Even with the most contemplative toddler on your lap, a dramatic reading of Sandra Boynton’s Moo, Baa, La La La! will probably top out at two minutes. That’s approximately how long it took Boynton—the beloved children’s author who’s sold more than seventy million books to date—to conceive of her latest board book. It’s called Here, George! and features George, a white dog with a red collar who happens to have a secret: he’s wild about dancing.
Boynton’s illustrations are full of round, fluffy, wide-eyed, quizzical and adorable critters. Even her rhinos might be fun on a playdate. But George breaks the mold. He is in need of a wash and fluff. His toenails could use some attention. There doesn’t appear to be a single ounce of squish on his very hard, boney body. And if he ever met a Boynton singing pig, chances are he’d scare the la la la! right out of him.
And that’s because George is not a Boynton. He’s a Booth.
This past August, Boynton, sixty-four, wound up in Brooklyn at a block party with bipedal George Booth, the legendary New Yorker cartoonist, ninety-one-years young and known, among other things, for cartoons of dirty garages and pets forced to endure lunatic owners. He spent that afternoon parked in a folding chair drawing cartoons for the neighborhood children. As Motown music played, the nonagenarian quickly sketched a couple hapless dogs on a piece of printer paper—one sitting down, one mid-twirl on one leg—and gave them to Boynton as a gift. On the car ride home to Connecticut, with the drawings on her lap and the music playing in her head, Boynton conceived of the whole story. In a couple days, with the help of Photoshop, she’d assembled a twenty-nine-page book. The vast majority of the illustrations are simply Booth’s two original block-party drawings, slightly manipulated, with just a few extras—a window, a car driving away—borrowed from other cartoons that Boynton found in her collection of Booth books, then scanned into her computer and Frankensteined together. Booth generally relegates his animals to below-the-line status, though they often steal the show anyway, but for these twenty-nine pages, George is the undisputed star. Boynton emailed Booth thumbnails of the images to review. He was thrilled. The book is set to be published by Simon and Schuster next year.
“I don’t know any artist better than you,” Boynton said to Booth on a recent, unseasonably hot Wednesday evening in his Crown Heights living room. The air conditioner was blaring, a last-season holiday-scented candle was burning, and Schrödinger the cat was meowing loudly underneath Booth’s drafting table. “Maybe Rembrandt. But he wasn’t as funny.”
Boynton had come into town with the sole purpose of tearing apart the mock-ups. The plan was to go over every illustration and Boothify whatever she’d Boyntonized out of necessity. Before Here, George!, Boynton had only ever collaborated with her husband, who passed away in 2014. She generally prefers to write and illustrate her own books, but made an exception for Booth, whom she calls her only idol.
“I have no idea what an exhausted Booth dog looks like,” Boynton said sheepishly, turning to a page in which she’d flipped Booth’s dancing dog ninety degrees so that it appeared he was lying on his back. “This is not as good as yours. I added a tongue, see?” A friendly, plump, pink tongue flopped out of the dog’s grizzled mouth.
“Well, I think you’re a genius,” Booth replied, shaking his head in disbelief and delight. “The little squirts are going to love this!”
Boynton pressed on. “And I didn’t know what to do with the haunch here,” she said, pointing to an illustration of George lying with his head on his paws, his legs out behind. “I used the top half as you drew it, and then for the back, sort of … ” she trailed off. Booth was already a few pages ahead. “Look at that happy tail!” he crowed. Then he let out a characteristic hoot, which evolved into a giggle, then crested into a chortle.
In manipulating Booth’s drawings, Boynton had done what Booth himself sometimes does: taken the head from this dog, cut it out, and attached it to another body. It’s a way of preserving the moment of inspiration.
“Some of George’s best things have been sketched onto napkins and paper tablecloths, à la Toulouse-Lautrec,” Dione, his longtime wife, once told a reporter. To maintain the unfettered, improvisational quality, he’ll take what he sketches quickly, do a little surgery, and run it through a copy machine.
Booth, tall and lanky, with a pair of Vans on his feet, didn’t draw anything on that particular afternoon with Boynton, though in his left breast pocket was a sheet of paper, folded neatly into six squares with a pen clipped on top, in case the spirit moved him. He took it out to check and found a nasal adhesive on one side. “See, I took that thing off my nose, and stuck it right on there!” he said, giggling. But even when he’s not drawing, he’s never not working. He tears out bits of the day’s paper or browses the giveaway pile in The New Yorker’s offices for anything that might contain the shred of an idea. (He’d recently been making his way through In the Shadow of the Moon: The Science, Magic, and Mystery of Solar Eclipses and underlined “But who needs the sky anyway?”) He writes it all down on a piece of unlined paper, circles some things, crosses out others, and stars whatever’s worth revisiting. His drafting table almost sags under the piles of books, rubber-banded newspapers, clippings, and notes.
One such set of notes, crammed with a riot of black writing, had a phrase circled: “Milsap had a dream last night about new growth in the tire industry.” Booth read it over aloud slowly, paused, then laughed heartily. “Milsap! That’s a funny name!” Lately, the newspaper has been a fount of inspiration. “You take one of these hyphenated words that a politician says, slap it on someone’s carburetor, then you’ve got something,” he said.
While he’s written a stack of children’s books, some with Dr. Seuss, and published countless cartoons in The New Yorker, he’s reluctant—or perhaps too bright—to expound upon the differences between writing for three-year-olds and writing for intellectuals. When posed the question, he thought for a second, then brightening, said, “Great question!” and, by way of an answer, stuffed an entire paper napkin from his jean pocket into his mouth, eyes twinkling. When pressed, he allowed that, no matter the audience, “I look for one thing: human interest.”
Shortly after Boynton arrived, Here, George! was tossed aside, and the work session devolved into a bit of a stand-up routine. Booth entertained Boynton with stories of his childhood growing up in Cainsville, Missouri, (“population: seventy!”); the first cartoon he ever drew, at age three (“a racer car stuck in the mud—it made me laugh, and laugh, and laugh!”); enlisting as a marine, where he got his start cartooning at the marine publication Leatherneck (“I love their foul language”); and his great-grandfather (Fly, a full-blooded Cherokee). Afterward, there was nothing left to do but order in from the local Asian spot—beef teriyaki and edamame for Booth, his standard weekly order, and chicken dumplings and miso soup for Boynton. It seemed Hey, George! didn’t need to be Boothified after all.
At a conversational lull, Boynton pressed on once more, just to be sure.
“See here, I moved the pupil in the eye,” she said, turning to a close-up of the eponymous George. With the inching of a black dot two millimeters to the left, the pooch was now looking mournfully and adorably ahead, instead of off to the side, vexed.
Booth playfully poked Boynton in the shoulder with his index finger. “You’ve ruined it! Keep your hands off my art!”
“So, you’re happy with it?” she sighed, giving up.
“I’m not happy,” Booth said with a hoot, “I’m giddy!”
Sophie Brickman is a writer and editor based in New York City. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle.