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.
BOOK US TO SPEAK, PUT ON A WORKSHOP OR DO A SHORT TERM RESIDENCY AT YOUR CONFERENCE, COLLEGE, COMPANY OR KINDERGARTEN
Hello all! We have been busy, and remiss, and harried, and therefore not keeping you up-to-date on ye-olde-blogge. Apologies.
Since the beginning of the year, we’ve had maybe three consecutive days that haven’t been unravelled by bad weather, school closings, sickness, travel or our increasingly incontinent dog. More on that later. But I’ve been told more than once that my blog post entries tend to meander, so I’m going to get right to the point (two paragraphs in).
The BIG news is that we have started a fundraiser in the hopes of being able to buy a book for each of the students at our local Title 1 Elementary School, Garnet Elementary. We’d like to give a copy of Everywhere, Wonder to each of the 192 Pre-K through 2nd grade kids, and one of The Real McCoys to each of the 164 third through fifth grade kids.
If that’s all you need to know, CLICK HERE to go to the fundraising page!
If you are the more cautious sort, who likes a side of storytelling along with your plate of generosity, here’s the deal. Garnet Elementary is the local elementary school where I went as a kid. How strange and wonderful to be walking my kids to classrooms that once were mine, seeing the same bulletin boards with new, different works of art on them, getting to stride right into the teachers’ lounge to drop off paperwork to a crop of teachers who seem young instead of old, to remember old friends as first, second and third graders and then to see them dropping their kids off there too. It is a special sort of gift to be able to live where you grew up.
Garnet has a high population of students qualifying for free or reduced lunches (around 60%), which is what qualifies it as a Title 1 school. Along with poverty come complicated home situations and social and emotional difficulties. And yet these kids are great kids. I love walking the halls and seeing their smiles in the mornings, laughing, giggling, persisting.
Our current funding situation county-wide is dire; positions have been cut and teachers are stretched thin. Garnet has worked hard to maintain extra programming and to keep options available for extra-curricular events, but Matthew and I want to be able to put together something for everyone that won’t add any cost burden to the school.
We plan to spend the day at Garnet doing two assemblies to talk about writing, illustrating, books, collaboration and living a creative life, followed by classroom visits to give these kids nice, new, hardcover copies of our books. All of the $3,550 we hope to raise will pay for the books, and we will donate our time.
If you have $10 to spare, it would buy a book for one of our deserving Garnet kids. Even just $5 will help us reach our goal and would be so much appreciated.
And, thank you!
Alright, now that we’re done with that, here’s what else you’ve missed:
We received the Advanced Readers’ Editions of Book 2 of The Real McCoys!
Jasper turned one!
Alden starred as the Little Prince in The Little Prince!
Iggy peed on her bed so many times we had to throw it away!
But that’s okay, we bought her a new pee-proof one!
Jasper, recognizing that it’s going to be his bed once he graduates from the pack-and-play in the living room, refuses to let Iggy lie on it! No pee on this bed, homeslice!
Kato and Augie make their own comics! Jasper hates comics!
And that, my friends, is the latest!
Thanks for reading all the way down to the bottom here. You deserve some sort of special treat.
Oh, well here’s a sneak peak at the characters that will be in Book 3! Yes, I forgot to tell you, we sold Book 3 of The Real McCoys! I know that’s not so much a treat for YOU as it is a treat for US, but we’ll take it.
We started doing One Quick Question and were having so much fun with it that we decided to add The Daily Minute, which is basically approximately 60 seconds (the “Minute” part of the The Daily Minute) and is recorded every day (the “Daily” part of The Daily Minute) and is also 100% nonsense (we opted against naming it “The Daily Minute of Nonsense”).
Here is our big debut, in which we applaud Robbi for being awesome and reveal that Matthew isn’t wearing any pants:
And this one, in which we confuse July and January, tell you about our big night on the town (of Alexandria), and share with you a binder that contains no actual women:
If you would like to keep up with The Daily Minute and One Quick Question, we now have a YouTube channel you can subscribe to!
Just CLICK HERE and click on the SUBSCRIBE button in the upper right corner.
