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Busload of Books bringing inspiration to the classroom one stop at a time

L.B. Williams Elementary was the latest stop for family making rounds to all 50 states in order to spread the good word about reading

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Andrea Hart's 3rd and 4th grade class sits outside with Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr next to their colorful bus on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022 outside L.B. Williams Elementary School during their Busload of Books tour around the United States.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic
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MITCHELL — Matthew Swanson received a positive review Monday morning from one of the L.B. Williams Elementary School students who had just attended an assembly with the children’s book author.

“He came up to me after the first assembly and said, ‘Mister, for some reason, you inspired me,’” Swanson laughed. “It was the best.”

Swanson and his wife, Robbi Behr, who is also his co-author on dozens of children’s books, spent much of the day hearing examples of that excitement as the pair and their four children made their latest stop as part of the Busload of Books Tour at the Mitchell elementary school. The family is on their way to visit schools in all 50 states to promote reading, creativity and collaboration.

The trip revolves around the author and illustrator and their desire to spread the word about reading, to increase awareness of the challenges faced by America’s public schools as well as to take part in an expansive research project to measure how such visits by creators to the classroom impact the schools, teachers and their students.

The family is traveling in a bus that has been colorfully painted and decked out to serve as both a promotional billboard and a miniature home for the six of them. The bus grabs the attention of the students, but so do Swanson and Behr, who bring a presentation full of encouragement for reading, creating and working together.

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“Sometimes all it takes for a kid is to light a spark, to come in and present the possibility of writing, or art is something that they can do,” Swanson said. “In our presentation, we make a point to say we’re just regular people. We made books when we were kids and never stopped, and this is something you can do, too.”

The couple would know. Swanson said the pair have authored about 80 children’s books — with him penning the words and Behr illustrating the stories, including Ben Yokoyama and the Cookie of Doom. About 60 of those were self-published early in their career before finally entering the commercial publishing world. They have written books geared to a variety of elementary school levels.

Deb Bartscher, librarian at L.B. Williams Elementary School, said having an enthusiastic pair like Swanson and Behr come to the school to share their message and craft can be a big deal to potentially budding authors and illustrators. The fact that the visit is part of a national tour allows the school to follow the bus’s progress around the country, both before and after their visit.

It’s always a treat to bring local authors in for visits, but the scope of Swanson and Behr’s journey makes it a project the students can follow all year long.

We made books when we were kids and never stopped, and this is something you can do, too.
Matthew Swanson

“It’s a big thing. We can read things about authors, but to have them right here is really, really a big thing to the kids,” Bartscher said. “We have a big map in the hallway and we've been following them and will continue to follow the trek throughout the United States.”

L.B. Williams Elementary Principal Becky Roth agreed that the visit was a great way to get kids thinking about being creative.

“We’ve been watching their journey along the way since they started and now they’re finally to South Dakota. Their journey so far has been really neat and we’re really glad to have them here,” Roth said. “Literacy is such a foundational piece for everything we do, and their presentation has really been a focus for us on the literacy part of it and the artistic part of it and really looking at your passion and growing that within.”

The day consisted of student assemblies with Swanson and Behr, photo opportunities with the bus — including a moment to color in South Dakota on the map printed on the bus — and a general excitement that followed the two as they visited different parts of the school. They handed out books to the students that were provided by First Book, a Washington, D.C. organization that helped them map out their route across the country and housed and shipped the books to their scheduled school stops.

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Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr stand next to their colorful bus while stopping at L.B. Williams elementary school during their Busload of Books tour around the United State on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

Despite the name of the tour, Swanson said they couldn’t actually bring the books on the bus.

“Even though it’s called the Busload of Books Tour, it’s a lie. There are no books on that bus,” Swanson laughed. “Because we couldn’t carry 25,000 books with us.”

The entire trip has multiple benefits, Swanson said. It is helping get the word out about reading, but it is also a chance for them to promote the hard work of public school teachers, who they feel have been overlooked heroes in society and often maligned in today’s political climate. They cited Bartscher and the staff at L.B. Williams as examples of teachers and school staff working tirelessly to enrich the educational lives of students.

The tour is specifically visiting Title I schools throughout the country, Swanson said.

“Our hope is that people following this adventure will see a positive representation of teachers in a time when people are doing a lot of disrespecting and denigrating of the profession,” Swanson said.

The trip, funded by a $30,000 no-strings-attached grant secured from partners who asked the couple to “do something awesome,” will also provide hard scientific data for research into how visits from authors and illustrators impact a school and their students. L.B. Williams is one of the schools on the trip taking part in the survey, which is being conducted by Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, the couple’s hometown.

And it will serve as a chance for the family of six to tour the country and spend time and adventures together. Children Alden, 14, Kato, 12, Augie, 10 and Jasper, 5 all make up the traveling party and take part in activities at each school they visit. Jasper attends a day of kindergarten at every stop.

The group was off to Iowa for their next stop, but they said Mitchell and L.B. Williams proved to be another fun, fulfilling stop on their grand tour.

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“We have loved South Dakota. It’s just beautiful,” Behr said. “We keep saying that everywhere we go it’s amazing to see the country and to see the variety of places there are. But even cooler are the people we’ve met. We’ve met so many incredibly kind and generous and open-hearted people.”

The tour will conclude in August in Alaska in a 12-person rural schoolhouse that is only accessible by bush plane, so the bus will have to stay behind for its final stop. The family will then stay for a season of commercial salmon fishing, which serves as their second occupation. But for the next 10 months or so, it’s a schedule of visiting schools and engaging with students and teachers.

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Students at L.B. Williams gather to learn about the process of writing a story on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022, during the Busload of Books tour.
Adam Thury / Mitchell Republic

As Behr and Swanson walked Monday from a classroom to their next assembly, they passed through the lunchroom at L.B. Williams, where dozens of students waved and excitedly called them over to talk. The couple obliged, again taking a few minutes to encourage and talk about books, writing, drawing, teamwork and anything else that came up.

The trip is enriching their own family’s life, and they make sure to take the time to enrich the lives of the students they visit.

“We try to leave them with some portable messages. We try to show them that creativity is fun and valuable. And we try to give them a book and make it an object they can relate to, because they met the people who made it,” Swanson said. “So if we can get a couple of kids who weren’t interested in reading before going on it, hopefully that’s something they can carry with them in their lives.”

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
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