Modern Life: Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr
Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr on the joys and challenges of raising kids while working from home.
What do you get when you mix a writer, an illustrator, three kids, a dog and an old refurbished barn? The loving jumble that Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr created when they decided to quit their office jobs, work from home and start a family. The duo’s design studio produces books, stationery and other paper-based miscellany, all infused with their playful and creative spirit. To add to the fun, the Swanson-Behrs’ annual summer gig consists of running a commercial salmon-fishing business with Robbi’s siblings in Alaska, where apparently there are mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds. Meet the family.
Describe your family in three words?
Loving, compact, pentagonal.
How did you two meet?
We first met in college, but both were dating other people and had different sets of friends. A few years after graduation, I was taking a run and, for whatever reason, veered from my usual route and ran into Robbi, who was in town for a few hours. We exchanged email addresses and corresponded several times daily for a year. In the process, we came to understand that we were one another’s best friend. So eventually, we decided to actually stand in the same room and see what might happen. Two weeks later I was meeting her parents.
What surprises you most about parenthood?
The mad chemistry experiment of it all—the ways the kids are just like us and not at all like us and just like one another and not like one another at all. Fortunately, they seem to have gotten Robbi’s looks. Unfortunately, they seem to have gotten my love of Taylor Swift.
As for the parenting itself, it’s all been surprisingly intuitive. We both were lucky to have great parents of our own, so we’re just following the scripts we were handed.
What do you love most about Alden, Kato and August?
Alden is eager and fearless. She swings from the rafters of our barn/home/studio and does flying half twists onto the furniture. She knows no guile and never met a person she couldn’t befriend.
Kato is careful and watches from the wings before making his move. His laugh can convert a room of skeptics. He’s the shortest kid in his class by about 4 inches. He’s smarter than the rest of us combined.
August’s heart is clear and true and barely fits inside his chest. He trades in hugs and smiles. He loves puzzles and bananas and Mickey Mouse. He mispronounces everything.
When was the last time you had office jobs?
We last worked in an office in 2006, when we quit our respectable jobs at a high-end design firm, sold our trendy row home, forsook our low-deductible health insurance and hauled our brand-new Ikea couch across the Chesapeake Bay to the unfinished hayloft of the old barn where Robbi’s mom had her pottery studio. We hung some drywall and finished the floors and made ourselves an airy bohemian crash pad—a one-room loft with no kitchen or air-conditioning. The plan was to make books for a year until we ran out of money and grudgingly returned to the real world. That was eight years ago, and we’ve never looked back.
Since coming to the barn, we’ve published more than 60 illustrated picture books for children and adults, including one with the incomparable Chronicle Books. Our debut trade children’s picture book, Babies Ruin Everything, will be published by Macmillan next year.
Describe the agony and ecstasy of working from home.
Agony: Sleeping in your “office,” never being off the clock, being within 20 paces of your “boss” 24/7.
Ecstasy: Thirteen-step bed-to-desk commute, “business attire” consisting of flannel pants and quilted down slippers, liberty to stage five-minute dance parties at 10:37 a.m.
What is it like working together all the time?
We love each other and all, but honestly, our favorite thing to do together is make stuff—usually books, but sometimes posters, murals, card sets, salad or children.
My writing style (spare, fragmented, rich in voice, light on detail) is the perfect complement for Robbi’s illustrations (conceptual, editorial, visceral), which provide the missing narrative elements. The fusion and flow that results when we start to swap ideas is our purest form of bliss. We are lucky to share an aesthetic and a vision for the type of art we want to make. We are lucky to be good critics of one another’s medium. We are fortunate to trust one another enough to hear and respond to one another’s toughest feedback.
What does your family like to do for fun?
Ride bikes, feed ducks, climb ropes, perch precariously atop a climbing structure meant for cats, play games, do puzzles, read books, draw pictures, make stuff, watch movies, camp, hike, eat, sing, dance, shout, throw rocks in various bodies of water from the Maryland shore to the Alaskan tundra.
What is dinnertime like at your house?
