Like the artwork of many students, Sandra Boynton's drawings once hung in the hallway of her school. When she was in the 10th grade, a visiting reporter noticed her renderings of imaginary animals and asked permission to print some of them in the local newspaper.
"They paid me 40 whole dollars!" she recalls with a laugh. "I bought AT&T stock with it."
With that kind of creativity—and business acumen—is it any wonder that, more than 30 years later, Boynton presides over a multimillion-dollar empire? Her name is familiar to parents across the country who grew up reading her storybooks to their kids. Even those who may not know her name might recognize the adorable animal characters that launched a greeting card revolution in the 1970s. At some point, a cheerful cow, pig or cat sketched by Boynton has probably wished you a happy birthday—or Hippo Birdie Two Ewe, as her most popular card proclaims.
You might expect Sandra Boynton Inc. to be housed in a metropolitan skyscraper with hundreds of employees. In fact, the "company" that has produced more than 50 books and thousands of greeting cards operates out of a converted barn on Boynton's property in Lakeville, Conn., and employs only the artist on a full-time basis.
Her sister Pam Boynton helps maintain her website, www.sandraboynton.com. Shes occasionally collaborated with her husband, 1972 Olympic whitewater bronze medalist Jamie McEwan, and shes also sought the advice of her children, Caitlin, 31; Keith, 28; Devin, 25; and Darcy, 20. But mostly, Boynton works alone.
"I'm truly happiest doing things my own quirky—and apparently chaotic—way," she says.
Getting her start
The seeds of individuality were planted early in Boynton's childhood. She and her three sisters attended Germantown Friends School, a Quaker institution near Philadelphia, from kindergarten through 12th grade.
"It very much emphasized arts, music and drawing," Pam says. "The school believed that was an important part of education and life." The Boyntons' father, Robert, was headmaster of the high school, and embodied that philosophy.
"He was an English teacher, and during the summers he'd write books," Pam says. "He wrote about writing in a way that was very nontraditional, about not worrying about grammar so much, for example."
Sandra's own fresh perspective helped launch her career. While attending Yale University, she noticed that most greeting cards were dominated by floral images and formal wording, designs that the fun-loving drama student found lacking. So she began to draw her own cards, starting with one featuring a dragon lighting candles with his breath, and sold them to local shops.
"So many cards are some corporation's idea of what a mother is and what she should get on Mother's Day," Boynton says. "I just think about what I would like to get or send."
In 1974, Boynton's increasingly lucrative hobby hit a snag: Balancing a full load of classes at Yale made it difficult to focus on her cards, particularly the production and distribution aspects. But she believed in their potential. So she partnered with a young company, Recycled Paper Greetings, that billed itself as an alternative to traditional greeting-card lines. Over the next decade, RPG gave those major card companies a run for their money, thanks in large part to the popularity of Boynton's designs.
"Her characters are like the Pillsbury Doughboy—you just want to squeeze them," says Terry Doherty, founder of The Reading Tub, a nonprofit literacy organization that reviews childrens books.
The Boynton brand
By the 1980s, Boynton's greeting cards were selling from 50 million to 80 million copies a year, a remarkable success that might inspire many artists to rest on their laurels. But Boynton had other ideas.
In 1977, while attending graduate school, she had persuaded her teachers to let her write and illustrate a children's book as a school project, which RPG agreed to produce and sell. Still in print today, Hippos Go Berserk! was the first in a line of Boynton books, including a few for adults and others inspired by her own children.
"When my son Devin was 3, every time he heard the word oops, he would laugh," she recalls. "So I wanted to write a book for him that would be filled with an oops repetition. I wrote and sketched out Blue Hat, Green Hat in about an hour. He still laughs at it—and he's now 25!"
Other popular Boynton titles include Your Personal Penguin, Philadelphia Chickens and Blue Moo, all of which feature another Boynton venture: original music. She and composer Michael Ford wrote songs to accompany each book, and asked big stars, including B.B. King, Brian Wilson and Kevin Bacon, to record them.
"It never stops being amazing that people say yes," she says. "You get giddy with those kinds of experiences."
Boynton's latest book, Amazing Cows! Udder Absurdity for Children Ages 5 to Infinity, will hit shelves in November, and the title offers a clue to the popularity of all her projects: a whimsy that appeals to children and adults alike.
"She seems to know the universal spot for tickling kids' funny bones," Doherty says. "But she also appeals to adults intellectually. When you start dissecting one of her books and listening to the rhymes, it will grab an adult as much as a kid."
Boynton admits that she sometimes gets so caught up in creating something that tickles her funny bone that she sometimes forgets that her target audience—children—is much younger than she is. Then again, that seems to have served her well.
"I think people go wrong strategizing for a market," she says. "If I'm amused, then its working."
More than just a business, Boynton's passion has sustained her through painful times in her life, such as the deaths of her father and her sister, Judy.
"Our family has been through a lot in the past 10 years," Pam says. "Sandra has had a lot of difficulties to deal with. I believe that first and foremost, her characters were always intended to create a world she was happy in. She creates a world she wants to live in, and she finds great comfort in that world."