Robbi Behr and Matthew Swanson are an illustrator/writer, wife/husband duo who spend all their waking hours making stuff together: books with pictures and words, obstreperous children, and constant messes everywhere. Other details are available here.
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One of the most exciting and vexing and challenging and time-consuming parts of making a book is coming up with the cover, because no matter how many times we’re cautioned not to judge a book by it, the cover is that first impression we can never shake. And so a whole lot of people work very hard to make sure it is a good one.
The process usually begins with our art director Natalie saying to Robbi, “Take a stab at some cover ideas,” which always makes Robbi feel wiggly because as much as she muddles her way through our various in-house design needs, she is NOT a designer and does not play one on television. Nevertheless, Robbi dutifully creates a few thumbnails and sends them along.
To which Natalie responds something along the lines of. “Great! Let’s see that one with the big owl in a little more detail and maybe also that one with the three kids and the owl, but maybe with a little more excitement happening above the title.”
Robbi is extremely excited at this point, because the one with the big owl is her favorite.
And so she draws and draws and sends two sketches to Natalie.
One with a little more detail.
One with a little more excitement.
At this point, Natalie and Erin take the more fully developed sketches to the team of people at Macmillan whose specialty is covers. They have important conversations to which we are not invited so as to protect our tender feelings from the grim realities of the rough and tumble world of selling books.
After the meeting, Natalie writes and says something along the lines of, “That excitement you added above the title was great, but how about having Moxie as a central figure, with the other characters sort of surrounding her like a frame. And be sure to put Milton in there somewhere, too.”
To which Robbi responds with this.
To which Natalie responds, “Thanks! I’ll share this with the Mysterious Cover Committee, but in the mean time, please see what Moxie and Milton would look like in color.”
Which makes sense, because of course the cover will be in full color but to this point, Moxie and Milton have been living in a black and white world.
So Robbi does this, and we all go ooh! and ahh! Because who doesn’t like color?
To which Natalie says, “Great on the color, but as you revise the sketch, keep Moxie in the middle, get Milton out from under her foot (that’s just mean!), keep the upper excitement, create a band of human characters in the middle and another band of non-human characters along the bottom. And separate the bands with color breaks. Sound good?!”
To which Robbi responds by tearing out just a few of her hairs before turning back to proverbial (and literal) drawing board coming up with the following.
We loved how Milton was on a stepladder (accentuating his trademark shortness), and how he is actively involved with adjusting the “s” in “McCoys,” (accentuating his trademark fastidiousness and also introducing the reader to the interaction of image and language that is to be found throughout the book).
Robbi and I were very excited about this cover. We thought it was perfect. We sent it to Natalie.
To which Natalie replies, “YOU ARE ON THE RIGHT TRACK, but let’s make the colors less depressing and get rid of that extremely creepy bug in the lower left and make your names a bit bigger, forgodsake.”
Because Natalie has powers, she turned the basic elements of Robbi’s sketch into the following.
Natalie also sent us the drawing below, which shows how the bands of color might extend onto the back. Robbi was pleased to see the return of the big owl, which, if you don’t remember, Robbi really liked.
At this point, Natalie and Erin took the cover to the Top Secret Committee of Monumental Cover Design Decision Making, and reported back that, “No, no, no. This is all wrong.”
At which point, Natalie changed into her ninja outfit and chopped down an entire bamboo thicket with one hand while using the other hand to blow up the previous cover concept and coming up with this entirely new one.
To which we said, “Oh yes. This is JUST RIGHT. We love it. You must be an actual designer who also plays one on television.”
To which Natalie responds by sending us a bunch of enthusiastic-yet-inscrutable emojis which make us laugh. It is her way. We love her for it.
In the weeks that follow, we make a bunch of minor adjustments to the above sketch, adding this and subtracting that, improving the color and adding a band with our names at the bottom.
Eventually, the real live book arrives in the mail and we cry a little (me) and swoon a little (Robbi). It’s so beautiful we can barely stand it. The fact that our names are on the cover of this beautiful book hardly makes sense. But there they are.
Matthew Swanson & Robbi Behr
We turn it over and have a look at the back.
Maybe Robbi didn’t get her big owl, but we LOVE how the back turned out. It’s a little taste of Moxie and Milton, how they talk, how they relate, the funny faces they make.
And, in full disclosure, Robbi did get a little owl. The nice thing about a dust jacket is that it sneaks around the corners of the covers so that the Committee of People Who Write Compelling Dustjacket Copy have a place to put their carefully crafted words.
And, to be utterly comprehensive, here is the back flap, where the Person Who Describes the Salient Facts of Author and Illustrator Lives (that would be I) gets to have his say.
We love every inch of every panel of these covers. We love the design. We love the colors. We love the texture. We love the kind testimonials from people who know what they are talking about.
We just plain love this book. And hope that you will, too.
One of the great pleasures of publishing a book is the chance to plant a dedication in the front, to express the gratitude you feel to the people whose contributions made that book possible, through help or inspiration, and oftentimes both. We dedicated Babies Ruin Everything to our kids and Everywhere, Wonder to our parents. For The Real McCoys, we wanted to acknowledge those who paved our path from making books by hand on our dining room table to publishing a hardcover novel with one of the world’s biggest publishing houses.
Jesse Post (now proprietor of the fabulous Postmark Books) worked at Disney when he stopped by our table and bought a copy of our mix-and-match book After Everafter during an indie press show many years ago. A few years later, he took it to a production meeting at Little Brown, where he gave it to Erin Stein, who then hired us to write and illustrate a mix-and-match book about Spider Man, Thor, and friends. Erin, whose contributions to our story merit a post (or novel) of their own, is the publisher at Imprint (a part of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group), and the editor of The Real McCoys.
Bridget Watson Payne, an editor at the estimable Chronicle Books, rolled the dice on two unknown creators and acquired our self-published book Ten Thousand Stories, giving it an editorial refresh and honoring it with the Chronicle name. We loved working with Bridget. She is smart, honest, and hilarious (and recently, an author in her own right). So when we were looking for an agent a few years ago, we charged Bridget with helping us find the agent version of herself. Meredith Kaffel Simonoff was first on Bridget’s list of recommendations. We emailed with Meredith. We met in person. We fell in love. Within a year, we had signed five book contracts, including The Real McCoys books 1 and 2.
This business is no solitary venture. The author and illustrator are just one part of a vast web of smart, talented people who work their tails off to make books happen. We have been lucky to work with (and count as friends) some of the very best of them.
Robbi is a raccoon.
By which I mean, she comes alive when the sun sets and kicks into full gear when the most of us are ready to climb into bed. Her natural creative sweet spot is 10:00pm -2:00am. We’ve known this for a long time, but in the interest of spending time with her family by being awake during roughly the same hours, Robbi has behaved less like a raccoon and more like a prairie dog for most of the past decade. Except during stretches of intense creative production that demand nothing but her best and most efficient creative output.
We find ourselves in such a stretch.
The books in The Real McCoys series are long (336 pages) and illustration-heavy (roughly 1,000 individual drawings in each book). The number of hours required to illustrate each is patently absurd, and the only way Robbi can manage the feat is to abandon normalcy and work through the night. Every night.
Here’s what her desk looks like right around 3:00am.