The best-case scenario involves an elaborate conversation about the merits of eating vegetables and a rousing game of I Spy. But, most nights, dinnertime is a fluid affair—with one of us stepping away from the table for a moment to check on the printer or respond to an urgent email.
As much as we’d like to be a sit-down-together-at-the-dinner-table kind of family, we will often glance wearily up from our pasta to notice that one or more children has taken an impromptu sabbatical to swing on one of the ropes hanging from the ceiling or do somersaults on the couch.
We’re not Jewish, but every Friday evening, we have a Shabbat-inspired family dinner, in preparation for which we turn off our phones, light a candle and then hold hands and sing “Jingle Bells” before sitting down for civilized togetherness. We keep on trying to expand the repertoire, but “Jingle Bells” seems to be a hard-and-fast, year-round favorite.
Are the children artistic? Do they like to draw and write with you guys?
Alden is a determined and imaginative creator, her efforts ranging from illustrated books to piggy banks made from construction paper. Her career plans range from “illustrator” to “architect” to “that guy who plays harmonica on the street corner for money.” Kato, who likes to solve puzzles and always searches for the right answer, doesn’t draw much because he doesn’t like to get it “wrong.” We’ve tried hard to help all of them appreciate that art is the one place where “wrong” does not apply—and that accident can be just another form of genius—but we've noticed certain ways in which the kids are hardwired to their own approach. August produces forgettable drawings that might be truly awful or may just be ahead of their time.
How is your work influenced by your kids?
On a book-by-book basis, not much at all. All three have terrible taste in books, so as much as they might like or dislike something we’ve done, they are totally unreliable critics.
That said, being parents has influenced the types of children’s books we make. We used to think we would have our kids read dark, edgy sorts of books with a certain sassy irreverence. But our kids just aren’t wired like that. They’re pretty sweet and straightforward readers, and our work tends to respond to their tastes.
We run a subscription-based club for kids called Bobbledy Books. Each year, member kids get eight envelopes containing picture books by us, original children’s music and an incomplete book that they finish and have a chance to get published. The books are smart and sweet and unexpected but decidedly un-dark and uncynical—which might not have been the case if we’d had different kids or no kids at all.
One direct influence: Babies Ruin Everything—a book we originally made as Kato’s satirical birth announcement—has been picked up by a new imprint at Macmillan and will be published next year. It’s our big break in the children’s picture book world, and we owe it all to Kato (who didn’t ruin anything, for the record).
Any special bedtime rituals?
We read books and tuck the kids in. Their room is so small (8 x 8-foot) that there’s only room for the bunk bed (for the two older kids). August, who is 3 and hasn’t yet cultivated a sense of dignity, sleeps on a dog bed with a quilt wrapped around it. At bedtime we sit on the dog bed, and the kids pile on our laps. There are several rounds of hugs and kisses, various requests for—“one more drink!”—water, and occasional kid-penned musings on the meaning of life, the universe and everything.
Tell me more about the “Alaska tundra” situation. What do you all do up there and how long are you generally there for?
Robbi’s parents purchased a few acres of land on the bluffs above Bristol Bay about 40 years ago. Every summer since, Robbi’s entire family has migrated to the tundra, where we slip into hip waders and raincoats and pull salmon from the sea.
We’re shore-based fishermen, using gillnets attached to a system of pulleys and ropes. We fish for sockeye, or red, salmon. In a successful season, we catch more than 50,000 pounds.
We spend about a month of every summer up there now. Robbi, along with her sister and brother, runs the fishing operation these days. I serve as “tundra nanny,” an even more heroic position that involves changing diapers, making macaroni and dodging mosquitos the size of hummingbirds.
What are you most grateful for?
Of all the good things in our lives, we are most grateful for one another.
When we met, we were both just relieved to have found another person who seemed “pretty nice” and “kind of good looking.” But now, 15 years later, we realize that in joining forces, we have unlocked this amazing universe of possibility—our books, our home, our family—that we never could have managed on our own. We make one another better at what we do. We conquer because we are able to divide, relying upon one another’s strengths, making up for one another’s deficiencies.
We’re the luckiest people we know. It’s kind of not fair. We try each day to make the best use of all the good luck we’ve been given.