(there’s other stuff on there too, in case you’ve missed out on all our video-related nonsense)
In this one, we try to hold pens under our noses to distract us from the distressing gravity of the subject matter.
Who likes failure?
What did you say? I’m trying to hold this pen under my nose!
Creative Confessional (The Schemes and Projects That Didn’t Work)
Our very first episode of One Quick Question! Watch and learn! Or don’t learn. We pretty much have no idea what we’re doing.
Collaborating with Your Spouse (Without Resorting to Murder)
Well, here we go again. Another something-or-other that sounds like fun and so we’re going to try to do it.
A little background: we have very much enjoyed doing our FB Livecasts, but have felt the nagging sense that we have more to offer than tips on How to Badly Bake Cobbler and What Not to Guess When Matthew is Drawing Even If It Looks Just Like Who You Think It Is (Christopher Walken). We wanted it to fall under the following constraints:
1. We wanted it to be video.
2. We didn’t want to have to do any editing.
3. We wanted it to be short enough that it wasn’t a big commitment.
4. We wanted to share some of our vast moonscape of knowledge.
5. We did not want the moonscape to make us seem too boring.
So here’s what we came up with:
A ten-minute video in which we answer a question from you guys while also attempting some sort of ridiculous feat.
Let it be known that at various times in our planning conversation (about an hour of back-and-forth across the studio) it was going to be called Ten Minutes in Heaven with Robbi and Matthew, Ten Minutes in the Closet with Robbi and Matthew, and then just Ten Minutes with Robbi and Matthew. We gave it a tagline, “Collaboration. Creativity. Catastrophe.” and considered it done.
Matthew even drew up some logo sketches for me (part of the gimmick is that we’ll have a ten-minute timer so there will be no going overtime, and thus the natural hourglass/stopwatch motif):
I was feeling that the whole stopwatch thing was a little too on the nose, and started looking at logos that included stopwatches. They were all super lame.
Ten Minutes with Teddy & Tina, who are a wholesome, loving couple who talk about the following:
We didn’t want it to appear that we were stealing their idea and then corrupting it in the way that we do whenever we steal other people’s ideas, so the whole Ten Minutes concept went out the window. I think Teddy & Tina will be very glad not to be associated with our shenanigans.
Back to square one. We started tossing around the idea of what might invoke “a short time”. Matthew suggested “sojourn” and “idyll” and I must say my eyes rolled so hard into the back of my head I wasn’t sure I was ever going to get right again.
Matthew cleverly came up with “quickie” (surprise) and we thought “Creative Quickie” might be good, except for maybe the fact that we’re trying to appeal to librarians and such, and while I’m not going say that librarians don’t like quickies, I’d venture to guess that it’s not the sort of thing they want to share within their librarian networks.
So it turns out we aren’t nearly as creative as we thought.
But we also wanted to capture the hijinx of trying to do the ridiculous feat. This part of the idea came from our very first idea, which was “Robbi and Matthew Eat Potatoes” in which we would eat potatoes every episode, an idea we never took seriously but made us laugh. We looked up a bunch of synonyms and somehow came across “nudniks,” which I thought effectively captured the ridiculousness, and I thought “Creative Nudniks” might be funny (I thought it was way funnier yesterday than I do right now). But we’d already coined ourselves “idiots” back in the day and figured maybe that time has passed.
Then we decided the tagline should cover the nudnik part of things, so it was back to the main title. And really, the point of the whole thing was that we would be trying to answer one single question in a ten-minute time period. The hijinx shouldn’t be the point.
And then it came to us – Quick Question! Great alliteration! Captures exactly what we’re trying to do! Perfect! A quick google search came up empty, but while I was searching I started to fall out of love with it because it started sounding like the name of a corny local cable access show. Matthew suggested adding the ONE and somehow it seemed more descriptive and less like a catchphrase. We tried to plumb the depths of why that was but basically couldn’t find a compelling answer. Since we only need to pitch this idea to ourselves, we said, “Screw it! We’re done!”
The design went through many iterations, but thankfully none of them involved a stopwatch or hourglass. I realized a lightning bolt said it the best. And so:
Dang that lightning bolt doesn’t read like an “I” with the serif font. Also, those Qs are awfully loopy.
