A fairy tale life is hard work

Cou­ple quits cor­po­rate life to make kids books in con­verted barn

The Prince George Citizen - - Worklife - Amy JOYCE

The idea sounds ut­terly de­light­ful: a cou­ple lives in a row­house in Bal­ti­more. Tired of city life and cor­po­rate jobs, they head off to a charm­ing town on Mary­land’s East­ern Shore to write chil­dren’s books in a barn.

Here’s the reality, a few years later: the kids are out of school. One is on a swing hang­ing from the liv­ing room ceil­ing, an­other needs his di­a­per changed and the other two are beg­ging for screen time. Con­trac­tors are drilling and pound­ing in an ad­ja­cent room to cre­ate an of­fice space just off the par­ents’ bed­room so they can have a lit­tle privacy. Pa­pers, ideas, de­signs, kid art­work and all sorts of de­tri­tus are strewn through­out Robbi Behr and Matthew Swan­son’s workspace. There are dead­lines and fam­ily com­mit­ments to meet, child care to ar­range, speak­ing en­gage­ments to plan, ideas to cre­ate and, oh yeah, a sum­mer as com­mer­cial salmon fish­er­men in Alaska to plan for.

In other words, this is not an easy sto­ry­book life. It’s the life that cre­ators of the pop­u­lar The Real McCoys, Ev­ery­where, Won­der and other books for young readers have made piece by piece, story by story, il­lus­tra­tion by il­lus­tra­tion.

In Bal­ti­more, Behr and Swan­son had, they say, “a per­fect life” as a mar­ried cou­ple. They had a lovely row­house and de­sir­able jobs at the same de­sign and com­mu­ni­ca­tions firm. They lived in a fun neigh­bor­hood.

And yet, some­thing was amiss. They had taken these jobs know­ing they would be paid well, they would have in­sur­ance, and they could build on de­sign and writ­ing skills they felt were nec­es­sary for what they even­tu­ally wanted to do, “which was mak­ing books,” Behr said.

“Ev­ery­thing was great, ex­cept we came home ex­hausted and un­able to have any sort of great, creative im­pulse at all,” she said.

And not mak­ing books, Swan­son said, “was mak­ing us sad.”

One rainy day they had an epiphany. “Let’s drive to Ch­ester­town tonight and tell my par­ents that we’re mov­ing into the barn!”

Behr’s par­ents owned the barn. There, Behr’s mother had a pot­tery stu­dio. Up­stairs in the hayloft were piles of old tires, bags of ship­ping peanuts, old couches, lum­ber.

And it was per­fect for them, for their de­sire to run away and cre­ate.

But when they told Behr’s par­ents of their plan, they were met with stunned si­lence.

Behr’s mother had saved money for years to buy pas­sage on a cargo ship to come to the United States from Tokyo. It was be­cause of her “en­tre­pre­neur­ial, rene­gade spirit,” Swan­son said, that they thought she would em­brace their de­ci­sion. But to her mother, Behr said, be­ing an Amer­i­can meant hav­ing a 9-to-5 job with ben­e­fits and a grill in the back­yard. To her, Behr and Swan­son had al­ready made it.

They de­cided to go for it any­way and give it a year.

The cou­ple sold their Bal­ti­more house with a gain of $40,000, us­ing that money to fix up the barn, where they were able to live rent-free.

To kick things off, they started a book sub­scrip­tion ser­vice. For $50 per year, a sub­scriber would re­ceive 10 books, writ­ten by Swan­son and il­lus­trated by Behr.

“Re­ally, that was just so we’d have our pa­per and print­ing costs covered, and to make sure we had 10 things made in that year,” Swan­son said. The books were creative pic­ture books for adults, some­thing they had started do­ing to­gether be­fore they were mar­ried, when Swan­son was tak­ing fic­tion cour­ses and Behr was a free­lance de­signer.

Af­ter the first self-pub­lished books came out, their lo­cal book­store, the Book­plate, started car­ry­ing them. And then the Carla Mas­soni Gallery, which rep­re­sented Behr’s mother, put on a show with the books. “All of these things were hap­pen­ing that were mak­ing this feel like not just some silly project,” Behr said.

Once the year was up, they wanted to stay. Around the same time, Swan­son’s boss asked him to come back on a half-time, work­from-home sched­ule – with in­sur­ance – in­stead of free­lanc­ing, as he had been. Soon af­ter, Behr was preg­nant with their first baby. They de­cided to keep go­ing. “We re­ally be­lieved in our­selves, but in a com­pletely un­re­al­is­tic way,” Swan­son said. “If at any point some­one (had told) us the amount of ef­fort it took, I would have blanched.”

As they were de­cid­ing to stay in the barn mak­ing books for a liv­ing, a man picked up one of their cre­ations at an in­die publishing book fair they at­tended.

That man worked for Dis­ney and took the book with him to a meeting, where Erin Stein, then an edi­tor at Lit­tle, Brown (still their edi­tor, but she’s now pub­lisher at Im­print, part of Macmil­lan) said she needed some­one to cre­ate a su­per­hero board book for kids.

“We were handed this book,” Swan­son said. “And then we did it 600 per cent.”

Stein got to know them, and “it turns out they had lots of ideas,” she said. “So many chil­dren’s books are pub­lished ev­ery year. You’re al­ways look­ing for some­thing fresh, dif­fer­ent and orig­i­nal. They think about things in a dif­fer­ent way. They give them­selves space to think in creative ways and do creative work.”

