Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Busload of Books Tour?

The Tour is a yearlong project by author/illustrator duo Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr (that’s us!) to promote literacy, celebrate America’s educators, and raise awareness of the challenges facing our nation’s public schools.

We 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 hardcover books (25,000 total) to every student and teacher we meet.

Along the way, we’ll be conducting a major research project, making a picture book, spotlighting the stories of hard-working public school educators, and inviting followers to join us for a yearlong exploration of America’s unsung wonders and off-the-beaten-path communities.

Why are you doing this?

Author/illustrator visits can do tremendous good—increasing student interest in books and reading, inspiring creativity and collaboration, and energizing school communities—yet many public schools can’t afford them.

We want to bring books to communities where books are in shortest supply—and encourage reading and creativity as a bridge to literacy and self-empowerment.

We want to support and spotlight hard-working educators who give their all every day in the face of limited resources and challenging conditions.

We’re both products of Title I education, and our kids go to our local Title I schools. We see how hard their teachers work in crowded classrooms, with not enough support, often paying for supplies with their own money. We see how they are called upon to do much more than teach—also tending to the emotional needs and safety of students struggling with poverty, hunger, and challenging home situations. They constantly rise to the occasion because they care so much about their students. But teaching shouldn’t have to be a daily act of heroism.

We can’t fix the underlying problem, but we hope to spotlight America’s hard-working public school educators and raise awareness of the challenges they face.

How did you get the idea for the tour?

As an author and illustrator, we get often get invited to visit elementary schools—leading assemblies about creativity and collaboration. The benefit and impact are clear, but many public schools can’t afford these experiences.

Over the past few years, we’ve raised money and worked with community partners to fund author/illustrator visits bundled with book giveaways in Maryland, DC, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut, and the results are always the same—kids get excited about reading and creating. Teachers gain thematic touchstones and reference points. The entire school community gets a lift.

We started dreaming of what it might mean to take the project to a national level—connecting with kids in communities across the country, but just as important, demonstrating that there are struggling schools in every state. We wanted to help people understand that, no matter where they live, there’s likely a Title I school nearby that could use their support.

What was the spark?

A few years ago, out of the blue, we got a call from a friend offering a no-strings-attached $30,000 grant with the charge to “do something awesome.” We’d always dreamed of traveling the country giving away books but were always daunted by the cost and complexity. The grant inspired us to think big and aim high. The result was the Busload of Books Tour.

How did you pick the schools you’re visiting?

We’re partnering with First Book, a national literacy nonprofit that has spent the past thirty years providing free and low-cost educational materials to a nationwide network of educators.

First Book invited a subset of their membership to apply for our Tour. From the 300 or so applications we received, we chose 52 schools.

The selection process was incredibly difficult. Every applicant school could benefit from free books and an author/illustrator visit. Ultimately, we tried to prioritize schools where our visit and book giveaway might make the biggest impact while attempting to achieve a balance of school sizes, settings, and demographic profiles.

Check out our host schools database below (note that our Hawaii school has asked not to be identified here to keep our visit a surprise for their students).

We wish we could visit every school that applied. But we’re working on a way to bring our programming to schools we can’t visit in person. If you work for a Title I school and are interested in free virtual progamming, fill out this form, and we’ll be in touch!

How will you serve schools you’re not visiting?

We’re developing a parallel set of virtual materials that any Title I (or Title I-eligible) school will be able to access—video-based presentations and related classroom exercises that help students prepare for the presentation and then reflect upon and apply the themes afterward.

If you work for a Title I school and are interested in free virtual progamming, click HERE to learn more and get access to the content.

We’ve also forged an exciting partnership that extends the tour’s total reach to 150,000 free books! (Scroll down.)

Wait. Are you giving away 25,000 books or 150,000 books?

Both! Built on a shared commitment to promoting literacy, a three-way partnership with First Book and Build-A-Bear will expand the Tour’s overall reach to 150,000 books. As we travel the country giving away 25,000 copies of our own books, a generous donation from Build-A-Bear Foundation will fund the distribution of 125,000 additional books through the First Book Marketplace—giving thousands of Title I educators the opportunity to select titles that best meet the needs of their communities.