I am wired like a boring old human being conditioned to mirror the path of the sun. Which means I completely decompensate as 8:00pm rolls around. I’ve always marveled at Robbi’s nocturnal prowess, wondering how she manages it. I woke this morning with the answer. In the dead of night, Robbi decided to document her current method for keeping the Sandman at bay. I present it for you here. Lest you decide the time has come to create 1,000 illustrations:
Recommendations for your next all-nighter (by Robbi):
1. V8 + Energy Drink:
I don’t know what’s in this stuff but it seems to be working better than multiple cans of Coke and piles of Almond Joys. It gives the impression of being healthy by saying it has a serving of vegetables and fruits in it along with B-vitamins. Added bonus: very cool packaging design. All four flavors are delicious but don’t expect to find any at the C-town Redner’s because I cleaned them out. A steady dose of energy without the crash.
2. Sweetzels Ginger Snaps:
I did not realize how effective the actual act of chewing can be against falling asleep, especially when it feels like you are chewing little dollops of granite. (There is a reason Almond Joys are more effective than Mounds.) This particular brand of ginger snaps is not only brain-rattlingly crunchy, they also have a nice sharp ginger bite (“made with real ginger”!) When Matthew couldn’t find this brand, he purchased a different brand, which got soggy by 4am and had no gingery bite (and were much more sugary tasting). I gave him exact directions on where these could be found at the store, so don’t expect to find any at the C-town Redner’s because I cleaned them out of these too.
I have three podcasts I am slowly burning through.
a. Lovett or Leave It :
Features hilarious former speechwriter for Obama who also happened to graduate from my alma mater with a math degree seven years after I graduated from there with an English degree. Which is to say, even writers don’t waste their time with English degrees. Also hosted by other Obama insiders. Funny, smart, engaging, but probably only if you’re a lefty.
b. Pod Save America :
This basically has the same line-up as Lovett or Leave It and is equally smart and entertaining but with fewer silly games. Slightly more wonky but still goes down quite well with ginger snaps.
I happen to know Heather Mizeur, who ran for governor a few years back. She started this podcast to get conscience and “soul” back into politics. Earnest as hell but refreshing to hear people working for change without cynicism and with a great deal of hope. Loved her chat with firebrand Barbara Mikulski and great to hear her talk across the aisle with Gov. Hogan. Looking forward to more, there’s only three episodes so far.
I’m not late to this game! I swear! You all might be totally over this by now, but I gotta say when it’s late and you’re feeling done, crank up some Yorktown and get the fuck back up again.
If your all-nighters do not involve Photoshop, then they will not be nearly as fun. Highly recommended.
And there you have it. Perhaps now that this intelligence has been shared, scores 336 page, 1,000 illustration middle grade novels will spread like wildfire across this great land. But somehow I doubt it. Something tells me that Robbi is able and willing to stay up all night and thrive not because of the above list of worthy diversions and delights.
It’s because she is a raccoon.
Hello, friends. Our first heavily illustrated, beautifully printed, funny and heart-warming whodunnit of a kid novel The Real McCoys comes out in two short weeks. Robbi and I are extremely excited but are also trying to do whatever we can to help this book we love find its way in the world. From talking with other authors and people in publishing, it sounds like strong preorders can do a lot to help a book get noticed, shelved, shared, etc.
OUR REQUEST TO YOU: if you were planning on buying this book anyway, doing so now instead of after it comes out would be a huge help to us. And, even if you are currently kidless, consider picking up a copy or two for birthday or holiday gifts. (Crazily, it can be had for just $10.33.)
I’ve included links to various online retailers below, but you can also preorder from your local bookstore. Apologies for the overt ask, but in this case, if you are willing to give this book a loving nudge, we would be extremely grateful. Your support means the world to us.
[For your calculations, the sweet spot is grades 3-7, but it would also be perfect for parents to read with younger kids—and I wrote it to be funny to all but the most humorless adults].
Robbi has traveled to the Alaskan tundra every summer since 1976. I’ve been going up since 2000. Alden has been ten times so far, Kato eight, and Augie six. Jasper just made his inaugural visit.
For all of those years, we have lived with Robbi’s family and various visiting helpers at the Behr family compound, a sharing of extremely close quarters that requires patience, tolerance, and frequent olfactory forgiveness.
Sensing that the sheer bulk of our bulging family unit was starting to wear on the nerves of our fellow inhabitants, Robbi and I decided late last summer to relocate to a modest cabin on a patch of land her family owns a few miles down the beach.
The cabin above was built by a web diver (a person who is hired by the captains of fishing boats to untangle nets and ropes that get accidentally caught in their propellors), but he moved out about five years ago. At 12′ x 16′, it is a perfectly fine size for a single man to live in for a few weeks in the summer. But upon further reflection, it seemed a bit small for Robbi and me and our four energetic offspring to inhabit without constant duress. And so we spent the winter scheming about how we might increase our square footage.
One plan was to attempt to build a sort of rickety shed adjacent to the diver’s cabin. We knew that it would not be a particularly NICE building, but we hoped it might give us a place to store the children for necessary moments of adult respite.
But then we thought of Tim, our carpenter friend from Missouri. Might he be sufficiently tempted by the scent of adventure to bring his talents to the tundra for a few weeks and build us a proper house? We asked, and it turned out that he was. We spent several months discussing an expansion. Tim sent us a drawing that looked like this.
We said, “Heck, yes.”
Tim suggested that we acquire various tools and hardware and lumber and such and sent us a list.
Robbi spent many late night hours online ordering things. I tried to leave her alone during these times, surly as she is when ordering tools and hardware and lumber late at night.
June came. Robbi left for the tundra. A week later, I joined her. As luck would have it, the tiny bush plane that brought me to our lonely stretch of beach flew directly over our building site. Ours is the little red cabin on the left side of the U.
As even greater luck would have it, the pilot then flew past the site from the other direction, allowing you to see how the cabin rests at the top of a hill, on the edge of the bluff, overlooking a meadow just above the beach.
On the night I arrived on the tundra with our builder friend Tim (on the right) and his dad Denny (also a builder) in tow, we drove up to the building site and had a look at the generous quantity of gravel that had been dumped and carefully leveled by our friend James. Back in civilization, we’d dig and pour a proper foundation. On the tundra, we use gravel. Lots and lots of gravel. I thank James and his loader for placing the gravel so that I did not have to haul 500 buckets of the stuff, as Robbi surely would have made me do otherwise.
I cannot resist taking a moment to shamelessly brag that I am co-owner of a shipping container, which is the tundra equivalent of a garage. We used the container to ship up the tools and lumber and hardware and such (in the belly of a massive barge that made its way from Seattle to Coffee Point, AK), and once it arrived, we set it on gravel, leveled it on sizable wooden chunks, and used it to keep our belongings safe from bears, which, powerful as they might be, have not yet found a way to open shipping containers. Yet.
Before we headed off to sleep that night, I took one more photo of the building site. Here it is. Gravelly and flat and ready for anything.
The morning came, and it was time to begin. We had only 16 days to build a house, and so there was no time to waste. We started by bringing lumber.
Tim and Denny started by setting heavy timbers into the gravel. Known as “grade beams,” these sturdy lengths of wood would serve as the building’s foundation.
