Sandra Boynton did what seems to be the impossible: She moved fluidly from greeting cards to board books for youngest children. The Going to Bed Book turns 30 this month, and it’s just as fresh and pleasingly surprising to toddlers today as it was when she first published it in 1982. Another of my favorites of hers, Moo, Baa, La La La! is like a song. Children come in on the title refrain and lose themselves to the music of the animal (and human) sounds.
This week I’ve been rereading Awakened by the Moon, Leonard Marcus’s biography of Margaret Wise Brown, well known for her book Goodnight Moon, illustrated by Clement Hurd. But she is perhaps little known for her innovative work with Lucy Sprague Mitchell at Bank Street, the progressive school that came to be known by its street address, at that time, in Greenwich Village. (The Bank Street College of Education is now located uptown on West 112th Street in New York City.) Together they founded the Writers' Lab where Mitchell, Brown and other writers began to share their observations of youngest children. They watched how youngsters began to play with and acquire language, more attracted to sound and rhythm than to actual words, which didn’t yet hold meaning for many of them.
We take their trailblazing efforts for granted now. Goodnight Moon is a nursery necessity. But at that time, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Mitchell and Brown, along with Edith “Posey” Thacher, Esphyr Slobodkina (Caps for Sale) and Ruth Krauss (A Hole Is to Dig, Maurice Sendak’s first picture book), were all influenced by the research they did with the nursery school students at Bank Street and the observations they shared in the Writers' Lab there. According to Marcus, it was Brown who realized that small children “did not place books in a special category of culturally exalted objects,” and therefore needed a more rugged format. William Scott, a parent at Bank Street who published many of the projects that resulted from its Writers' Lab, began printing books on durable cardboard stock “strong enough to withstand the onslaught of toddlers’ bites and tugs,” Marcus reports.
Because Boynton illustrates her own work, she smoothly moves between making a statement, such as “they hang their towels on the wall and find pajamas, big and small,” and creating images of a tall elephant hanging his towel high, and a lion placing his on a low hook, while dog busts out of bunny’s too-tight nightclothes and bunny gets lost in dog’s, to make the contrast and the joke. Margaret Wise Brown observed this is one of the contrasts toddlers enjoyed most—the playful juxtaposition of large and little, in a world where toddlers may be small in stature but stand at the center of their universe. Boynton gets all that and makes it look effortless, as the best authors of board books do. Her books are, in content and form, built to last.