Busload of Books—and Dreams
Busload of Books—and Dreams
Many vehicles will roll into town over the 2022 Reunion Weekend—motorcycles, antique cars, and even a street sweeper for kids to play on—but only one will be parked in front of Chapin Hall: a brightly painted school bus making its debut to the Williams community before embarking on a national tour.
The so-called Busload of Books Tour is the latest project from the illustrator-author team Robbi Behr ’97 and Matthew Swanson ’97, who, with their four children ages 5 to 14, are preparing for a cross-country road trip to visit 52 Title I schools in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., donating books and giving presentations on creativity and storytelling.
Last year, the duo teamed up with First Book, a nonprofit that supports children’s education and wellness, to identify schools in need who were interested in a visit. Title I schools receive federal funding to support a high percentage of students from low-income families. In addition to giving away 25,000 hardcover copies of two of their books—Ben Yokoyama and the Cookie of Doom and Everywhere, Wonder—Behr and Swanson have partnered with another (as-yet unannounced) organization to give away an additional 100,000 titles by other authors.
Behr and Swanson also plan to distribute surveys to students and school personnel before, immediately following and then a month after each visit. The results will be shared with the education and sociology departments of Washington College, near Behr and Swanson’s home in Chestertown, Maryland, in the hopes of helping researchers better understand the impact of author-illustrator visits on elementary-age students’ attitudes about literacy and creativity.
The nationwide tour and book giveaway combine several of the couple’s longtime dreams. As a Williams sophomore, Behr traveled to the Grand Canyon with the college’s Outing Club, led by Scott Lewis. Behr was inspired to recreate that trip—but slowly. Discussing the idea years later with Swanson, she considered covering the miles on a horse.
“I told her, ‘Get yourself a new husband, or else I’ll see you in a year,’” says Swanson, who nevertheless gave her a birthday gift of a horseback riding lesson that year. One experience was enough to dissuade her.
The two also have long championed teaching children “to tell their own stories—to observe and value their world and their own experiences—and then connect to others and see their possibilities enlarge,” Swanson says. To that end, they’ve been visiting schools and giving away books ever since their first, Babies Ruin Everything, was published in 2016.
Students’ reactions to their visits have been profound, says Swanson.
“To them, we’re famous for that day,” Swanson says. “Because they met us, and because we spend a lot of time showing them that we’re just goofballs, the book becomes a relatable object—something they have a connection to. In every school, there’s one kid who gets starry-eyed and comes back and shows us the book they’ve started writing.”
Another goal is to raise awareness of poverty in the U.S. and the efforts many teachers and other school personnel make to meet children’s needs when their families or communities aren’t able to, providing everything from meals to emotional support.
The Behr and Swanson family will travel and live on the bus, departing at the end of August, visiting schools through July 2023 and homeschooling their children as they visit both historic and remote locations.
“We’ve had this idea for a long time, and along the way, we’ve sort of collected experiences and people who have helped make it happen,” says Behr.
The couple has led fundraising efforts to pay for the books, the bus and renovations to it, trip expenses and gas—which has doubled in price since they began planning.
“The generosity of the [Williams] alumni community has been a big part of why this is possible,” says Swanson, beginning to choke up. “That’s a big part of why we want to bring the bus to reunion—to say thank you to our classmates. This is what you made possible.”
Photographs provided by Matthew Swanson ’97.
Regina Velázquez is an assistant editor and senior writer in the Office of Communications.