Setting the grade beams involved digging. Tim later admitted that digging is his least favorite aspect of building. Which is why I’m glad we were able to get the digging out of the way early.
Once the grade beams were in place, it was time to lay the floor boards. Denny instructed us to place them every 18 inches.
Not long later, a framework emerged.
Because Tim is a thorough and conscientious builder who wants our toes to be as warm as possible on cold tundra mornings, he insulated the heck out of the floor. And yes, “the heck out of” is a technical term used by carpenters to describe degrees of thoroughness.
Once the floor was insulated and covered with plywood, we laid out all the windows we had managed to collect to see how we might arrange them for maximum light and air flow. There will be no electricity in our house, and so no lights, and so we want to give the sun as many chances as possible to creep inside and help us see things.
Various of us held up the various windows in various configurations while Robbi stood in the middle of the floor and waved her hand majestically. We tried various configurations and eventually she was happy. Or at least content. One never knows with Robbi.
One of the various of us was my father John Swanson, good friend of Denny, father of Tim. He came along to lend a hand and get his first in-person glimpse of our Alaskan shenanigans.
Because Tim does not mess around, soon there was a wall.
And then another wall.
Two walls seemed sufficient. I was ready to move in. But Tim insisted that the living experience would be considerably enhanced if I’d let him keep going a bit longer.
And so he laid out the studs for a third wall.
Which, cut to specified lengths and artfully combined with various nails, suddenly became a lot more wall-like.
Tim requested plywood.
More nails were deployed.
Various of us were then gathered for our best imitation of a barn raising.
I have never before participated in the lifting of a wall. It was rather exciting.
The third wall came together in two large chunks, but because Tim doesn’t mess around, the second was erected within moments of the first.
“NOW can I move in?” I asked.
Tim said something along the lines of, “Not until I cut you some windows.” He took out a marvelous tool called a Sawzall (saws all, get it?) and traced the outline of the window through the framing.
Suddenly, we had a view.
The quality of the view did nothing to deter my desire to move in immediately.
But Tim was already off to building the fourth wall. To keep me distracted, Tim handed me a rake and suggested that my energies might be better spent creating a grade that sloped away from the house, to protect the foundation from rain that might otherwise puddle up and cause the grade beams to rot.
Joining me in the raking effort was friend and fellow Chestertonian Stu, who had joined us for the summer, and who distinguished himself on the tundra by being game to help out in whatever way possible, whether fishing or raking or smiling at Jasper.
While Stu and I were raking, Tim harvested old barge wood.
When Robbi’s family first moved to the Behr family compound, there was an old salting barge on the property. It was so large (80 feet long) and sturdy, Robbi’s dad thought the family might live in it, but a fierce winter storm damaged it badly and rendered it unlivable. Over the decades, the barge slowly broke apart, but many pieces of it remain. Tim thought some of the timbers might make excellent exposed beams for the new house, complete with the old nails (or is this an appropriate occasion for using the term “spikes” instead?) that still poked through the wood.
It took considerable hoisting.
And much shimmying and banging (both technical carpentry terms as well, apparently).
But eventually, the beams were in, and they looked amazing.
It was around this time that Tim had an idea. The original design had called for a small sleeping loft above the kitchen and bedroom. Tim proposed changing the pitch of the roof to allow for more headroom in the loft. This would mean more work for Tim, but ultimately, a better house.
We thanked Tim and gave him the thumbs up. Tim is the kind of guy who does things right.
We shifted from a six pitch to a seven pitch, for those of you in the know about such things. For those of you not in the know, I thought you might enjoy this photo of not quite parallel lines.
After placing the barge beams horizontally across the building, Tim added additional vertical beams that would hold up the roof.
While Tim and Denny framed the roof, we busied ourselves with such mundane and extraneous activities as salmon fishing.
And beach dancing.
I went back to the site a few hours later to find this.
As I have suggested already, Tim really and truly doesn’t mess around.
Suddenly the house looked like a house. I raced down the hill to get Robbi, thinking she would be pleased to see the progress.
I was not wrong.
We climbed into the sleeping loft and poked our head above the rafters. Instead of an unsatisfying, rickety shed, a beautiful, bona fide home was emerging.
We took a moment to celebrate Tim. But just a moment. He was already racing off to build more. If we had celebrated Tim as much as we had felt like celebrating him, our house would still not have a roof.
The next day it rained. Mother Nature had the gall to get our new floors wet. Would the dampness deter the builders, we wondered?
It did not deter my father John Swanson from getting medieval with the chop saw.
And it did not deter Tim and Stu from putting the sheeting on the roof.
Before Robbi calls me out for throwing around the term “sheeting” as if I were a veteran builder, which I am not, I will freely admit that I am throwing around the term “sheeting,” which is the way you say “plywood” when it is being used to cover walls or roofs and etc. I learned this from Tim, he who does not mess around.
As the sheeting went up, I walked inside and had the pleasing sense of being an enclosed space.
Meanwhile, August brooded.
Around this time, three of our college friends stopped by to stand cheerfully in front of the diver’s cabin for the sake of posterity. And to help us move many sheets of plywood (I mean “sheeting,” of course) in out of the rain. And to revel in the statistical unlikeliness that five people who graduated from the same small liberal arts college in Massachusetts would all spend their summers commercial salmon fishing in the same small corner of Alaska.
While construction proceeded apace, Alden Swanson reviewed the manuscript for my next novel. (Erin Stein would have been so proud.)
Which made me want to hug her as the sun set.
The next day, Tim completed the most brain-intensive part of the construction project, which was framing the “hip” where the two roof lines would meet on the far corner of the new house, a process that called for various beveled and mitered edges and such. I am glad that this part was Tim’s job and not mine. My job was staying quiet and far away from Tim while he did math, which is, apparently, a big part of creating effective buildings.
Perhaps the most gratifying moment of the summer was when Tim (Sawzall in hand) sawed out the window of the sleeping loft.
Or maybe it was when John Swanson, my father, taught Jasper how to play cribbage?
Or maybe it was when August, exhausted from brooding, swooned into a four-hour faceplant on the window seat.
Once the roof sheeting was on, Tim stapled tar paper over the roof sheeting so that the rain could no longer insult our floors with dampness.
At which point, it was time for yours truly to step in.
Those of you who have been following our exploits for a truly long time might remember the epic Fourth of July 2006, when I insulated the entirety of our barn in four days so hot and humid that my knees sweated. Ever since, I have carried an irrational love of insulating spaces I will some day inhabit.
I grabbed my hammer stapler and set to work covering every inch of the interior with soft, pillowy insulation.
My father, John Swanson, and I collaborated in this process. He cut the bats (“bats” is how we carpenter types refer to long strips of insulation) to the proper size.
And I stapled them securely into every nook and cranny. In the process, both of us became thoroughly covered in microscopic bits of glass fiber. Which might have been unpleasant, if not for the overall thrill of the enterprise.
At one point, somewhat weary from the thrill of the enterprise, I stepped outside and saw that Tim had begun the process of covering the tar paper with metal sheeting.
I stepped back inside and resumed my thrill-seeking ways. Eventually, the entire ceiling was insulated.
When I stepped back outside again, the sun was out, and the metal roof was nearly complete. If I have not previously mentioned it, messing around isn’t on the menu of things Tim even contemplates doing.