You’ll be living in a school bus?!

Yep. (Wish us luck.) Our friend Brian is converting a decommissioned 24-foot Thomas school bus into a rolling home for our family of six (plus dog). We’ll have a galley kitchen with toaster oven and hot plate, a cozy dining nook that converts to the “master bedroom,” and a 6’x10’ pop-up sleeping area for the kids on the roof. We won’t have a bathroom because there simply isn’t room. We’re operating on the premise that America has plenty of bathrooms.

Will you sleep in the bus every night?

We anticipate sleeping in the bus about half the time—in campgrounds, state parks, or the occasional Walmart parking lot. The bus has an on-board generator to power our heater on nights when we can’t plug in.

Other nights, we’ll be staying in spare bedrooms or crashing on couches with people all over the country—some old friends and some total strangers who believe in our mission and have generously offered to host us.

What is your route?

We’ve charted a course with the weather in mind. We suspect we’ll run into trouble anyway. Here’s the basic, no-frills version that just has our school visits on it. We’ll spend lots of time zigging and zagging between them.

How will you decide where to go?

Our 52 Title I school visits form the bones of our itinerary, but we’ve been crowdsourcing ideas for what to see, visit, try, and eat in every part of the country, asking our friends and fans to help us discover experiences, museums, parks, and eateries that lie off the beaten tourist path.

We’re also collaborating with organizations and individuals doing great work on behalf of literacy and public education. And we’ll visit a handful of America’s great independent bookstores.

If you have any ideas for where we should go and what we should do, please fill out this form.

How can I follow along?

We encourage any and all to join us for a state-by-state tour of our vast and complicated country. We’ll be posting daily photos, videos, and essays—and occasional sketches and live streams. The best ways to follow are Instagram, Facebook, YouTube or our trip blog.

Our content will provide a virtual road trip for teachers and librarians to share with their students—or for families to enjoy together.

 

What’s this about a research project?

We’re working with the departments of education and sociology at Washington College to conduct the first-ever, large-scale study of how author/illustrator visits impact attitudes about reading and creativity among public elementary school students. The resulting data could create a powerful tool for administrators and teachers to fund and advocate for future literacy programming—and for teachers to make the most out of these experiences.

Meet our research team:

Sara Clarke-DeReza

Sara Clarke-DeReza

Assistant Professor of Education; Director of the Museum, Field, and Community Education Minor

Sara spends her research-life trying to figure out how to create amazing learning experiences in the places where schools meet communities. In her teaching-life, she’s worked in middle and high school classrooms, as a curriculum coordinator, and even (briefly!) as a school principal. At Washington College, she teaches courses in the historical, cultural, and psychological foundations of American education. In her life-life, she’s a mom, a dog-mom, a maker-of-things, and a collector of thrift store art.  

Bridget Bunten

Bridget Bunten

Associate Professor of Education; Department Chair; Coordinator of the Elementary Education Program

Bridget’s path towards being an educator began in a middle school Spanish classroom. It was the energy and passion of that teacher that inspired Bridget’s interest in language learning and teaching. Before coming to Washington College, Bridget taught students ranging from 5 to 80 years old as a Spanish immersion teacher, an elementary classroom teacher, an ELL teacher, and an adult ESL and citizenship teacher. Educating future teachers to meet the myriad needs of the culturally and linguistically diverse student population in today’s public schools is Bridget’s focus in the college classroom. Beyond the classroom, Bridget enjoys staying active by running, biking, or chasing one of her three young daughters with the help of her husband.

Nick Garcia

Nick Garcia

Assistant Professor of Sociology

Nick loves two things: telling dad jokes and solving mysteries. Sometimes solving mysteries just means asking the right questions. Sometimes it means finding the right evidence. As a research methodologist, Nick has surveyed, interviewed, and mapped the world to investigate everything from the effects of the Americans with Disabilities Act to professional wrestling. At Washington College, Nick’s Sociology courses address social inequalities, environmental justice, community development, and food insecurity. He’s always asking how communities shape and are shaped by underlying inequalities. In this project, Nick will collect evidence from the Tour, complemented by US Department of Education and Census data sets, to examine how sociocultural factors impact literacy and creativity.

