Busload of Books – Winding Down the Journey

By Amelia Blades Steward

Children’s book author/ illustrator, husband/wife duo Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr of Chestertown, creators of Busload of Books, are completing a year-long journey taking their four children and two family dogs in a tiny home school bus to visit Title One schools in all 50 states and deliver 25,000 free children’s books that the pair has created over the last 16 years.

Here is a portion of Busload of Books’ Facebook post on May 31, 2023, that inspired my follow-up interview for Attraction magazine:

“In 270 days on the road, we’ve traveled 26,063 miles, visited 52 schools and handed out roughly 23,000 books. We’ve used 800 bathrooms, patched the roof, and now have two dogs (go figure). One school at a time, our host educators have painted in the states. Now we’re done, except for Alaska, which is where we’re heading next.

Every kid in every school we visited got a hardcover book and a “reading buddy” teddy bear from Build-A-Bear Foundation. They had what we hope was an exciting and memorable day – attending an assembly, seeing our bus, and petting our dogs.

Our hope is that the kids will read their books, that they’ll harness their own power to create, that they’ll see their full capacity and reach for it… What a remarkable nine months it has been. This country is beautiful and complex – its landscapes, its ideals, and mostly, its people… But there’s work to be done and decisions to make and many miles yet to travel.”

When I reached out to Robbi and Matthew a few days after this post, they were in a parking lot in Vancouver, British Columbia, recording their answers to me. They were still in bed, surrounded by their two dogs – one who joined the journey in Utah, and both who were snoring. These are their responses to my questions.

Q: What has been your most rewarding experience with the schools?

A: Every school we visited and every place we’ve visited has a story. All of the experiences have been so rewarding. What’s rewarding to me is seeing the kids’ eyes light up when they realize that they can write their own stories, illustrate their own books, and be creators, too. We want them to read but, even more so, we want them to recognize their own capacity to tell stories because that is such an empowering thing to understand. It’s also rewarding to see the teachers feel appreciated. We’re visiting communities that are often overlooked, disrespected, underfunded, and under-appreciated. And there’s a moment in the assembly where we ask all the kids to turn and look at their teachers and give them a round of applause. And you can tell they just don’t get it very often.

Another rewarding moment was flying into the Grand Canyon in a helicopter to visit the Havasupai School in the village at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and meeting kids who hadn’t had any sort of outside programming for two and a half years. Talk about an opportunity to impact a community and to talk to kids who were so excited to meet us and to learn about what we were up to.

Robbi Behr and the couple’s children took a helicopter to the bottom of the Grand Canyon to visit the Havasupai School.
Matthew Swanson enters the Havasupai School in the village at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and met children who hadn’t had any sort of outside programming for two and a half years.

Q: How has the Build-A-Bear donation impacted your project?

A: We decided collectively with Build-A-Bear in the research team, that we would give away all the bears at the end of the year so that none of the data would be impacted by the kids also getting a bear because they really wanted to measure the impact of an author visit and books. So, what it means is throughout the last two weeks, we’ve been getting waves of photos and videos and stories of all these bears being given out as a surprise in schools in every single state. We are hearing stories from the teachers about how for many of these kids, this is the first new stuffed animal that they have ever owned. It was a big deal for these kids.

One part of the partnership with Build-A-Bear is that The Build-A-Bear Foundation is partnering with First Book to give away 125,000 additional new free books to Title One educators across the country that aren’t our books. So, it’s great that there are other options for all of the 47,000 other schools that we weren’t able to go visit to get some free books for their students that are specifically appropriate for those kids.

Q: What state has had the most surprises for you and your family and why?

A: Boy, the geography of Utah really blew us away. We did canyoneering and we visited Robbi’s old friends in Provo and drove a dune buggy. The biggest surprise that Utah had in store for us was giving us a puppy that we did not anticipate falling in love with and somehow adopting in the middle of this tour.

For Robbi, she thought Iowa was full of cornfields and that was pretty much it. There was a librarian there who has followed us online for a long time and she took us on a tour of all the great things in her small community in Iowa – the artists’ enclave of Bentonsport, the Calico Press, Ames Public Library. But frankly, every single state had some surprises. This is an amazing country full of incredible variety and wonderful people.

