Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Busload of Books?

The Busload of Books is a literacy access and awareness project by author/illustrator duo Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr (that’s us!).

Through an ongoing series of free Title I school visits, we aim to:

  • provide free books and high-quality literacy programming to underserved public school students
  • spotlight and celebrate America’s Title I educators
  • raise awareness of the challenges facing our nation’s public schools

 

The Busload of Books Tour

We and our four kids spent the 2022-2023 school year traveling the country in a tiny home school bus, doing free assemblies at Title I elementary 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 facilitated a major research project that demonstrated (for the first time at this scale) the undeniable impact of author/illustrator visits on elementary student attitudes about reading, writing, and drawing.

In partnership with First Book and Build-A-Bear Foundation, the Tour distributed another 125,000 books to Title I educators across the country—and 25,000 “reading buddy” teddy bears—one for every kid in every school we visited.

Phase Two is already under way!

Moving forward, we’re visiting twelve Title I elementary schools each year—six in-person with the bus and six virtually.

An ongoing partnership with First Book and Build-A-Bear Foundation provides a free book for every student and teacher in every school we visit.

We’re continuing to work with Washington College to collect data and expand the impact of the research project.

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 attend 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 this project?

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

Over the past few years, we’ve done dozens of free Title I school visits and all-school book giveaways across the country, 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 boost. 

Our year-long tour brought the project to a national level—connecting with kids in communities across the country and demonstrating that there are struggling schools in every state, prompting the people following our adventure to recognize that no matter where they live, there’s likely a Title I school nearby that could use their support.

Our ongoing Busload of Books school visits will allow us to directly serve a handful of Title I communities while continuing to spread awareness of the challenges faced by the 47,000 other Title I schools we won’t have the opportunity to visit in-person. 

What was the spark?

A few years ago, we got a call from a generous 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.

Over the past four years of imagining, running, and growing this project, we’ve raised more than $300,000 from more than 1,500 private donors to fund and fuel our ongoing work. So many people have shared stories about the foundational impact of books in their own lives and how happy it makes them to help bring the joy and power of reading to others.   

How did you pick the schools you’re visiting?

We partner 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.

Every year, First Book invites a subset of their membership to apply for our Tour. From hundreds of applicants, we choose twelve schools.

The selection process is always incredibly difficult. Every applicant school could benefit from free books and an author/illustrator visit. Ultimately, we try 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 demographics.

Here’s a list of the schools we’ll be visiting during the 2024-2025 school year.

We’ll be doing twelve more Busload visits each year! If you’re interested in receiving an application to join a future cohort, become a First Book member (it’s free!) and also get access to their incredible online Marketplace of highest quality books available at steep discounts to Title I educators.

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.

Wait. Did your yearlong tour distribute 25,000 books or 150,000 books?

Yes! Built on a shared commitment to promoting literacy, a three-way partnership with First Book and Build-A-Bear expanded the Tour’s overall reach to 150,000 books. As we traveled the country giving away 25,000 copies of our own books, a generous donation from Build-A-Bear Foundation funded the distribution of 125,000 more 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. Build-A-Bear Foundation also provided 25,000 a free “reading buddy” teddy bears—one for each student in every school we visited. 

Tell us more about your bus. 

Our friend Brian converted a 24-foot Thomas school bus into a rolling home that somehow acommodates our family of six (plus two dogs!). We 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 don’t have a bathroom because there simply isn’t room. 

How can I follow your project?

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, and YouTube.

Our adventures in books and literacy are always appropriate for elementary teachers and librarians to share with their students.

 

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 is providing powerful tools 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-2nd grade students and teachers will get a 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 3rd-6th graders and their teachers will receive our 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 receives a 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.

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 (16, 14, 12, and 7) and a small, insecure snuffler named Dumbles and an alien fur bug named Goji.

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

Over the past ten 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.

Our books have been honored by the American Library Association, selected by Bank Street and the CCBC, named “books of the month” by Amazon editors, received six starred reviews, and nominated for seventeen state book awards. All but one was a JLG “Gold Star” selection.

Our books and literacy projects have been featured on/in/by: The Drew Barrymore Show, the Washington Post, Forbes, People magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Family Circle, WIRED, and Slate.com.

What makes us proudest is hearingfrom librarians, teachers, and parents that books create 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 in Alaska, 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 gill nets, and fish for 36 hours without eating or sleeping. Robbi and her brother now run the family business with help from Matthew and our older kids.

Our 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?

The book giveaways for our Phase Two school visits are funded through our partnership with First Book and Build-A-Bear Foundation. All other costs are covered by contributions from private donors. 

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?

Swag is intermittently available and seems to sell out quickly. To be notified the next time we print a new batch, 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. If you’re interested in receiving an application for a future round of Busload of Books visits, become a member of First Book (it’s free!). 

The latest on Instagram:

At BWI, waiting to board the first of four flights. The mail has been held. The coolers are packed. I’m ready for another summer in Alaska.

Looking forward to smelling the tundra, drinking from the spring, looking for agates, picking fish, baking cakes, and seeing the Bristol Bay sunrise.

But mostly looking forward to seeing my crew. Apparently, the fishing is already underway. When I finally get to Coffee Point, I’ll hop out of the bush plane and into my waders.

So long for now. Will be back before you know it with more photos and stories to share.
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The Daily Minute: 6.23.24
As Matthew packs for Alaska, he needs your help deciding between protein and joy.
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The Daily Minute: 6.22.24
In which garlic is needed, Goji is cold, and we are grateful to the librarians and students of Japan.
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Whoever you are, take your seat on the bus!

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