Erin Counihan

Erin Counihan

Coordinator of Secondary Education; Lecturer in Education

Erin is pretty much all about books.  At work, she teaches about and researches books and literacy and language, and she teaches her students how to teach about books and literacy and language—all with an emphasis on what it means to be a good reader and communicator in the 21st century. Before she joined Washington College, Erin was a middle and high school English teacher . . . teaching about books. She even reads books and talks to people about books for fun! When she’s not reading books with her two cats, Erin likes to spend time outside with her husband, often chasing turtles.

 

photo credit: Pamela Cowart-Rickman

Michelle Johnson

Michelle Johnson

Elementary Education Field Experience Coordinator

Michelle loves to think about how people learn. At work, she teaches students who want to be teachers. Her students learn how to teach math and science. They also learn how to teach students who may think and learn differently. Before she came to Washington College, Michelle taught elementary school in Washington D.C. and loved to take her students on walking trips to museums and parks. When she is not teaching, she likes to spend time reading, crocheting, and video chatting with her three children.

If you have questions about the research project, please contact the research team directly by clicking the button below.

What books are you giving away?

PreK-1st grade students and teachers will get a hardcover copy of Everywhere, Wonder (Macmillan), a book about noticing and appreciating the world’s wonders—both grand and ordinary.

In our presentation for this age group, we explain how we work together as author and illustrator to imagine and create a picture book—while emphasizing themes of observation, discovery, and storytelling.

The 2nd-6th graders and their teachers will receive our densely illustrated middle-grade novel Ben Yokoyama and the Cookie of Doom (Random House), a book about a literal-minded boy who misunderstands the meaning of a fortune cookie and thinks he has just one day to live. It’s a book about figuring out what’s most important and living life to its fullest.

In the related presentation, we describe our creative process and the wonderful weirdness of language—using proverbs as a framework for sharing empowering ideas and encouraging creative exploration.

Why are you giving away your own books?

Every student and teacher at every school we visit will receive a hardcover copy of a book that Matthew wrote and Robbi illustrated. Part of the magic of these visits is kids getting a chance to see that authors and illustrators are just regular people. Which helps kids realize they can write and draw and tell their own stories, too. Getting a book created by someone they met creates a personal connection that makes it far more likely the kid will actually read it.

Why hardcover books?

It would have been much cheaper to give away softcover books. But we’ve seen many times how kids’ eyes light up when we hand them a hardcover book—which they have described to us in thank-you notes as “tough books” and “real books.” Books are scarce in many low-income communities and hardcover books even scarcer, which makes them special, and therefore—in our experience—more likely to be treasured and read.

Tell us more about you two.

We (Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr) are a husband/wife, author/illustrator duo who have been making books together for nearly two decades. We have four kids (14, 12, 10, and 5) and a small, insecure dog named Dumbles.

We spent a decade running two small presses and self-publishing more than 70 illustrated picture books for children and adults.

Over the past eight years, we’ve made books with Random House, Macmillan, Little Brown, and Chronicle. Our commercial titles include the critically acclaimed Cookie Chronicles middle-grade series, The Real McCoys trilogy (also middle grade), and the picture books Sunrise Summer, Babies Ruin Everything, and Everywhere, Wonder.

Three of our books have received starred reviews, ten have been selected by the Junior Library Guild, three have been selected by Amazon editors, and one has been honored as an ALA “notable” book.

But what makes us proudest is being told by many librarians, teachers, and parents that our combination of accessible, humorous prose and immersive, exuberant illustrations creates a welcoming and comfortable space for beginning and hesitant readers to find their footing and discover the pleasures (and benefits) of reading.

When not advocating for local schools, giving talks on creative entrepreneurship, or running a summer salmon fishing operation on the Alaskan tundra, we live in an old barn on the Eastern Shore of Maryland—two blocks from the house where Robbi grew up.

We’ve been at it for almost two decades now but feel like we’re just getting started.

