Rhythmic surprises—including beats that initially seem off—pervade Boynton’s work. I still trip over the first page of Hippos Go Berserk!: “One hippo, all alone.” Trying out different options on your kids is one of the books’ delights. Though joyous, early-childhood parenting is also weird and lonely, waves of affection breaking up against rocks of irritation. Teasing out the rhythm of a Boynton book offers a mental refuge from the tedium of reading to children who never tire of hearing the same story.
Ian Bogost profiles the wonderful board-book author Sandra Boynton. Bogost has previously written a delightful literary exposition of Boynton’s oeuvre, featuring this memorable reading of The Going to Bed Book:
But there are similar surprises in what seem to be Boynton’s more innocent works. Take “The Going to Bed Book”: what appears to be an innocuous precursor to the activity that its reading facilitates turns out, on closer inspection, to be rather strange. On a boat far out at sea, the usual Boyntonian menagerie—lion and pig and rhino and hippo and elephant and more—heads below “to take a bath in one big tub / with soap all over—scrub scrub scrub.” After donning pajamas and brushing their teeth, the animals pursue an unusual bedtime ritual: “And when the moon is on the rise, they all go up to exercise.” They work out! On deck! Right before bed!
No manner of earthly logic explains the post-bath and toothbrush exercise ritual. Parents who notice it might appreciate the opportunity for a head scratch during the fevered tedium of bedtime. (Oh, that Boynton, she’s a stinker.) But other interpretations are possible, readings that afford Boynton’s work the same layered meaning that, say, “The Simpsons” provokes, but in the far more formally challenging genre of the board book.
Here’s mine: the boat isn’t just any boat. It bears the unmistakable silhouette of Noah’s ark, host to the animals saved from the flood in Genesis. These animals are frozen in time, locked into the forty days and forty nights of Old Testament God’s vengeance. What does this have to do with exercising after bathing and tooth-brushing? Well, Noah knew the duration of the flood thanks to the Lord’s warning, but the animals had no idea. Imagine the terror of repetition without relief among the flood-bound Boynton hippos. This is also the terror of new parenting: the sameness of every day—the same rituals, the same books, the same diapers and tears and wails and suckles, joy and pride all bound up with the dread and exhaustion of infancy.
Truly, both Boynton herself and Bogost on Boynton provide the discerning reader much to delight in.