As we drove back down the hill that night for dinner, I glanced over at the house, which was looking ever more plausible by the moment.
Robbi had spent the afternoon filleting fish.
And so we had to drive them up the beach to the deep freeze at the fish processing plant.
Robbi drove. Alden and Jasper and I hopped into the back of the truck, and we headed out.
As we passed our fishing sites, we stopped to admire my hand-painted “Swanson” site marker sign (thank you, Stu!). Growing up in Kansas, I would never have believed that one day I would have a commercial fishing permit in Alaska.
As we drove up the beach, we hit a heavy midday fog, and the world grew strange and mysterious.
Jasper was not fazed.
Alden had a standoff with a formidable stack of pallets.
Which she won, of course.
While Robbi stored our fish at -10 degrees and I took a shower inside a corrugated steel container, Alden and Jasper contemplated life’s mysteries.
The next day, Kato and I headed down to the building site. He drove. There are no rules in Alaska.
On the way, we stopped at our fishing site to say hello to Robbi and Erica and admire their catch.
On the aforementioned U-shaped road that leads to the new compound, we found evidence of a visitor. A large visitor with a large foot.
Did we let this keep us from the task at hand?
We did not. In addition to installing installation, I am capable of applying paint. And so I did.
Meanwhile, my father John Swanson caulked the various windows and other trim.
For his part, Tim took a break. But, unlike other people whose breaks might resemble sipping lemonade or sitting idly in the shade, Tim used his down time to furiously transform a heap of scrap lumber into a smoker, complete with sliding vents for temperature control.
While Tim “rested,” we painted. The far side of the diver’s cabin was in particular need of attention, battered as it had been by five tundra winters.
The cabin stands on the bluff above the river, so the front of the house doubled a billboard announcing that the diver was there and saying how to get in touch with him—a white diagonal stripe (the universal “diver” symbol), and “VHF 10,” which is the channel boats were supposed to call when their propellors needed untangling.
We were torn about painting over the stripe and “VHF 10.” We liked how it looked and wanted to respect the history of the building, but we also didn’t want to confuse boats into thinking I’d be willing to put on a snorkel and meddle with their propellors. And we liked the idea of creating a fresh canvas on which to make our own mark in years to come. And so I opened a bucket of red paint and started a new chapter.
Slowly, surely, the walls turned Apache Red and the trim turned Souful Grey.
Breaking countless OSHA and child safety regulations along the way.
It is worth noting that Jasper refused to lift a finger, contributing nothing but criticism.
In spite of his infantile laziness, the rest of us pressed on. The weather was extremely cooperative, and we kept painting for three straight days.
Meanwhile, back at the main compound, Robbi cut salmon fillets into thin strips for smoking. After cutting and soaking the strips in brine, we hung them to be dried in the sun. This process of “glazing” creates a dry, hard outer layer that protects the fish from cooking (as opposed to slowly growing smokily delicious) during the smoking process.
We loaded the smoker onto a truck.
And brought it to the main Behr family compound, where we lit a fire and let the smoke do its work.
Magic happened. For three straight days, we filled Tim’s creation with alder smoke. The results were quite delicious.
While the fish smoked, the painting continued. Under normal circumstances, Robbi will not let me anywhere near the top of a ladder. But these were not normal circumstances. We were building a house in 16 days. Certain precautions had to be thrown to the proverbial tundra wind. Certain risks had to be embraced.
Inside the house, Tim and Denny were busy covering all my beautiful insulation with 1/4 inch sheets of plywood (otherwise known as sheeting).
As detrimental as this was to my legacy, the sleeping loft suddenly emerged as an actual space where actual people would actually sleep, with a window where actual people would gaze out at actual bears leaving actual paw prints in our actual driveway.
Not content to obscure only some of my insulation, Tim sent out to conquer every inch of the interior while standing heroically on stacks of sheeting.
Does this look to you like a man who messes around?
Outside, a bald eagle flew by.
Inside, Robbi swept out the sleeping loft, which Tim had made more accessible by building a sturdy ladder.
Once the sheeting was hung inside, the exposed beams suddenly emerged as the gorgeous pieces of history that they are.
Outside, my father, John Swanson, began the process of cleaning up the building site by artfully stacking hundreds of pieces of scrap lumber on the bed of one of the two abandoned and non-functional pickup trucks that grace our new “yard.” (Every “yard” along the beach is littered with abandoned pick up trucks; if your yard were to be abandoned-pickup-truck-free, you would surely be mocked.)
That night, we had sockeye salmon prepared in four different ways, because why not?
The next day Dad and I built special frames around the windows that would eventually hold the sheets of plywood we use to protect them in the winter. From bears. From high winds. And etc.
It started to rain, so Tim and Denny installed the front door.
And then they built a kitchen.
Because, why not?
Once the interior of the new building was complete, the final step was connecting it to the diver’s cabin. Tim removed the studs and insulation from the wall they now shared.
And then the sheeting. Suddenly our house seemed to double in size.
Meanwhile, Dad threw caution to the wind ad removed the chimney (we’re replacing the wood stove with a gas one).
And then he burned some trash (there’s nothing else to do with it in our corner of the world).
All was well in the world. The project was nearly done. All Tim had to do was hang sheeting on the walls of the diver’s cabin, and he’d be free to put away his tools and take the next day (our final day on the tundra) off. The next day, I should add, was his birthday. He had never previously worked on his birthday as a matter of principle and policy. Which was why he had budgeted his time accordingly. The end was in sight. Nothing could go wrong.
Until it was revealed that one of the walls of the diver’s cabin was completely rotten, the result of faulty flashing (another carpenter’s term that has to do with the material that prevents water from getting in around windows and such).
The studs were rotten and so was the exterior sheeting.
And so the wall was removed.
Tim was remarkably graceful about all this. Remarkably. Because he likes to do things right. Because he does not mess around.
To cut to the chase, Tim worked on his birthday, sheeting the new wall, finishing some trim, and cleaning up the site.
He showed up at the main Behr family compound at dinnertime only to find a surprise party waiting for him. The surprise party included a truly magnificent, Alden-Swanson-made hat.
It was a festive affair. Everyone got in on the celebration. Everyone but Jasper, who refused to wish Tim happy birthday, but who did consent to be labeled appropriately.
There were two cakes.
And hugs all around. If you ever meet Denny, don’t let him fool you. The man loves to make faces at babies.
After dinner, we went outside to get a group shot. Missing from this scene are Denny (who was taking his own photo at the time) and Gina, who was setting up our “official” Alaska 2017 group shot on her fancy real film camera.
Here is the “official” Alaska 2017 kids photo, taken with my non-real film camera. (That handsome fellow on the right is Robbi’s nephew, Raiden.)
That night after dinner, Robbi and I drove up the beach to have a first look at our new home in its fully finished state.
Gone were the tools and scraps of lumber. Every window was framed. Every seam was trimmed.
We gazed out the window and pinched ourselves. It was absolutely spectacular.
The sun was setting as we went outside.
I’m not the type who is prone to taking photos, but it seemed important to document the moment.
Thanks to 16 days of feverish work from a bunch of fiercely talented and dedicated people, our little house on the tundra was finished.
A blank canvas atop the bluff, waiting for us to move in.
