One bus, two adults, four kids, two dogs, nine months, 50 states, 30,000 miles and 150,000 books.
Is this a disaster or a dream?
Aside from a lumpy mattress, leaking roof and an occasionally overheated vehicle, Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr, creators of numerous children’s books, call it a dream.
The Busload of Books Tour is a nationwide project promoting literacy, celebrating educators and raising awareness of the challenges facing public schools. The creative couple—along with their four children and two dogs—spent the school year traveling the country in a colorful bus. They visited schools in low-income communities in all 50 states and gave away 150,000 hardcover books in a journey from the First State to the Evergreen State.
“We’ve seen the empowering impact author-illustrator visits can have on kids. When they realize that we’re just regular people, they recognize their own capacity to create,” says Matthew.
As advocates for the overlooked and underfunded, Robbi and Matthew have firsthand experience with schools that have large needs and limited funds. They both attended Title I schools, which receive federal financial assistance to help support their high percentages of low-income students. Their children attend Title I schools, too.
Years ago, when the couple began the circuit of author visits, they felt the sting of inequity.
“We saw what an impact these visits have, but we were only getting invited to schools that were very well-funded,” Robbi says.
They sometimes waived their fee for struggling schools.
“But there’s nothing worse than getting kids to read, then saying, ‘Oh, sorry, you can’t afford to buy the book,’” she says.
The enterprising couple came up with a big idea: a nationwide road trip to bring books and creative encouragement to communities with the greatest need.
To hit the road, they transformed a 24-foot school bus into a bright and cheerful rolling home for their children—Alden, 15; Kato, 13; August, 11; Jasper, 6—and two dogs, Dumbles and Goji, a pup they acquired while traveling.
The no-frills vehicle has a cozy kitchen with a toaster oven and hot plate, a dining nook that converts into a bed, and a popup sleeping loft for the kids. The bus has no bathroom. The road trip includes overnights at campgrounds, state parks and parking lots, along with stays with new and old friends.
The family tour kicked off in Wilmington, Delaware, in August 2022. They zigzagged across the United States and made their last stop in Seattle before heading to Alaska in June 2023. The family will spend the summer on their annual visit to help work the Behr family’s commercial salmon fishing business in Bristol Bay.
Initial funding for the tour came from a friend who offered the couple $30,000 to “do something awesome.” The seed money allowed them to think big. In addition, a GoFundMe campaign of private donations raised more than $150,000.
“We’d always dreamed of traveling the country giving away books but were always daunted by the cost and complexity,” Matthew says.
First Book, a nonprofit that supplies books and other educational materials to children in low-income communities, provided logistical help with the orchestration of school visits. More than 300 schools applied for a visit, and 52 were chosen.
“The selection process was incredibly difficult,” Robbi says. “Every school could benefit from free books and an author visit.”
To complement the 25,000 books Robbi and Matthew gave to students and teachers, Build-a-Bear Foundation provided funds for another 125,000 hardcover books.
Busload of Books is not the couple’s first adventure. In 2006, the Maryland-based couple quit their corporate jobs, sold their house, moved into a barn and chose to “make books for a year until we ran out of money,” Matthew says.
Though they initially called it “a recipe for certain financial ruin,” it was anything but. The creative team self-published 70 picture books, then worked with publishing giants Random House, Macmillan and others. In less than a decade, they have soared to commercial success with a string of critically acclaimed books and a devoted following of young readers.
With Matthew as writer and Robbi as illustrator, they created the “Cookie Chronicle” series, “The Real McCoys” trilogy, and three picture books: “Sunrise Summer,” “Babies Ruin Everything” and “Everywhere, Wonder.”
Critics have praised the books. Publisher’s Weekly calls their work, “a sweeping exploration of imagination, appreciation and possibility.” Booklist says it is “eye-opening and awesome.”
As advocates for local schools, the busload adventure included exploration of the nation’s unsung landscapes, communities and natural wonders, along with time and talks with thousands of hard-working teachers and eager young readers.
“There is an attitude of disrespect and denigration toward public schools,” Matthew says. “These are wonderful schools, and these kids are energized and excited. We want to encourage reading and creativity. We see how hard teachers work in crowded classrooms, with not enough support. We see how students are struggling with hunger, poverty, addiction and trauma. Author visits can do a lot of good by increasing interest in reading and inspiring creativity, but many public schools can’t afford them.”
While mostly fun and lively, the tour also carries another hefty mission: a large-scale, two-year research project conducted by Washington College.
The research project aims to demonstrate the effects access to books has on childhood literacy. Researchers say results could help inform state and local educational policy, funding and curriculum. Opportunities for author visits come with a range of costs that are often out of reach for many schools. Researchers hope project results will provide a tool to legitimize and help fund literacy programs as part of the standard learning experience.
“Busload of Books has a really strong mission, and Robbi and Matthew are approaching this from a strong advocacy position,” says Sara Clarke-De Reza, lead researcher. “Now, we have the opportunity to provide the data needed in order to prove that it matters and help the people who already believe in the initiative to get additional funding. The stories alone aren’t enough to affect policy decisions. This data is the missing piece.
“At the end of this, we will be able to talk about what happens to kids with greater access to books over time, their teachers’ attitudes, the administrators’ attitudes, and how all of that fits within their social and geographic context using census and department of education data. It’s huge.”
On the ground and spending time with students, Robbi puts it simply: “Author visits have a huge impact, but there’s never been the data on it. The hope is that once there is data, it’ll make it easy for a librarian or teacher to advocate for books and author visits.”
As the couple wraps up their whirlwind tour, they remain just as fresh and energized as when they first boarded the bus.
“People talk a lot these days about failing schools and lazy teachers,” Matthew says. “We’ve yet to encounter a school that isn’t trying its hardest or teachers who aren’t giving their all.”
“We love the movement and visibility this has provided,” she says. “This is about bringing books and creativity to places it might be in short supply. The kids in these communities get to feel loved and appreciated. They are seen. People want to be seen.”
You Can Help!
The Busload of Books is now parked, but the work continues.
Schools need you, says Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr, the husband-wife, author-illustrator team who created “Cookie Chronicles” and other middle-grade books. Over nine months and across 30,000 miles, the couple visited with thousands of students and hundreds of teachers.
“Over and over again, teachers told us, ‘Thank you for loving our kids,’ ” Robbi says.
Your local school could use your time, attention and love, they say. Both paid positions and volunteer roles need to be filled.
“There’s a million things that can be done,” Robbi says. “Schools need bus drivers, playground supervisors, substitute teachers
and more. Bring your skills and talents.”
Learn more at busloadofbooks.com.