Q: How did the bus meet or not meet your expectations for your travel experience?

A: The bus is quite comfortable. We’ve never done RVing or anything before, so the fact that we can just pull up into a campground, plug in the bus, make dinner, and be ready to roll has been great. The fact that it has such a self-contained infrastructure helps. The first month of the tour was very rainy and we did not realize leaving our hometown that the bus roof was full of holes. We did solve that problem. The bus is our rolling home. I’m going to miss it dearly. Even though we are cramped and congested in here, everyone I love most in the whole world is in this tiny 70 square feet of living space. And it’s been a really special time.

Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr, creators of Busload of Books, prepare to head into the Grand Canyon.

Q: What has been the biggest blessing to your family so far from this trip?

A: I just think spending this amount of concentrated time with our kids. All of the things that we’ve done together, there are so many touch points and adventures for us to look back on in the future that are unforgettable every single day. In every single state in the country, we have touchpoints of incredible communities’ warmth and generosity. I think everybody should be required to travel the country and visit communities in every state and recognize that there are wonderful people everywhere and that we have so much in common. I’m glad that my kids know that about this country as they set out on their lives.

Robbi Behr with students in the Kipapa Elementary School in Hawaii.

A student at Kipapa Elementary School in Hawaii sharing her artwork.

Q: How have your children benefitted from this nine-month journey?

A: They’ve also gotten to do a bunch of cool stuff. Robbi just filled out a homeschool evaluation for the spring about the things that she did to expand her social studies curriculum. Our kids visited the Alamo and a Native American tribe at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. We went on a tour of Montgomery, Alabama, with a man who marched with his family when he was 12 years old. We’ve been to some of the coolest museums in the country, to many national parks, and we’ve driven the back roads and seen the off-the-highway version of a lot of communities in this country. We’ve tasted foods from all over the country and heard different accents. It’s just that idea of getting a broad brush understanding of the complexity and variety of this country.

Q: What do you hope will be the legacy that Busload of Books leaves behind?

A: My biggest hope would be that people start understanding the challenges that public schools face and trying to address them in real ways. The challenges are that we are not giving our schools the resources to deal with the trove of problems they face that are based on poverty, that are based on trauma, and that are based on uneven distribution of resources. There are schools that are dealing with populations that come to school every day with hunger, dealing with homelessness, trauma, addiction, and all sorts of problems that make learning almost impossible and hard to do.

We also can’t stress enough how important the research project that we’re doing with Washington College is. We’ve collected surveys from 11,000 students, teachers, and administrators across the country this year – data that never before has been examined as it has from our tour. So that set of data findings could really help move the dial for others hoping to do similar literacy interventions.

Also, 25,000 students and teachers had a memorable day when our family came into their community with generosity, love, and excitement in a colorful bus with puppies. Basically, we tried to create the most ostentatiously fun and memorable day so that there’s a touch point that the kids can think of when they think of reading and when they think of creativity. The kid gets to keep their book and their bear as a souvenir of that experience. We’ll probably never know exactly how it changes the lives of those children.

Q: What’s next after Alaska?

A: So, we’re driving from Vancouver to Anchorage where we will park our bus. We’re going to fly to our fishing compound on the Alaskan Peninsula and fish for five weeks. We take another bush plane down to the Village of Port Heiden, Alaska, where we will visit a 12-student, one-room schoolhouse that will have a special summer session day just to hang out with us. Then we’ll fly back to Anchorage, and we will drive back to Chestertown, Maryland, which will take about two and a half weeks. And then I think we’re going to sleep soundly for approximately one week. We’re going to have to sneak into town and then announce our triumphant return after we’re fully rested.

Our hope is to keep using this bus to do the same type of work throughout the Mid-Atlantic in the years to come. We can’t keep living on this bus and our children want to go back to school and Robbi and I need to continue making books if we want to continue being an author and an illustrator. We are already raising money and working on new partnerships to keep giving away books and doing in-school visits. There’s a lot of momentum and visibility that’s been created by this tour and we want to keep building on it.

Follow Busload of Books or Robbi and Matthew on Facebook or Instagram at #busloadofbooks. For further information, visit www.busloadofbooks.com.

Read the original article here.

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