The next morning, it was time to leave the tundra. On our way to the air strip, we stopped with all the kids to take their first official measurements on the ladder to the sleeping loft.
And to take this photo of our remarkable team. Thank you Denny and Tim, and thank you, Dad, for giving us your time and expertise, your sweat and your love. Thanks for your patience and creativity and insistence on doing things right. This house could never have happened without you. You’ll be part of every day we spend there, every memory we make moving forward.
Here was my final glimpse of the place as we drove up the beach to catch our bush plane. My one regret is that I have to wait eleven months to move in, to lie in my bed and hear the wind whistling up the bluff, to look out those windows and check on our nets.
I never like to wish away a moment of time, but as far as I’m concerned June 2018 can’t come fast enough.
About five years ago, Robbi decided that we were going to start a small press that would publish children’s picture books. After all, we made books. We had kids. Our kids liked books. We liked our kids.
The one small problem was that I’d never written children’s books before and didn’t really know if I could. So before we committed to starting Bobbledy, I set out to see if I’d be up to the challenge.
For 100 consecutive days, I wrote a children’s book manuscript. Or, at least, I tried. Some of my efforts quickly turned dark or bizarre. But a handful turned into books that we’ve gone on to publish: Bobby and the Robots (day 44), Archipelago (day 49), The Imaginary Dragon (day 54), and Henny Wampum Had a Really Big Head (day 61), and The Girl With Frogs In Her Ears (day 72) all grew from seeds planted in that 3+ months of flailing.
And then there was In Egypt, There Are Pyramids (day 64). I remember writing it while sitting at the table in our cabin in Alaska. It was the first sunny day in a week, and the world seemed very beautiful.
The original copy was a string of simple observations about the world:
In Egypt, there are pyramids. In Arizona there are canyons.
In your grandma’s house, there are doorknobs. On the playground is a swing with one chain too many on one side.
And so on.
The book didn’t have much of a point, but we liked how it sounded. In turning it into a Bobbledy title, we created a frame: a little boy would explore the world, taking in the large and small beautiful things that he saw wherever he went.
We kept the title as it had been when it tumbled out of my brain.
Robbi did some gorgeous illustrations:
We finished the book and were ready to send it out to all the kids in the Bobbledy Club. But before we sent it to the printer, we decided to share it with our agent Meredith. She liked it and decided to send it along to Erin Stein, our editor and publisher for Babies Ruin Everything.
Erin also liked the book. So much, in fact, that she asked if we might like to publish it with Macmillan instead.
To cut to the chase, we said yes.
We wondered if there was a catch. And there was. But it wasn’t really a “catch” at all. She already loved the idea and and the tone and the voice and the look of the illustrations, but she wanted to sharpen the focus and clarify the message. Which caused us to think hard and do a lot of work on the text. It also led us to scrap all but one of the illustrations I showed you above and to come up with a whole bunch of new ones.
Most important, it led us to make the book a whole lot better. That’s what editors do, and Erin is very good at her job.
Now that the book has been rewritten and re-illustrated and designed and proofed and is sitting at the printer waiting to be born, we can give you a glimpse of version 2.0.
The protagonist is still the same little boy.
But now he has a dog.
He still travels the world observing the very large beautiful things. But now there are a lot more critters on the savannah.
Halfway through the book there is a pivot. For the first stretch of pages, the boy has been “traveling” the world by reading books and imagining points distant. But then he looks out his window and sees that wonder and beauty is all around him. Pretty much everywhere he looks.
At the bottom of the swimming pool, for example.
This illustration was retained from our original version. I’m pretty sure my heart would have broken if it hadn’t.
The book still springs from a place deep inside of us. But now it has a new name.
We’re thrilled with this book. Its message and central imperative is one that both of us hold dear: to move through one’s day with open eyes, deliberately seeing the world, registering the beauty to be found everywhere.
We’ve recently found out that the publication date is February 7, 2017. Which means that, after waiting more than forty years to publish our first trade picture book, we only have to wait four months for the next one.
If you like the sound of the book, or just want to support us, Everywhere, Wonder is available for preorder now (FYI, preorders help a book a lot; many thanks if you’re able to add a copy to your library).
You can also like the book on its Facebook page.
We’ll be posting more photos and news in months to come, but we wanted to “officially” announce our new arrival. The due date of which, happens to be two days prior to the expected delivery of our other pending release.
The other day, at approximately the same moment, Robbi and I glanced over at the calendar, saw that it was 2016, and did a bit of math.
It turns out we have been in Chestertown for ten years now. Even though it seems like we got here five minutes ago.
After the shock subsided, Robbi and I launched into a reminiscence of that day, about eleven years ago, when we realized we were sad. We had what we were supposed to want: great jobs at a fancy design firm, a row house in trendy Baltimore neighborhood, an elegant blue dog named Iggy.
But we didn’t have time to make stuff together. And all we really wanted to was make stuff together.
And so we decided to make a change.
Plan A was grad school (MFA in fiction) for me. Robbi had gotten a lot out of her MFA. Maybe if I got one, too, we could go somewhere and teach together, and write and make art and that would make us happy. We were full of hope as I sent out my applications.
But the powers that be had other plans. Plan A was a bust.
And so we came up with Plan B: quit our jobs, sell our house, and move into the hayloft above Robbi’s mom’s pottery studio. Our parents did not think this was a good idea. They were probably right. We were chucking our jobs and our health insurance for the prospect of certain financial ruin.
But it didn’t matter. We knew we needed to try something different. And so we took a long, hard look at the hayloft in question. On one hand, it was unoccupied. On the other hand, it was full of 30 years of dusty stuff: lumber, broken pottery, cardboard boxes, various branches, old tires, ancient furniture, and other glorious debris Robbi’s dad (the ultimate pragmatist) couldn’t bring himself to throw away.
And yet we had a plan. And the will. And Robbi’s parents’ permission to proceed.
So we spent our weekends for the next six months clearing out junk, one van-load at a time. Eventually we could see the floors and walls. And so we hung some insulation and some sheetrock.
And made ourselves a brand-new home.
The heart of Plan B was to make books until we ran out of money. To make sure we’d actually do it instead of lying around watching TV, we set up a subscription service. People gave us money and we promised to make and send them 10 books in the year to come. We had no idea what we were doing. We had no idea how to make books or publish books or sell books. But we decided to do it anyway.
We gave our venture a name. It was a terrible name. It was our name.
Armed with our terrible name, we rolled up our sleeves and made some books.
(We made them on our dining room table.)
We sent them out into the world. We had no idea if they were any good. But we were having a good time.
Making books was the end of our plans. We had zero expectations or even hopes of anything beyond the making.
But things started happening.
Suddenly, we were standing in front of a (admittedly tiny) crowd who expected us to have something to say. (We had nothing to say.) We mumbled and fumbled and yammered, and afterward sold a few books and even signed our names. It was at that moment we discovered that beyond the pleasure of MAKING books is the pleasure of sharing them with people.
We got an opportunity to do more of the same a few months later when Carla Massoni of Chestertown’s own Massoni Gallery included us in a group show of young artists.
