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 the 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, work-from-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 percent.”
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:
They ask for help when they can and let go of the rest
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 spending 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.
They prioritize their values, even when it's hard
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 labor 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.”
They push themselves, because doggedness beats talent
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.”
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