While promoting their middle grade and picture books, illustrator-author team Robbi Behr and Matthew Swanson (also a married couple) loved connecting with kids through school visits. But they started to see a pattern. As children, both had attended Title 1 schools. The schools that could afford to host them for visits, though, tended to be in affluent areas. “We noticed there was a whole realm of kids we weren’t serving,” Swanson said. The couple wanted to do something about it, and came up with a big idea: a nationwide road trip—with their four children and dog in tow—visiting Title 1 schools in every state, giving away approximately 25,000 books. This ambitious plan is now underway as the couple readies for the Busload of Books tour, set to get underway during the 2022–2023 school year.
The couple got their start by self-publishing books aimed at adults. With more than six dozen of these in print, their break into kids’ books came when they adapted one of their stories—Babies Ruin Everything—as a picture book. Their body of work now includes the illustrated middle grade series The Real McCoys, in addition to the Cookie Chronicles series, about Ben Yokoyama, a Japanese American boy who takes the fortunes he finds inside cookies a little too seriously.
The pair has always been concerned with making sure kids in underserved schools had access to books, frequently connecting with Title I schools near their home in rural Maryland. A windfall, no-strings-attached financial gift from a friend intended to allow the pair to “do something creative” helped them to scale up this plan for the bus tour, aimed at raising awareness about equitable access to books. It’s a chance to meet people and “combine several things we care about,” Swanson said—books, exploration, and social justice—and they are eager to cross cultural divides throughout the country.
Behr did the research and found a 2001 Thomas school bus up for auction, winning a bid on it before they even figured out where they’d park it. With advice from the “skoolie” community (enthusiasts who travel in converted school buses) and help from a handy friend, they’re well underway toward making it into a traveling home for their family, which includes their four kids, ages four to 12, and their dog, inspiration for a Cookie Chronicles character. An expandable roof “pop top” will serve as a bedroom for the three boys (the dining table morphs into another sleeping platform for their daughter) and in keeping with the school theme, a bank of school lockers provides on-bus storage.
Such a bold vision requires additional support. The couple reached out to First Book, the nonprofit that supplies books and other educational resources to kids in low-income communities. Through its network, First Book is helping to identify schools for the family to visit. “We are so excited to be helping Matthew and Robbi, and grateful for this opportunity to help increase access to both books and to in-person author visits for young readers in all 50 states,” said Carey Palmquist, First Book’s chief operating officer. Many kids and teens in communities the organization serves live in “book deserts” and have limited opportunities to meet an author or illustrator in person, she added. First Book is also coordinating with Macmillan (publisher of the couple’s picture books Everywhere Wonders and Sunrise Summer) and The Cookie Chronicles publisher Random House to help get the donated books into schools. They’re also collaborating with researchers at Washington College about the impact that educational interventions such as school visits have on kids. The couple has launched a GoFundMe page to support the tour.
While on the road, the pair will keep followers updated on their progress through social media. The tour will end at the off-the-grid cabin in Alaska where the couple and their kids regularly spend their summers helping out with Behr’s family’s commercial salmon fishing business. The Busload of Books tour, which Swanson called the “culmination of so much planning and dreaming,” will be “pulling out of the driveway” in September 2022.