Our central piece was a narrative mural that rose up from one of our books and wound its way up one wall, across a ceiling, and back down the opposite wall. But we also showed some framed illustrations from our books and some of Robbi’s clay monoprints. The show put our work in front of a bunch of new people. It made us feel like actual artists. Also, we sold a lot of books. We doubled our subscribership. We met some amazing fellow artists.
One of them, a painter named J.T., asked to us paint a mural on the wall of a gallery in DC. We arrived on a Friday afternoon, brought sleeping bags, and painted and slept throughout the weekend, finishing in the wee hours Sunday morning. It was a panel from our book For the Love of God. It was extremely large.
We reached our goal of making ten books together that first year, but (as we had anticipated) we pretty much burned through our savings. It was time to contemplate a return to the “real” world.
But then, at just the right moment, I got a miracle of a phone call from my old boss Clifford, asking if I might like to come back to work half time, from home, as a writer.
I said yes. (I might have said “hell yes.”) Suddenly fortified with a predictable income, we kept on making books. Because we hadn’t yet run out of ideas.
Inspired by the fun we’d had with our first halting performance at Tom’s bookstore, we started refining our act and taking it on the road. As it turned out, we DID have something to say. We were living a story that people found interesting. And slowly we figured out how to tell it.
Part of telling our story was finding ways to meet other people who cared about the kind of work we were making. Our Idiots’Books titles are best described as “odd, commercially nonviable picture books for adults.” They are not comics, but we found an approximate relevance and kinship at a couple of small press and comic shows.
About nine months into our adventure, we applied for (and were miraculously granted a table at) the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Arts Festival in NYC. The first day, we charged way too much for our books and sold almost none of them. The second day, we made minor adjustments and fared much better. But the real takeaway from the show was that there was this army of other people who were also interested in combining pictures and words in unexpected ways. We were excited and energized.
Another part of telling our story has been sharing it with students who are, themselves, interested in being creators of some sort. In the winter of 2008, we returned to our alma mater for our first joint teaching gig, where we spent January leading six writers and six visual artists through a monthlong exploration of collaborative book making. They made astonishing stuff. Stuff that they probably would not have made if we hadn’t been there. Our mission evolved from just making books to figuring out ways to empower other creators to make books (or really any creative product), too.
Feeling bold (and somewhat lonely), we hosted a festival, Subscribers that Rock, and invited our talented creative friends to come do their thing. Thanks to Drew, Brian, Rich, other Brian, Victor, Aidan, and Jim for making the trek and dazzling Chestertown with two days of literature, music, stand-up comedy, and string theory.
Feeling even bolder, we decided to embrace responsibility and welcomed the first of our three (and soon to be four) children into the barn. Alden was extremely small. Every time I carried her to the changing table, I feared that I would break her. The good news: I did not break her.
Time passed. We changed a lot of diapers. We kept making books. We kept finding new ways to share them. We kept telling our story whenever and wherever people would listen.
People started asking us to do stuff. People who worked in the real world of books. An editor named Liz asked us create a series of DYI, single-sheet recombining narratives for the Tor.com website. We called them One-Page WondersI remember getting her email asking if we’d be interested in taking on the project. I remember running around whooping with Robbi, so thrilled were we with the opportunity.
Not long after, essayist named Kim, who we met at a literary conference, asked us to speak at a symposium celebrating the essay.
We gave a 12-minute talk with lots of illustrated slides. We were sharing the stage with a bunch of real-live writers who had published real-live books and won real-live awards and actually gotten their MFAs. But we made the audience laugh and even inspired a person or two (or so we were told).
After that, we really got the speaking bug. And so we were thrilled when an illustrator named Jaimie stopped by our table at the Small Press Expo and asked us to speak at the illustrious ICON7. ICON is a huge, international illustration conference where the biggest names in the field convene to share ideas and swap nicely drawn business cards. Based on our (utter lack of) contributions to date, we had NO BUSINESS speaking at ICON, but Jaimie was on the board, and there was an effort afoot to include “up and coming” creators alongside the titans and legends. And so we came and told our story. And made a bunch of new friends.
It was around that time that an editor named Dan (who we’d also met at SPX), decided to include us in the New York magazine Approval Matrix (placing us, to our delight, in the Brilliant and Lowbrow quadrant).
(Because who wants to be despicable and highbrow?)
It became our unofficial motto.
Doing our best to live up to our adopted quadrant, we kept making books. And sharing them with people.
The merry men of Bombadil, who we met one night after one of their gigs, visited our studio, checked out our stuff, and asked us to create the art for their next album. We felt like the people rock stars turned to for their album art. Because, suddenly, we were those people.
The same editor named Liz (she of the One Page Wonders fame) wrote us again and asked us to create chapter illustrations for the online release of Cory Doctorow’s book Makers. This was our biggest commission to date. It was a vast and audacious project to begin with, but we saw an envelope and wanted to push it. Liz indulged our idea to design the illustrations as 81 interchangeable “tiles” that recombine in more ways than there are atoms in the universe.
Our friend Joshua Wolf Shenk, who was then the director of the literary house at Washington College, commissioned us to create a mural on the ceiling and four walls of the Rose O’Neill Literary House at Washington College. Called Six Degrees of Frances Bacon, it was a huge web of literary greats (and Kevin Bacon), each connected with satirical phrases. It became the anchor for a profile about us in Baltimore Magazine.
On perhaps the most coincidentally important day of our lives in books (though we had no idea at the time) a guy named Jesse, who worked for Disney, bought one of our self-published mix-and-match books at a small press show in New York City. Instead of forgetting about it, some many months later, he shared it with an editor named Erin who worked at Little Brown, and who called us up and asked us if we might like to make a book with her.
No matter that it was a book about kid-friendly superheroes who aren’t allowed to do anything more untoward than glare at one another. This was our proverbial “big break.” I wish I had a video of the jumping and yelling we did that day.
Working within the narrow creative parameters of the Disney/Marvel universe, we rolled up our sleeves and made the best book about pacifist super heroes that we possibly could.
This book provided the occasion for a writer named Lela Moore at the New York Times to write a little piece about Robbi and me, Idiots’Books, and our first foray into commercial publishing.
And it gave us a chance to show our editor Erin that we were willing to work our butts off, that we always met our deadlines, and that we were fun to collaborate with.
About which, Pulitzer-prize winning book critic (and all-around stellar human being) Michael Dirda wrote a glowing review in the Washington Post.
In what is perhaps the peak moment of her past decade, Robbi had the opportunity to interview the legendary Robert Crumb, live, on stage, a block from our house. Apparently unaware of Crumb’s reputation as a difficult interview, Robbi did her research, came loaded for bear, and stood toe-to-toe with this legendary creator. While winning his heart in the process.
We kept making books, but without making it our explicit mission, we also started spending more and more time on stage talking about them. Through our appearance at ICON7, we met illustrators Melanie Reim and Anelle Miller, who gave us the ultimate honor of presenting the keynote address at the Society of Illustrators Educator’s Symposium.
One day at the AWP conference, we met a guy who, after leafing through our Idiots’Books offerings, suggested that if we were to offer a subscription-based book club for kids, he’d buy ten club memberships on the spot. We thought about that for a while (our initial thought was, “no way, that’s too much work”) and launched Bobbledy Books. (Our subsequent thought was “this is too much work, but we will find a way.”)