Better, but the lightning bolt still doesn’t read. Plus, what about our names?
Ok, but that handwritten font is not quite it. Plus, we left out the hijinx! Annoyingly, another layer of text to include.
Getting there, but boy does it look grim. Some color?
Whatever the answer is, the answer is not yellow. Or pink.
Oh righhhht, the Robbi & Matthew color scheme is black and orange. I forgot.
And the exclamation points made it much more hijinx-y, even though Matthew usually hates exclamation points. And changing the bottom bit from bar to banner also made it seem a little more fun.
And there you have it.
We will record later this week, post early next week, and talk about it on the livecast on Wednesdays. If you have any questions you’d like us to answer (or 10-minute hijinx suggestions), put them in the comments below!
If you haven’t been keeping up (who has?), we have published a book called The Real McCoys. It’s a great book, a book we like, blah blah blah, I feel like we’ve mentioned it here A. COUPLE. TIMES. BEFORE. But that’s just background intel for this post. If your curiosity is piqued, go on, go ahead and buy the book, but this post (this post!) is about Annabelle Adams, Girl Detective – Moxie’s favorite supersleuthing hero, who at least deserves her own blog entry!
Annabelle Adams is a butt-kicking, feisty, smart and indomitable 12-year-old who gets conscripted to save the world from the ruinous machinations of Dr. Fungo, the short, googly-eyed madman, who, not to take the bad guy’s side, is kind of a creative genius.
She’s recruited by the mysterious Em:
the inventive Floyd:
and the ninja-like ninja (named Ninja):
Great hijinx ensue and many cats run wild, are tamed, and run wild again.
The whole thing is kind of like if they took James Bond and went farther in the direction of “gondola hovercraft zipping through the streets of Venice” instead of “more and more sad faces with Daniel Craig”.
And here’s the good news:
The good news is, we are releasing Annabelle Adams chapter by chapter over on the Real McCoys blog. Every two weeks you’ll get a new installment. We totally forgot to update you over here, so lucky for you, you don’t have to wait for Chapters 1-5, which are currently up at THIS LINK.
Go read, enjoy, and like the Real McCoys facebook page if you’d like to keep up-to-date on chapter releases. If you don’t enjoy it, that’s okay too. Daniel Craig needs his fanbase too.
Not long ago, I received an email from a young woman (the daughter of a high school friend), asking me for insight on the writing process. It was fun (and instructive) to take a few minutes to reflect on what it takes to do what I do.
I figured that, since I took the time to gather these thoughts, I might as well share them with other young (or not so young) writers who might be out there wondering how to get started.
Without further ado, here is my exchange with Margo:
Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr,
I am doing a research project about Marco Polo at school. For our projects, we are supposed to reach out to an adult in the same professional field as our notable. Marco Polo was also an author, so I found you to be great candidates. The assignment is to ask you about what “soft skills” your job requires. Soft skills are attributes needed to be successful in your career. These skills are more aimed towards things that make a good leader, like participation or focus, not handwriting or geometry. What skills do writers need for every day work?
Thanks you for your help.
Margo T., 6th grade
persistence (and patience) – Writing is something that you learn how to do little by little, over an extremely long period of time. Although you can certainly improve by taking writing classes or read books about writing, the best way to get better as a writer is to write. And write and write and write. Everyone starts out as a terrible writer (just think what awful writers babies are), but anyone who sticks with it gets better. And those who stick with it through frustration and failure are the ones who get a lot better. Robbi and I are always saying how glad we are that we chose professions that we can keep doing and continuing to get better at throughout our entire lives. If we were professional basketball players, we would already be retired because our knees would no longer work properly. Instead, if feels as if we’re just getting started. The bottom line here is that learning to write well takes a really long time. But the more you write, the faster the learning process will be. Without patience and persistence, it’s pretty much impossible to be a great writer. Because it’s one of those things that just doesn’t happen without a lot of hard work.
observation – Whether your story is about the Roman Empire or a family of green bunnies, it won’t be interesting unless it’s actually about real things that happen to actual people. Their hopes and fears and struggles and joys. And the only way to write things that people will care about reading is to pay close attention to what people actually say and do, how they feel and react in a given situation. So much of what happens to people happens below the surface and is only visible in barely perceptible ways. So you have to look and listen carefully to figure out how people work. Which is to say, writers must be good observers and good listeners.
