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Children's author Boynton: 'I think of myself as mostly writing for people'

Sunday's edition of the Writer’s Corner on Melissa Harris-Perry featured author and songwriter Sandra Boynton, who has written and illustrated dozens of books
Credit: Sandra Boynton

Sunday's edition of the Writer’s Corner on Melissa Harris-Perry featured author and songwriter Sandra Boynton, who has written and illustrated dozens of books and written and produced seven musical albums. I spoke with Sandra about her writing, as well as her latest, country-themed album "Frog Trouble."

Why do you write mostly for kids?

I don’t actually think of myself as writing ­mostly for kids. I think of myself as mostly writing for people. I don’t tend to think of the kids' market as completely separate from a child-like adult market.

How do you pick your characters, like which animals you want to write about?

It really depends on what I feel like drawing at any point. I tend to—you know, my characters are certainly very anthropomorphic—there tends to be a certain kind of characteristic. My cats tend to be skeptical, my hippos tend to be perplexed, pigs tend to be good-natured and exuberant. That’s not exactly by design or choice, it’s just the way I tend to see them.

What kind of ideals or messages are you trying to get across in your writing?

I guess broadly speaking—this isn’t by design, this is by observation—I guess my things tend to be pretty life-affirming. I certainly believe in the value of wit and intelligence, but maybe that sounds too pretentious for the relatively simple things I do.

I don’t think of my work as being polemical other than it does embody implicitly everything I believe in. It certainly tends to be inclusive. I hope there’s universality about what I do, so that it really should appeal pretty broadly.

Working with animals as characters probably helps make things universal, in that way you’re not excluding anybody.

It’s exactly right. People have often asked me why I don’t do people as characters, and I didn’t realize consciously why, besides the fact that I can’t really draw people very well. But, using animals completely frees you up from making what could be very pointed or peculiar choices of gender or weight or race or age. And I’m completely freed up from the constraints or the baggage that could go along with those things I’m able to have the characters stand for certain kinds of…I don’t know, my frogs are every frog! (Laughs)

What do you hope your audience gets out of your work?

I guess I hope they get a sense of joy, but also grounded joy. I’m not someone that tends to be really cynical, but I’m not unrealistic either. There’s certainly a lot of heartache and perplexity and difficulty in the world, but there’s an awful lot of beauty. At the risk of getting on a soapbox, the gift of life is an extraordinary thing.

I really enjoyed the fact that your new book Frog Trouble—in addition to having the accompanying CD with the songs—also has sheet music so the musically inclined can play or sing along.

Well, in addition to putting the music in for the musically inclined, I also put it in to communicate to the not necessarily musically inclined what music is and how—I try in these books to convey what music is from a number of different directions. Both sonically, then visually. And the reason I put all the bios in, in this case the musicians are extraordinary, I think that the making of music and the making of recordings is something I would love children and people to think about a little bit.

Why are you drawn to country music?

That’s been one of the fascinating things about this project. I don’t think I’ve learned so much as in the last two years, except when I was a young child. It truly has been a journey and illuminating in many ways. I started this project because I was asked so often—I think because of the popularity of my other albums—people would say, "When are you going to do a country album?" It always struck me as a very peculiar question. I’m from Philadelphia, why are people asking if I’m going to do a country album?

So I felt it was very wide of what made sense for me. It was asked so often I became curious about, where does country music fit for me to do it? Where is it created? Where is it authentic for me? The point of intersection for me in my life and my taste in country music were much more far reaching than I realized.

And truly one of the top experiences of my life was going to the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. I think on my second trip down there, I spent a long time there; it’s a small museum, it’s wonderfully done, beautifully curated, and to both have illuminated what the fundamental impulse is of country music, which is largely people with no means and not even much time in a way, getting together to create music—and it’s especially part of an American story, the kind of country music we’re talking about—and that impulse is the impulse behind all music.

And I just had never fully registered that. And it sounds like such a simple revelation, but it was profound for me, to watch some of this early footage they had at the museum, to listen to some of the early recordings, to look at the photos, and then as you go through the museum to start encountering the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, and of course the roots of Rock 'n' Roll are country.

So in a sense to be able to encounter your own prejudices and ignorance was remarkable, and a remarkable gift I received. That was the journey.

See Boynton's interview with host Melissa Harris-Perry below.