Was that su­per­hero book the “big break?”

Yes, but it doesn’t mean they can kick back and watch the birds swoop to­ward the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay as the sun sets. Not only do they have to con­tinue com­ing up with creative ideas (and then scram­bling to sell their ideas and books), but they also have four chil­dren: Alden, 11; Kato, 9; Au­gust, 7 and Jasper, 2.

They’ve had to learn how to work with each other har­mo­niously enough that they can keep their home run­ning. Here are some of the ways they make this life work.

With four kids and a home of­fice that is es­sen­tially in their bed­room, work and life are in­cred­i­bly in­ter­twined. Find­ing a balance – and some peace – in which to work hasn’t al­ways been easy or achiev­able. Behr and Swan­son con­sider them­selves lucky to have par­ents who can help. Swan­son’s mother moved to Ch­ester­town, two blocks away, sev­eral years ago. Behr’s mother died in 2010, but her fa­ther still lives down the street in the house she grew up in.

“We have had won­der­ful peo­ple will­ing to watch them when they were lit­tle. And a won­der­ful Montessori preschool, and now pub­lic school,” Swan­son said. “It’s pretty free range around here. We work on one side of the wall and the chil­dren play on the other.”

Their lives are chal­leng­ing, they ad­mit. “But ev­ery­thing is chal­leng­ing,” Behr said. “I hate to say it’s more chal­leng­ing than other peo­ple’s lives.”

They’ve learned to let go of cer­tain things – “or we can’t get any­thing else done,” she said. So clean­ing the house? Once ev­ery few months. And just like most work­ing par­ents, “we some­times fret we don’t spend more time with them.”

“It’s the life we chose,” Swan­son said. “Even if we are not di­rectly in­ter­act­ing with them all the time, I love that we are near our chil­dren all the time. They get to see their par­ents do­ing this thing that they love. And they’re al­ways avail­able if we need or want them. It’s a joy, but a joy with headaches built in. We don’t have the abil­ity to leave the work.”

Behr and Swan­son have also learned they need to take turns on the kid-front and work-front some­times.

For in­stance, when Behr has a dead­line, Swan­son may take the chil­dren and go away for a week or two at a time. Behr typ­i­cally takes the kids to New Eng­land or up­state New York in the sum­mer for a week or two, and Swan­son stays home to write.

Even with their busi­ness and their four kids, Behr and Swan­son agree it’s non­nego­tiable that they spend their sum­mers com­mer­cial salmon fish­ing in the Alaskan tundra.

Behr grew up fish­ing in Alaska, and it’s “part of who I am,” she says. “I would miss it pro­foundly if I didn’t do it. I think poor Matthew gets suck­ered along be­cause he’s a good hus­band.”

“There are mo­ments of in­tense ‘What the heck am I do­ing?’ and mo­ments of in­tense gratitude and gratitude that my chil­dren get to see a dif­fer­ent way to life,” Swan­son says. “To see us in the mode of do­ing hard phys­i­cal labour in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent part of the world, to grab fish with their bare hands and see that there is a dif­fer­ent way of ob­tain­ing food... (there are) so many in­tan­gi­bles that I be­lieve they are get­ting.”

They live with­out many ameni­ties while they are away, in­clud­ing in­ter­net. They don’t work on their books so much there, though Swan­son has got­ten some writ­ing done. Behr says she al­ways brings art sup­plies but never ends up with the time to cre­ate. The best part of the Alaska trips is the time and space to think about their lives. “The in­sights we have up there re­ally helped us make im­por­tant life de­ci­sions,” Swan­son said.

This sort of break from their usual world is re­ju­ve­nat­ing, they say, feed­ing their work.

One of their up­com­ing pic­ture books, called Sun­rise Sum­mer, will be about the first time their daugh­ter was able to fish with them, crossing that thresh­old from be­ing a kid to be­ing a mem­ber of the crew.

“It’s a life col­lab­o­ra­tion that in­cludes book col­lab­o­ra­tion,” Swan­son said. “Ev­ery sin­gle thing we do is part of the en­ter­prise. Our chil­dren are our work. Fish­ing in Alaska is our work. All these things that come to­gether to make these books pos­si­ble.”

Among other projects, Behr and Swan­son spend time vis­it­ing class­rooms, speak­ing to chil­dren and donat­ing books.

They hope to ex­pand that next year dur­ing a “great Amer­i­can road trip” with their kids, vis­it­ing schools and li­braries to dis­cuss sto­ry­telling and the im­por­tance of read­ing.

So with nine chil­dren’s books set to be pub­lished by the end of 2021, does that mean they’ve made it and can re­lax a lit­tle?

“That’s be­yond the dreams we had,” Swan­son said. “And yet we know we have to keep do­ing it. When we talk to kids (at school vis­its), we talk about dogged­ness. If there’s some­thing you love, you have to keep do­ing it for­ever. Tal­ent is even less im­por­tant than dogged­ness.”


Above, Robbi Behr works on an il­lus­tra­tion while her hus­band, Matthew Swan­son, and their daugh­ter spend time at their home in Ch­es­terown, Md. Left, Mil­ton and big sis­ter Moxie are char­ac­ters from Swan­son and Behr’s The Real McCoys.

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