Robbi’s Take on the “Why” Behind the Bus Tour
by Matthew
October 21, 2021

When Matthew and I started out making books together, it was pretty much entirely selfishly motivated.

We had an itch to scratch, and we really enjoyed putting his words and my pictures together. It was fun, really, and who doesn’t like to have fun? And so we scratched the itch, making our weird little books in obscurity, enjoying the exercise of finding the best ways for image to complement word. Fun!

It wasn’t until our fellow creator and professor Kim Dana Kupperman took the (extremely) bold move to invite us to speak at the Essay Symposium at Fordham University in 2010 that we discovered that another thing we like to do is to TALK about putting Matthew’s words and my pictures together. And so we started lining up speaking gigs at colleges talking to students about creativity, collaboration and entrepreneurship. Again, it was lots of fun. We got to meet and talk to our people – Goooooooooooo Book Nerds!!

When we finally landed our first commercially published books, our audience suddenly became elementary school kids, some of whom didn’t like reading at all. And we started being asked to come in for author visits. We were a little worried – what did we really have to say to kids about what we do? Until then, a lot of what we talked about was kind of more of an intellectual exercise. Would little kids even care much about what we had to say?

While we had the books themselves to talk about, over the course of the first few school visits we discovered that the questions kids asked were usually about us – where we got our ideas, how we work together, what are the hardest things about writing a book, how to get over writer’s block (yes! some of these kids had writer’s block!!) … all of the same questions we would get from our adult audiences (with many tangential anecdotes about pet kittens thrown in as well, of course). Turns out these kids were book nerds too! And it turns out that as much as we like talking about what we do, it is about 10,000 times more fun and gratifying to talk with KIDS about what we do. And to see their faces light up with excitement recognizing their own ability to make something out of nothing. We were hooked.

As we kept booking school visits, though, we started to notice that most of the schools we visited were either private schools or schools that had enough funding to pay for school visits. Our kids go to the local Title 1 school that I went to growing up, HH Garnet Elementary School. As a parent who was in and out of school all the time, I saw first hand how hard it is to gather the funds to pay for a school visit, along with the fact that teachers and administrators in these schools are stretched so thin that even planning events like this is difficult and taxing. Not to mention that very few students would have the $15 it would cost to purchase a book at the end of our visit (many of our school visits were done in conjunction with book fairs).

It was then that we came up with the idea of doing a school visit that included an all-school book giveaway. We knew there are lots of people in our community who want to help out, but just don’t know how. With our author discount, we could buy the books in bulk and it would take about $4000 to pay for a hardcover book for each kid in school. We told our most excellent Principal Rose that as long as she could find a time for us to come in for the visit, we would arrange the funding.

We started a GoFundMe, thinking it would take some time to collect enough money to pay for the books (I was even prepared to do some fund-raising shenanigans like letting our kids give me a haircut on a livecast). Shockingly and amazingly, friends and community members and folks from across the country answered our call and the books were paid for in a day (we had to save the haircut for another time, alas). We couldn’t believe it.

We did our talk at Garnet. We went into each classroom and gave out books and signed them while answering questions. And while Garnet is very good about putting books into kids’ hands with all kinds of book drives and giveaways, one thing we kept hearing from the kids was that they were so excited to get a “real” book, with a “real” cover – some of them had never owned a hardcover before. And they couldn’t believe they got to keep it and that it was brand new and had their name in it. Honestly, there is just no way to explain how it feels to see a kid looking at your book like it is a newborn bunny, and running up to give you a hug for it.

So – in the end, this dream of ours is still a very selfish one. I love how it feels to give something that I made to a kid. I love how it feels for that kid to think I’m a rock star. And I love how it feels to hear that that one kid who is always getting sent to the principal’s office for being disruptive showed up at the principal’s office the next day with my book in his hand and asked if he could sit there for a bit because he needed some peace and quiet so he could read. I love to find out that secretly, he is a book nerd too.

This photo is from that first all-school book giveaway at Garnet. You can see on my face how surprised and delighted I was by the reception. These kids are in middle school now. But they still know me as “that book lady” and it is the best thing I could ever want for myself.

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The Busload of Books Tour is a year-long project to promote literacy and raise awareness of the challenges facing our nation’s public schools.

Author/illustrator duo Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr (that’s us) and our four kids will spend the 2022-2023 school year traveling the country in a school bus/tiny home, visiting Title I schools in all 50 states (plus DC), and giving away 25,000 hardcover books to students and teachers from underserved communities.

As we travel, we will be blogging, vlogging and posting frequently to social media. All of our content will be appropriate for bringing families and students along on our ultimate road trip.