Sandra Boynton takes the cake with 'Hippo birdy, two ewes

For those "special occasions" that ask to be acknowledged with diplomacy and whimsey, Sandra Boynton is becoming everybody's favorite ambassador. Her droll greeting cards featuring expressive animals and bemused people find their way to birthday celebrators, new mothers, friends, or even budding novelists. Some cases:

* A pig on tiptoes tries to peer over the rim of an old-fashioned bathtub where another pig merrily scrubs away. "Not the usual hogwash. Just thanks," the card reads.

* On another card a blue beastie growls ferociously, baring his teeth. Inside: "You're cute when you're mad."

* A character vaguely remisniscent of Henry James is lost in thought beside a typewriter, papers askew on his desk, shelves laden with books behind him. The message reads: "How's your novel coming?"

Ms. Boyton has developed a style and wit in her greeting cards that is emmediately recognizable and, judging from sales, very likable. Recycled Paper Products Inc. of Chicago, which markets the cards, reports that Boyton cards account for about one-third of the volume of cards sold by the company, which did $25 million in business this past year.

Perhaps one reason the cards are a hit is that Ms. Boynton usually designs her cards with a specific person or situation in mind.

"When you get a card that says 'Just for you . . .' it seems very impersonal, " says Ms. Boynton. "My cards are actually from me to someone." And many people do see them selves in her cards.

"It makes you realize how ordinary you are," she says, smiling. "I write a specific card, and 30,000 people identify with it."

For example, one of her sisters likes hippopotamuses, so Ms. Boyton uses the portly African animals on some of her cards. Her most popular card, which gives a slighly altered version of "Happy birthday to You," reads "Hippo birdy, two ewes . . ." while the animals listed frolic in party hats. A spokesperson for Recycled Papers claims it is one of the single best-selling cards in the country.

A lifetime drawer ("Who didn't doodle when he or she was a kid?" she asks), Ms. boynton began making cards one summer when she needed spending money before starting graduate school. That first summer she hand-colored 60,000 gift enclosure cards that an uncle had printed for her.

After a successful summer, Ms. Boynton went to a trade show in New York city to talk with card companies. She became enchanted with Recycled Paper Products, which was started by two young men who wanted to prove that business and ecology could mix. A deal was struck, and today Ms. Boynton's two card lines, Animal Farm and Kulture Kards, make up a large percentage of Recyled Paper's business.

The public perception of the cartoonist, whose hippos make meals in the kitchen ("Never say diet") and whose businesslike cats sit at desks talking on the telephone with piles of papers and a calculator at h and ("Fat cat"), is somewhat different from reality. Many card buyers assume "Boynton" is a male about 50 years old.

In fact, Ms. Boynton is a wife and mother, as well as a cartoonist. The 1974 Yale graduate, who looks very much at home in blue jeans and a thick Nordic design sweater, lives in a 1740 farmhouse with her husband, Jamie McEwan, an aspiring writer, and daughter, Caitlin, who aspiring writer, and daughter, Caitlin, a bronze medal canoeist in the 1976 Olympics, can keep up his sport. The couple shares child-care duties 50-50.

"I'm half househusband, one-quarter canoeist, and one-quarter writer," explains real. The equal split in parental roles gives Mrs. Boynton ample split in parental roles gives Ms. Boynton ample opportunity to work on her card designs (she estimates she does 500 new designs a year) in her carriage house office just off the main house.

Contrary to expectation, there is no menagerie of cats or rabbits or pigs at the Boynton-McEwan home, though there is a hippo letter holder near Ms. Boynton's drawing board.

"I'm no animal lover," says Ms. Boynton. So why do so many of her cards feature creatures?

"It's just that I can't draw people, "says the artist. She also likes the freedom from constraints that animals give her; they do not have to be any particular sex or color or physical build.

Although most fans consider Sandra Boynton a master of puns, she does not like to be called a punster. Ms. Boynton points out her word games can be taken on two levels, both as a word play and as a humorous literal translation of her drawing.

For example, one of her cards has two toucans dancing on front. Inside it reads "Toucan Tango." An imitator picked up the idea and put out a card with two toucans on a bicycle. Inside it read: "Toucan have more fun than one can."

"It just doesn't work on two levels," she says, pointing out that the message has little to do with the drawing.

The worst part of having a plethora of imitators is that the market is now flooded with cards that look similar to the Boynton cards. When she first started drawing cards using lots of white space, they were very distinctive and easy to find in a store. Now they are surrounded by similar greetings.

Ms. Boynton's cards break several truisms of the greeting card business. According to industry lore, wormen buy most cards, and birthday cards are the big sellers. She notes that her 12th-best-selling card is for new mothers and is often bought by new fathers. And her friendship cards are very close in sales to her birthday cards.

Ms. Boynton has also written several children's books, such as "Hippos Go Berserk," "Gopher Baroque," "Hester in the Wild," and "The Compleat Turkey." While she was at Yale, Ms. Boynton took a course in writing and illustrating for children taught by author/illustrator Maurice Sendak.

"I don't think he remembers me," says Ms. Boynton. But she remembers one comment from the class. After selling one of her illustrations, Mr. Sendak told her she could do much better.

"He said, "This looks like greeting card art," says Ms. Boynton, who staunchly refers to herself an an artist. Does she feel stigmatized as an artist whose work is famous by virtue of birthday and frienship cards?

"I used to be defensive about it. But I think the distinction between 'fine' and 'commercial' art is muddy and inaccurate. I won't compromise my work just to do something to sell.

"When I do something, I like it. I've got decent taste for what is worthwhile and intelligent."

Husband Jamie adds: "I think she always has taken her work seriously, but she was shy about expressing it. Now she is more assertive."

As Mr. McEwan feeds Caitlin, Ms. Boynton eats a tuna fish sandwich and sips from a Boynton mug with comical rats jogging in too-big sneakers. What made her put tennis shoes on rats?

"I never really put clothes on animals, unless it should look ridiculous," she says. The image of a Boynton cartoon comes to mind where a pig in a tutu does ballet exercises on a rail fence. The caption reads "Ambition knows no bounds."

"My animals are not people. But they are not really animals, either." She pauses.

They are philosophers."

"I see myself as humorist," says Ms. Boynton. "I guess any good humorist is a philosopher. But that seems too pretentious to say about myself."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.