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Top 100 Picture Books #72: But Not the Hippopotamus by Sandra Boynton

#72 But Not the Hippopotamus by Sandra Boynton (1982)
27 points

To me, what makes this book so uniquely great is the meta-joke that the Hippo isn’t allowed to join the group of animals until someone can figure out a rhyme for hippopotamus, but I know from speaking with other parents who missed that joke, that it stands out just on the basis of Boynton’s brilliant drawings and semi-absurd decision to exclude the hippopotamus (and the armadillo). – Mark Flowers

Okay, first off I’m ashamed to say that though I have read this book to my daughter approximately 1,000 times, I never noticed Mark’s point until now.  This explains everything!!!  Who knew that a board book could stymie an adult so well?  That’s probably a good reason why a board book made it onto the list.  Now the last time I conducted this poll I excluded any and all board books from the running.  That was needlessly cruel, I now understand.  After all, it meant that folks like Sandra Boynton, masters of their form, would never be able to be properly praised for their genius.  This time around the rules were changed and the result is that we get to have books like this one on the list.  Short.  Sweet.  Very very funny.

The description from the publisher reads, “In this simple, playful board book, a shy hippo watches as other animals engage in social activities. Finally, the other animals invite the hippo along and, after dithering a moment, she leaps into the fun…with hilarious results.  The repetitive, enjoyable rhythm, cheerful mood, and well-crafted, simple rhymes will endear this story to toddlers everywhere.”

Now Boynton is a puzzle.  Folks come to children’s books from a variety of different places but when I think of greeting card artists I must admit that my first thoughts turn to Robert Crumb.  Boynton’s style is a touch different (just a touch) but she too was in the biz.  As you can see from her autobiography she has “designed, by varying estimates (none of them in fact mine because I’ve not yet gotten sufficiently motivated to start counting) somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 greeting cards.”  Her first book for kids was also Hippo-related.  It was Hippos Go Bezerk and it was her January Project while she was still a student the Yale School of Drama.  These days she’s all fancy with her personalized board books n’ such but there’s no replacing her great originals.  And But Not the Hippopotamus may be considered her best work yet.

The good news is that this August we’ll be seeing a 30th anniversary edition of this book coming out from the Simon & Schuster imprint Little Simon.  According to the publisher it will have “an enlarged trim size and a shiny foiled cover.”  Ooh.  Aah.  And if you’d like to see what the original art looked like (quite different really) there’s a shot of the original in this post.

Now there are quite a few videos out there of families reading this book either to or with their kids.  From the very young, to the very silly, to the more mature.  I’ll go with the latter when posting here.  Enjoy!

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. I would like to go on record as a huge fan of the book’s original line “A hog and a frog cavort in a bog.” Cavort! Cavort!! Awesome word — in a board book no less. Later versions have changed “cavort” to “do a dance.” Bah. The world needs more ‘cavort,’ say I!

  2. JMyersbook says

    Hmmm… Methinks you have included a rather misleading typo! In the above entry, you wrote: “It was Hippos Go Bezerk and it was her January Project while I was still a student the Yale School of Drama.” I believe that the “I was” snuck in from something the Boynton wrote about herself. The way it currently stands, it reads as though YOU were a student at the Yale School of Drama. You are many (MANY!) fabulous things, and I’m sure you would have been a stellar addition to the student body, but I don’t think it’s actually part of your CV. Or did you sneak off and do this when I wasn’t looking? 😉

    • Elizabeth Bird says

      Durn. And here I was this close to passing myself off as a Yale-y. Thus exposed, I shall correct because, yes indeed, that was a bit of an old typo.

  3. AGH! Aaron! That IS terrible! But our copy says “cavort” and we only got it– new, at that– last year, so maybe they changed it back?

    • Elizabeth Bird says

      I think they must have because my board book also says “cavort”. Clearly someone saw the light and righted a great wrong.

  4. Good news! That calls for some cavorting right now!

  5. Cavort! Cavort!

    I was very into Boynton greeting cards back when I was in college. They had them at our college bookstore. Then when our son was born a few years later, (Oh yeah, I was teaching at the same university at the time, so probably still buying Boynton greeting cards.) it was of course natural to buy her books. My absolute favorite is Blue Hat, Green Hat. That Oops! So much fun!

    Though I told my sister my 8-month-old could read when he started saying “Ffff!” when we read Boynton’s book DOGS to him. (My sister gave that one to us.)