Bestselling Children’s Book Author Sandra Boynton On Her Career And Writing Process

Author and illustrator Sandra Boynton has had a long and prolific career, with over 70 million books, primarily for children, sold since her first, Hippos Go Berserk!, was published in 1977, written as part of a project while she was a student at Yale School of Drama. Boynton has since gone on to pen everything from the nonfiction Chocolate: The Consuming Passion to recent release Woodland Dance!, published by Workman this past September.

In addition to books, Boynton has designed a wide range of consumer products, including everything from aprons to baby clothes and toys, popcorn tins, puzzles, stickers, gift wrap, ties and much more. She’s also prolific in the musical world, where she’s earned a Grammy nomination for 2002 album Philadelphia Chickens (Workman), which was created with composer Michael Ford and released as part of the children’s book, which was a New York Times

NYT
bestseller and has over one million copies in print. Boynton has also had three additional albums certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America. Via email, I asked Boynton about getting started in children’s books, her creative process for writing and illustrating, and the popularity of her board books.

How did you initially get into writing and illustrating children’s books? 

It’s been a long and winding road. I wrote and illustrated my first children’s book at age four, titled A Funny Animal. (The book hasn’t yet found a publisher visionary enough to publish a downbeat six-page book written by a four-year-old.) The entire text goes: “Once there was a funny animal. One day he had a birthday party. All the animals came. They did not like it so they left. The End.”

The existential theme of this book would re-emerge two decades later in my first published book, Hippos Go Berserk!

Hippos Go Berserk! began as a project while you were a student at the Yale School of Drama. How did the idea form and how did it go from student project to published book?

The idea followed from the title, and the title was inspired by my fabulous sister Judy’s love of hippos, combined with a Johnny Hart B.C. comic strip I had loved years before. (I’ve tried recently to find that strip online, and failed.) It was something like this: Two ant parents are explaining to their two children that they are going out for the evening. The kids want to come, and the dad explains it’s an Art Film. Once the parents leave, one sibling says to the other, “They must be going to see Nudies Go Berserk.”

Children’s books were always part of my landscape; the remarkable Quaker School I went to from kindergarten through 12th grade, Germantown Friends, had a great library and a strong and lively art program, and every year of high school, we had an assignment to create a book. My first published work came out of that: when I was 15, the Philadelphia Bulletin gave a full color page to a bestiary I’d created. And they paid me a whopping $40. I bought two shares of AT&T stock with it, under the misconception that it was IBM

IBM
. Then later, as an undergrad, I took a terrific seminar from the breathtaking and strategically curmudgeonly Maurice Sendak. (Fittingly, it was Sendak who had brilliantly illustrated Little Bear, the magical book that had made four-year-old me absolutely determined to read.)

At that time, did you expect working on children’s books to be your main career path?

I didn’t really expect anything in particular. I’ve never looked ahead very far. I’m somehow not made that way. I suppose I figured that if I kept choosing to do things that I enjoyed, alongside people I like, then I’d always be doing something I enjoyed with people I like. So far, so good.

When did you first realize your books had become a hit with children?

I guess pretty much right away. Publishers aren’t shy about telling you when something is selling well.

How, if at all, has your approach to working on children’s books changed since you started?

Creatively, it really hasn’t. (Though my skills have certainly improved! I’ve said that I finally learned to draw about twenty years into my career; I’m not really kidding.) Logistically speaking, things are much better now that the computer has put all the typesetting and layout and art separations into my hands. You learn so much and improve so much simply by doing things yourself. But I don’t draw and paint by hand nearly as much as in the olden days, and I miss that a lot.

How do you come up with your story ideas now? How long does a picture book take from the idea stage to publication?

I almost always start with a title and a cover design. This way I can fool myself into believing that the book already exists. I then work steadily day and night until I finish the book. My books tend to be quite short, so my guess is it takes me on average two weeks to get a book 90% of the way to finished, and then the editor and I work together to fine-tune it. Publication is then between six months and a year later. By contrast, my record albums take almost two years of nearly nonstop work, side-by-side with Mike Ford, to write, arrange, travel, record, and mix. It’s the most exhilarating work I do, and by far the most difficult.

Which of your books, or which types of books, have sold the best? Is that something you pay attention to when coming up with new book ideas?

My board books sell best. I’m certainly curious about which books of mine connect widely, and it’s always interesting to try to figure out why something does or doesn’t sell. But no, I don’t strategize salability. I try to make things that delight me, on the assumption they will then delight some other people. That doesn’t always translate into commercial success, but a modest-seller is well worth making. One of my favorites among my books, How Big is Zagnodd?, has not sold notably well. (Or as Jon Anderson, the very smart and wry head of Children’s Publishing at Simon & Schuster, diplomatically put it, “Zagnodd has yet to find its wider audience.”) But I do know a few children whose favorite book Zagnodd is. All good.

More specifically, what inspired your latest book, Woodland Dance!?

Gratitude, and sadness. Woodland Dance! is my final book with Workman Publishing, and more importantly with my impossibly great editor, the legendary Suzanne Rafer. Suzanne retired four years ago, but I ignored her when she told me that. I told her Congratulations! and Good Luck! and You’re still my Workman editor! So, being an agreeable sort, Suzanne has continued on with me from her semi-retirement. We’ve worked together now for forty years; our first book came out in 1982. The book was Chocolate: The Consuming Passion—a humorous book for grownups; Workman didn’t even have a children’s division back then. Suzanne and I had a wonderful time (and a wild success) with that book, and with so, so many lively and quixotic books since then.

Knowing this would be our final book together, I wanted to have the tone of Woodland Dance! somehow match my heart and mind at the end of this long, shared journey with Suzanne. The book has a yearning about it. And it has a palette I haven’t used before, and characters I’ve never drawn before. It starts under a full moon at midnight; it ends with the dawn and its promise of renewal.

Out of all the books you’ve worked on, is there one in particular that has special significance to you?

I get kind of overinvolved when I make anything, so I have associations that matter to me from each one.

After working in children’s books for almost 45 years, what keeps you motivated to continue in the genre?

It’s the same things that always motivated me. Each project is new, and puzzling, and engaging. (Plus it keeps me from ever having any time to, god forbid, answer my mail or organize my closets.)

Music has played a big role in your career, from the six children’s music albums you’ve produced, including the Grammy-nominated Philadelphia Chickens, which also has an accompanying children’s book, and directing 12 music videos of your songs. Why is it important for you to incorporate music into your work? How does music speak to children differently than books do?

Language is intrinsically musical. I suspect there’s not a substantive distinction between what I do in my books and what I do with music. And at times they’ve directly fed each other: some of my songs became books, and vice versa. Music has mattered to me in so many ways in my own life, and I’m certainly amazed and grateful that Mike Ford and I found each other. It was exactly the right time. There’s simply no way I could have done music any sooner, given four children and how all-consuming a commitment writing and recording music is.

Mike has been the ideal collaborator for me—he has a rare combination of staggering musical talent, complex computer skills, endless curiosity, and infinite good nature. And I’m ever-astonished by the performers and musicians we’ve been able to work with. The place I like best in the world is a recording studio, working with these artists and musicians. I’m pretty sure being a music producer is where all my enthusiasm for theater directing ended up being channeled. The two are very similar.  

You got your start designing greeting cards and have since designed a large range of products from balloons to boxer shorts to baby toys to puzzles, mugs, jewelry, clothing and more, with many items sold on Zazzle. How do you decide which of these projects to work on and what type of merchandise to sell? Is your audience for your products mainly parents who’ve enjoyed your children’s books or do you have a whole other audience of adult fans?

I think my audience has always been all ages. Actually, I don’t really do many items on Zazzle. I’ve just been doing it long enough—eleven years, I think—that they’ve added up over time. Before I started creating music, which began in 1996, I had always designed directly with various companies, and loved deep-diving into textiles or wallpaper or clothing or whatever it was. That’s the fun of it. But that became impossible given the time commitment music demands, so I mostly stopped doing anything except books and music. In time, I became curious about print-on-demand. I tested a few designs by ordering the same item from various sites, and settled on Zazzle because their product quality and printing were clearly best. And their customer service is excellent.

You’ve written on your website “I only ‘license’ what I can develop and design myself, rather than letting companies adapt my characters according to their own sense and sensibility.” Why is that important to you?

Because it’s my work, my name. It’s not a hard call: Just look what happens when a wonderful and original children’s book becomes a commodified kids’ television show.

Your books have sold over 70 million copies and become a staple in the children’s book world, yet your career path wasn’t straightforward, with stints at U.C. Berkeley and the Yale School of Drama, without completing degrees at either. What do you credit your career success to? Are there key decisions you’ve made that have helped you create the career you wanted?

My career path was straightforward, just not predictable! And of course there’s always fortuitous timing and some amount of luck at play. Looking back, it seems to me I’ve had a reliable sense of what to say no to. Knowing what you don’t want and won’t accept is critical to discovering what you really do want.

What advice would you give someone looking to break into children’s books now?

I’m afraid I don’t have any insight—an author is an outsider; someone would need to how that world works from the inside in order to give any useful guidance. Though Winston Churchill’s “Never give up!” is a generally great reminder.

What’s next for you?

I committed to writing and producing a Christmas album [for release Christmas 2023]. It’s a daunting prospect, but I’ve been wanting to try for a very long time. And I suddenly thought: Now. Mike Ford and I will start in January, and see what happens. We have one track already; working remotely from isolation last Christmastime, we created my favorite track we’ve ever done. Then the legendary (and very kind) mastering genius Bob Ludwig shoehorned the track into his schedule so that we could offer it in time for Christmas. The song, sung from her home by my daughter Darcy, is called “So Cold for So Long (Bethlehem Lullaby).” From the deep quiet of my studio that cold 2020 December, I made and released this simple lyric video.

Scott R. Banks