empathy – Beyond figuring out how people work by studying them closely, writers have to do a little extra magic, taking that knowledge and understanding and using it to see and live the world through their characters’ eyes. Empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” If you can’t, at some level, identify with your characters, it’s hard to tell their stories in interesting and authentic ways. Which means that you have to crawl inside the hearts of your villains as well as those of your heroes. You have to open yourself up to a broad range of human experience. You have to be willing to acknowledge the complexity inside yourself. Which many people are not willing to do.
curiosity – The thing that makes one willing do be persistent and observant is an innate curiosity about the world and how it works. You have to be really interested in people and what they think and what they do and WHY they think what they think and do what they do or you probably won’t do the hard work it takes to learn how to write about these things in believable, compelling ways. One of the best ways to sate your curiosity is to read. Not only will you be exposed to people and situations and ideas and happenings that you couldn’t possibly experience in person, but you will learn how great writers perform their craft. Want to be a writer? Read and read and read. Write and write and write.
willingness to accept criticism – I wish there were a single word for this, but if there is, I can’t think of it. The bottom line is, writers don’t work alone. They collaborate with editors (professional or otherwise) to take their ideas and drafts and make them better. No writer EVER sat down and wrote something perfect in one try. That is not how it works. Writers write something, and it is riddled with mistakes (not just spelling and grammatical errors but other kinds of problems, whether with the story or the logic or the characters). Editors read the draft and give feedback, pointing out places where the story isn’t working or where the dialogue is not believable or where the writer has missed an opportunity to add emotional depth to a given exchange. The process of revision proceeds as a conversation between the writer and the editor and it often takes just as much work and time (if not more work and time) than creating the first draft did. Writers have to be willing to accept that they cannot create the best version of their book or blog post or magazine article on their own. And the better they are at listening to constructive criticism without taking it personally, the better their final work will be. I think of my editor as a true partner in the process of writing my books. She always makes them so much better than they would have been had I been working on my own.
And there you have it. Some soft skills I rely upon each day in my life as a writer. Please let me know if you would like me to think of others. And thanks again for giving me this opportunity to reflect on what I do.
I wish you the best of luck with your project. Please let me know how it goes.
One of the best surprises on our trip to the desert was our stop at Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch about a half hour outside of Barstow.
As we pulled up to park along the side of the highway it didn’t look very big, but it seemed to magically grow the minute we stepped in among the welded “trees” – noticing how each was constructed from all sorts of scavenged items, from hand-crank sewing machines to pitchforks to surfboards to hubcaps to traffic lights to toilets and on and on. We spent a good deal of time there and probably didn’t see half the treasures inside.
Augie discovered a horn of some sort (that obviously needed tooting).
I’m not sure what this one actually was in its former life (a bed? an industrial deep fat fryer? an electric fence?) but I love the turquoise bottles and the “White Gas” hand-painted on the stand.
If anyone can identify what these rake things are, I’ll give you a prize (some kind of farm implement, I’m guessing?). Bonus points if you can identify the animals from which the dangling bones came.
But my favorite little detail was this “Trick Dog” who somehow caught or tossed coins into a little bank.
After oohing and ahhing for a good long while, we noticed a smallish bearded fellow emerge from the garage-like structure in the back. It was Elmer himself!
He told us how he and his father had started collecting old antique junk they had found while on a camping trip they took in the desert when he was six. They’d return to the desert year after year and look for old dump sites from abandoned mining towns. Pretty soon his dad’s house was full of these treasures and so he took them and began building the bottle trees and incorporating their finds.
As an illustrator, I’ve always admired folks who work from a blank canvas – illustrators usually have something to illustrate, a text, an idea, etc. And, generally speaking, we are making art commercially – to sell. It was so clear that the bottle ranch is a labor of love – scratching a creative itch for the pleasure of just making something beautiful. How humbling to be surrounded by such a profound love of the beauty in forgotten things.
What a magical moment of wonder.
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.