Bobbledy gave us the opportunity to ask our friends Drew Bunting and Brian Slattery, genius musicians and songwriters, to pour their heart and soul and musical wizardry into three incredible children’s albums.
And the chance to collaborate with composer, actor, singer, songwriter, puppeteer, and one-man-band Jordan Allan White on a fourth. (For anyone in the Atlanta area, Jordan’s musical puppet show Loggerhead Island is about to open at the Georgia Aquarium. It’s amazing. Check it out.
It was an extraordinary amount of work, and we’ll probably never do anything like it again, but it was an opportunity to push ourselves in yet another creative direction. (If you are keen to get your hands on one of these, we still have a few left.)
The election of 2012 came around. The cast of characters seemed too odd and problematic to resist the opportunity for satire. And so we created a three-panel mix-and-match book that allowed the reader to recombine the physical characteristics and position platforms of the ten most prominent candidates into 1,000 possible candidates. Our good friend Josh created a slick interactive version that you can still play today (if you are nostalgic for days when folks like Herman Caine and Rick Santorum were the leading edge of nutty.)
And then there was our letterpress adventure, a flurry of exploration of an entirely new medium in partnership with our friend and printer Jodi Bortz. We made cards and invitations and family trees and stationery. Even though Robbi and I are taking an indefinite vacation from the letterpress game, Jodi has created her own enterprise, Blue Canary Letterpress, which still offers many of Robbi’s designs in addition to plenty of Jodi’s own. Her shop is about a block from the barn, and you can swing by to see the Chandler in Price in action most days.
We must give thanks to Elise, who gave us a chance to take the stage at TedX. (If you decide to watch the video of our talk, take heart to know that my microphone issue gets sorted out about a minute in.)
And to Gabby Blair of Design Mom fame, who asked us to come speak at Alt Summit, and who recently paid us the ultimate compliment of featuring our picture book Babies Ruin Everything among her Four Picture Books You’ll Love column.
The blogger, innovator, and conference creator Laura Mayes saw our dog and pony show at Alt and asked us to come speak at Mom 2.0.
It was there that, wandering around the exhibitor halls one afternoon, we found our way onto the TODAY show set and accidentally discovered that we enjoy sitting together chatting on video.
And then there’s design director, Lisa Kelsey, who we also met us at ICON7 (see what a big deal THAT turned out to be, thank you Jaime Zollars!), and offered us the opportunity to be profiled in an issue of Family Circle magazine.
And let us stand up and shout from the rooftops about how much we love and trust and would be nowhere without our magnificent advisor/truth teller/literary agent Meredith, who has (so far) boldly sold five of our book projects to Macmillan.
And this seems like the perfect moment to (re)introduce our (very nice) editor and publisher Erin Stein (she of Super Hero Squad fame), who a few years ago started her own imprint at Macmillan and, in a dramatic flourish of believing in us, promptly acquired five of our book projects.
Erin gave us the thrill of publishing our first hardcover children’s book this past July.
Erin gave us the thrill of making and anticipating the arrival of our second hardcover picture book Everywhere, Wonder this coming February.
And she has given us the truly mind-boggling thrill of working on and publishing our first illustrated novels, a middle grades series called The Real McCoys, the creation of which is currently occupying the lion’s share of our waking moments (and plenty of our non-waking ones, as well), and which will arrive on bookshelves sometime next fall. Here are the main characters, Milton and Moxie.
Beyond the books and gourmet donuts (Erin really knows how to host a production meeting), Erin won our hearts during our first official visit to the Macmillan offices in the Flatiron building (yes, the Flatiron Building that we always stop to gaze up upon and take pictures of ourselves in front of and wonder what’s happening inside of) by taking us on a private tour of the 18th-floor balcony and letting us know we have a second home in New York.
What started out as a desire to not be sad has turned into an decade-long avalanche of creative opportunity. The range of things we’ve had the chance to make and do and experience over the past ten years defies belief, let alone my ability document them all.
In an attempt to remember, I just looked up at the shelf of stuff we’ve made. 70 books and counting. Four children’s albums. A handful posters and broadsides. A line of t-shirts and onesies. Various cards and postcards and invites and business cards and logos and websites and original art.
A bunch of nice write ups in various newspapers and magazines.
Dozens of talks and workshops and class visits and critique sessions on colleges, schools, conferences, and libraries across the country.
It’s impossible to hold in our heads at one time. And so we wrote it down here. To remind ourselves that it happened. To remind ourselves that it’s only the beginning.
A million thanks to the people mentioned throughout this post, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. Without the rest of you, we probably wouldn’t have made it past the first few projects. Our creative lives have been possible because of the army of other people who supported our adventures these past ten years by:
- subscribing to Idiot’sBooks or Bobbledy Books
- buying our books at shows and online
- hiring us to do do custom books and illustrations
- reading our blog
- watching our children
- making us dinner
- helping us stuff envelopes
- sending us care packages
- giving us hand-me-downs
- putting up with our nonsense
- helping us fish in Alaska
- simply showing up and living this story with us
Thank you, thank you, to all of these people.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably one of them.
The plan was to do our first Facebook Live streaming nonsense session at 8:00pm on Thursday, September 18. Only, we had no idea how the technology worked or how it would look or where we should sit and whether or not it would be a total disaster. So at 1:53pm that afternoon, we logged into Facebook and started a live stream. Just to see what it looked like. We planned to stay live for about 12 seconds.
But when we went live, people were there. Saying hello, making comments, making tiny hearts fly across our screen. It was enchanting. And irresistible. And so we stayed live for 5 minutes, 22 seconds, enjoying every bit of it.
Here’s what happened:
And then, at 8:00pm, we logged in again, this time with (somewhat) more of a plan.
Again we had great heaps of fun.
And so we’ve decided to keep going. Whenever possible, we’ll be streaming live at 8:00pm EST Thursday evenings on from my Facebook page (even if you’re not officially my “friend,” it’s open to the public).
For any of you who is more of a You Tube person than a Facebook user, we’ve just started a Robbi and Matthew channel that will host our live and all other R&M videos. You can subscribe and get the weekly videos as they are uploaded.
It’s been a while now, so the details are hazy and I feel more emboldened than I otherwise would to add a bunch of extra adjectives.
As we do every summer, we packed coolers full of vegetables, drove to the airport, and took our questionable talents to Alaska.
Were we excited? We were excited. At least four of us were excited. Augie was merely confused.
Our compound is on a distant stretch of tundra far beyond the reach of roads or convenience stores. It is very hard to get there. And it takes a very long time. Getting there involves an overnight in Seattle. And so we bring a tiny tent and set up camp. August (still confused?) refused to sleep in the tent. Robbi refused to sleep at all.
One of the yearly rituals on our way to Alaska is stopping to pose with the largest grizzly bear ever to be shot and stuffed and posed in a threatening posture. It is a macabre ritual, and yet we cannot get enough of it.
This year we initiated a new ritual of posing with a brown bear and yak. I can hardly wait for the opportunity to look back on this moment with nostalgia a year from now.
I tend also to take photos of the lovely whitecapped mountains as we fly by. Here they are. We did not stop to climb them.
The part of Alaska where we live is not majestic in the white-capped scheme of things. It is majestic in the “sweeping open beauty of Siberia” scheme of things.
