details of how I want a book to move and look. It doesn’t mean I’ll do it perfectly, of course. I’m sometimes amazed and dismayed, down the road, at my own misjudgments. But it means it’s all in my hands. . . . These books finally look right to me. That’s exhilarating.”
Ann Patchett is the author of eight novels, including “Bel Canto,” “Commonwealth” and “The Dutch House,” forthcoming in September. Her children’s book, “Lambslide,” was published in May.