What’s this about Alaska?

Our family spends six weeks every summer on the Alaskan tundra, running a commercial salmon-fishing operation from our off-grid cabin near the native village of Egegik on the banks of Bristol Bay.

When Robbi was 18 months old, her parents bought a piece of land on the Alaskan tundra, which is why Robbi is able to fillet salmon, mend gillnets, and fish for 36 hours without eating or sleeping when need be. Robbi and her brother now run the family business with help from Matthew and our older kids.

After finishing our tour of the lower 48 in late May 2023, we’ll leave Seattle and drive north through British Columbia and the Yukon to Anchorage, where we’ll leave the bus before flying to our fishing compound. Our final tour stop is the seven-student Meshik School in Port Heiden, Alaska (a remote fishing village we’ll reach by bush plane).

Our latest picture book, Sunrise Summer, tells the story of our daughter’s first summer as a member of the fishing crew.

And here’s the story of how our new tundra cabin was built in a whirlwind 17 days.

How are you funding this project?

Through an overwhelming flood of grassroots donations from nearly 1,000 individuals—plus donations of books from our publishers, Random House and Macmillan.

How can I contribute?

Donations of any amount are much appreciated can be made through our GoFundMe page, and our partner nonprofit Kent Cultural Alliance is accepting tax-deductible contributions of $100 and above on our behalf—just be sure to note that the gift is for the Busload of Books Tour.

I want swag. Do you have swag?

THE SWAG IS COMING SOON! To be notified as soon as it’s available, please fill out the form!

I want to interview you two.

Sounds good. Please fill out our contact form, and we’ll set something up.

I want you to visit my school someday.

We’d like that, too. Here’s a page that describes our programming options. If you’re interested, click the purple box below and let us know what you’re thinking. We’ll be back in touch once we start scheduling school visits again.

The latest on Instagram:

The Daily Minute: 12.8.22
In which we bask in the sweet Louisiana night and brace ourselves for the enormity of Texas.

#busloadofbooks
...

13 0

Hello, Friends! Isabel here. We’re rounding out the week in a state I’m pretty familiar with: the Bayou State, the Creole State, the Boot.

You might know it as a swampy place, the site of the country's largest gator population. I know it as a place I grew up: Louisiana! 

The world alligator, by the by, comes from the Spanish el lagarto, or: the lizard. The BIG lizard… they grow up to 12 feet long.

Although the state song is “You Are My Sunshine,” Louisiana's famed for its hurricanes. Not so many people know about the tricks of LA's grittiest survivors: oak trees. Full-grown live oaks can drink up more than 20,000 gallons of stormwater a year!

Floods especially affect New Orleans, which has LA's lowest elevation. 8 feet below sea level! 

That doesn’t stop residents from living the city’s motto: laissez les bons temps rouler. “Let the good times roll!” 

The city spent time under Spanish and French rule before being sold to the US. In 1803, LA’s territory encompassed what is now 13 separate states; the Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the US.

If you've only heard of one thing in New Orleans, it’s probably Mardi Gras. Every year, parades roll through the streets. Riders on papier-mâché floats throw beads, and marching bands perform in between. 

This leans on another New Orleans tradition. Jazz! Born when improv, emotion, and brass clashed like cymbals in the hands of extraordinary artists like “Jelly-Roll” Morton and Louis Armstrong.

This wouldn’t have been possible without NOLA's incredible diversity. From the Native Americans who first lived here, to the historical African, Caribbean, and European influences, NOLA's a melting pot.

LA's food wouldn’t be the same without its Haitian Creole and Cajun influences. If you’ve seen The Princess and the Frog, you’ve heard of my personal favorite — gumbo, a delicious stew. And frog legs! Rayne, LA, is the center of the frog industry and even has an annual Frog Festival.

You know, NOLA’s connected to the rest of the state by the Causeway, the world's longest bridge over water. Some say you can even see the curvature of the Earth while driving it. Robbi and Matthew — let us know if you check it out!
...

19 0

Whoever you are, take your seat on the bus!

Our adventure is your adventure. Our country is your country, too. Follow along with us!