Our third flight brought us to King Salmon, jumping off place for various fishing ventures.
Alden, finally somewhat useful, hauled the coolers outside.
Augie, no longer confused, guarded them carefully while we waited to be picked up by our bush pilot.
We crawled into a tiny plane and took to the sky.
We flew low above the tunrda. At one point, we saw a caribou standing in the middle of a shallow lake. Apparently, on buggy days, they stand there all day long to avoid being bitten and pestered. I plan to remember this strategy for the next time I am stranded in the middle of the tundra.
Alden (useful, but not a trained bush pilot), terrified us all by steering for a while.
When we finally landed on the narrow gravel airstrip near our compound, there was general excitement. Cousin Raiden had been waiting for weeks for our arrival (apparently choreographing a dance routine while waiting).
Alden learned how to drive the 4-wheeler at the end of last season and seemed not to have missed a beat. She jumped right on and drove Auntie Maiko from the airport to our compound.
Our compound sits on a bluff above an inlet that leads from Bristol Bay to the rivers where the salmon go to spawn. The kids are big enough to roam and venture now.
They are old enough now to scramble on the heaps of scrap metal placed at the high water mark in a hopeful attempt to keep the tides from eating away at the bluff.
They are not old enough to ride the four wheelers by themselves. Especially Augie. But apparently he was confused when this picture was taken.
One of my favorite things about being in Alaska is running along the beach. Each year, the fate of this house becomes a little less encouraging.
Here is our house, nestled in a grassy clearing that is surrounded by Alders.
From the house, we have a commanding view of the tumultuous sky.
The children are not old enough to fish. And so they do speculative portraiture.
And build penguins out of Duplos.
And run outside every morning in search of grizzly bear tracks.
For years and years, the Alaska drill has been the same. Show up. Fish. Eat. Sleep. Fish. Eat. Fish. Sleep. Eat. Fish. Eat. Sleep. And so on.
This year, we had a bit of excitement. This year, we made a big decision. The big decision had to do with the hole in the side of this outhouse. Sort of.
I’ll get to the big decision later. For now, let’s focus on the hole. No one wants to use an outhouse with a hole in the side.
Something had to be done about it. And so…
And so we gathered pebbles from the beach.
Why? You will find out soon enough. For now just on the pebbles. We gathered them.
And I dug this hole? What does this hole have to do with the hole in the side of the outhouse? Almost nothing. But isn’t it magnificent?
Back to the outhouse. In order to get rid of the hole, we had to make it bigger. Counterintuitive? Maybe. But there you go.
To fix the newer, bigger hole, I had to use a saw, which does not come naturally to a writer like me.
Robbi had to use a hammer. Robbi, being a champion, handles a hammer as deftly as she does a quill pen.
We sawed. We hammered. We conquered that hole.
Was our work done. It was not. And why? Because the hole was not the only problem with the outhouse. The problem was a lack of a hole. Beneath the outhouse. The outhouse was on flat ground. Which will not do.
And so, we dug around in the high grasses until we found an empty oil drum.
And then I used a hammer and chisel to make a hole. Everyone knows writers are excellent with hammer and chisel.
To dig a hole beneath an outhouse, the outhouse must be placed on its side.
And then the hole can be dug.
And then the barrel can be placed. (The barrel is a hole-preservation strategy, there to keep the walls from caving in.
And then the gravel can be liberally scattered around the hole (to keep the tundra from encroaching on the outhouse).
But why were we fixing the hole in the side of the outhouse and digging a hole underneath it? Because Robbi and I have decided to move our operation a few miles up the beach next year and take up residence in a piece of property that Robbi has owned for some time but that we have been renting out for the past ten years or so. There is a cabin on the property, which will be our future home. Here it is. When we actually live on it, we will remove the plywood from the windows.
As for that previously mentioned, entirely magnificent, but until now unexplained hole?
It’s now home to a tall post atop which a wind generator will eventually be mounted. A writer on the tundra needs a way to charge his laptop, after all.
Like the current Behr family compound, our new cabin sits atop the bluff. The nice thing about this new location is that it looks directly down at our fishing sites, which will make the 3:00am fishing openings a lot more pleasant. It will make the 3:00pm openings a lot more pleasant, too.
We spent much of this season getting ready for next.
In particular, gathering lumber (we plan to build a bigger cabin at some point).
But we still had plenty of time for the other things that one does in Alaska. Playing on the beach.
Learning to drive.
Acting like lunatics.
Making rhubarb pies.
Attending 4th of July potlucks with good, old friends and one crazy chicken.
Filleting lots of fish.
Ferrying the lots of fish to the filleting table to be filleted.
Vacuum packing the fillets for the journey home.
Putting the packed fillets in the flash freezer for maximum freshness upon eventual thawing.
Enjoying the great big open wide sky.
Authoring books on scraps of plywood.
Shelving them in the tundra library.
Checking them out of the tundra library and admiring them intently.
Riding on the beach at sunset, which happens to be just after midnight.
Riding the four-wheeler to the top of the tallest hill and looking out over the water.
Taking the photo for the holiday card we likely will not send.
Noticing the wild surprising beauty of the sky.
The boys and I left about a week before the rest of the crew did. We were sort of in the way. And so we packed up and headed off. But not before snapping a photo of the three Behrs, who have fished together for a collective 116 summers.
This time, Augie was my wingman in the back.
This time, Kato played copilot.
As we took off from the airstrip and flew over our fishing sites, to dip our wing at Robbi and the others.
Three minutes later, Kato was asleep. Flying home from Alaska is exhausting.
We’re home again now, but I can’t shake the memory of those sunsets.
Or the vision of those endless snowy mountains.
I am dreaming already of another summer on the tundra and a new adventure unfolding as we set up shop in our brand new (very old) home. I have always been a great big fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder. And now I get a chance to live my prairie homestead dream. Spend a summer fishing and living in a tiny plywood shack with no hot water, a hot plate, three children, and an infant?
Laura would be proud, I think.
A few months ago, Robbi and I were at the Mom2 summit in Laguna Beach to give a talk on creative entrepreneurship. Wandering around the exhibitor halls one afternoon, we stumbled upon an impromptu Today Show set and recorded a short segment about books, babies, and living in a barn.
Here it is:
Long story short: We had fun. And not a few of you told us that 1) you enjoyed it, 2) you hoped we’d find some way to try it again.
Perhaps you were only humoring us, but after much pondering, we have decided to take you at your word.
And so, this coming Thursday evening (August 18) at 8:00pm, we will be “appearing” in your very own computer or mobile device via Facebook Live streaming video.
In other words, we will be sitting on stools in our studio, recording ourselves with our iPad, delivering nonsense, making fun of one another, and answering your questions.
Will this make for a pleasant experience? We have no idea. Are we offering insight? Certainly not. Might this be the one and only time we do this? Quite possibly.
But if we have fun and if enough of you people seem to like it, we may do it again. And again.
If you are able to join us, great. Log onto Facebook at 8:00pm on Thursday, pull up my page, and be prepared to cringe and heckle. If you’re not able to join us, but have a burning question (however impertinent), please leave it in the comments below, and we will do our best to answer it on Thursday. As far as we can tell, Facebook Live videos are available for watching after the fact.
That’s all. Please join us if you dare.