Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr: Husband and Wife, Author and Illustrator

Article by Joy

What’s more fun than a husband/wife author/illustrator duo? Getting to interview Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr, that’s what? We have been huge fans since they visited the store one Spring Break in the before times, and so it was a great pleasure to chat with them about their new MG series, THE COOKIE CHRONICLES. And they even provided illustrations!

 

Joy Preble: THE COOKIE CHRONICLES is so fun, and I’m delighted to see that reviewers are already agreeing that Ben Yokoyama’s story of what happens when you take a fortune cookie fortune seriously is a delight! Can you tell us how you came up with the idea for this series and for Ben? And I have to ask—do you always read your fortunes when you get Chinese food? Do you ever save them in hopes that they’ll come true?

Matthew Swanson: I’m a literal minded-guy and always have been. Growing up, I was constantly baffled by figurative language. I would go around all day asking myself questions like, “What in the heck is a GIFT HORSE?” and wondering if a “stitch in time” was the same thing as a “wrinkle in time.” I’m still not sure I’ve gotten a satisfying answer to that one. 

In The Cookie of Doom, the protagonist Ben Yokoyama gets the fortune “Live each day as if it were your last.” Ben decides that death is near and that the only reasonable approach to his last day is to eat as much cake as he can. 

Robbi Behr: For the record, I think that’s a reasonable approach to any day. 

MS: The 8-year-old version of me can relate to Ben’s confusion. I wrote the Cookie Chronicles to let kids know they’re not the only ones confused by figurative language—and to guide them to the lovely land where metaphors make sense and proverbs serve as helpful guideposts. 

RB: To answer your other questions, I’m 100% someone who believes in fortune cookie fortunes! I used to tape all the good ones to my computer monitor, but I just now realized I did not remember to transfer them over when I got my new monitor! NOOOO!!! The best one was “You will rise to the top of your profession,” so I’m actually pretty bummed that I’ve lost that one. I’m a firm believer in the must-eat-the-whole-cookie-and-must-keep-the-fortune-forever-for-it-to-come-true school of thought. That said, I just got one that said “One of the keys to happiness is a bad memory,” so apparently, I’ve got happiness covered, which is maybe even better.

 

 

JP: We had the pleasure of hosting you both awhile back, so I already know that you are fabulous collaborators. What does working together on a project entail?

RB: Matthew always goes first. Once, I went first and the book we made was truly unreadable. We pretend it never happened. 

MS: Oh, absolutely. That book never happened.  

RB: This is where my terrible memory comes in handy. 

MS: For the most part, I’m the idea generator for our books. I write a bunch of stuff and hand the best of it to Robbi. Unless she loves a manuscript, it doesn’t go anywhere. Since we work together exclusively, we only develop projects that we’re both really excited about. 

RB: I think it surprises a lot of people to learn that most authors and illustrators don’t actually get to work with each other directly – it’s usually the art director and editor who are making the decisions about how the pictures and words go together. So Matthew and I have this rare opportunity to walk over to each other’s desks and make suggestions and share opinions throughout the entire process. 

MS: The opinion-sharing sometimes results in sulking. Apparently, my ideas are not always spectacular.  

RB: During the decade we spent self-publishing, Matthew suggested some real clunkers. 

MS: I had a great idea for a book called Profiles in Porridge. It would have been a hit. 

RB: For the record, I was totally on board with Profiles in Porridge. But in end, we decided that 20 illustrations of bowls of porridge was probably too much to ask of any reader.

MS: Does this mean it’s not off the table?

RB: The porridge is absolutely still on the table. We just need to find the right audience.

MS: Maybe Brazos has a porridge-loving readership? We should ask.  

 

JP: Your books have such great humor as well as heart. How do balance that? And how do you know when the ‘funny’ is working?

MS: Thank you! Everything I write, and pretty much everything I choose to read, has humor at its core. I enjoy helping readers chuckle their way into emotional insight, and sometimes even being blindsided by it. 

RB: So this is all some sort of emotional chess match for you, huh?

MS: Laughter makes it easier to get to the wisdom and the heart! I like to think of myself as a vigilante nutritionist, giving people ice cream sundaes packed with hidden vitamins. 

RB: Wait…have you tried this trick on me?

MS: Never.

RB: I think we’re actually pretty lucky to have a very particular and compatible sense of humor. We know the humor is working when Matthew hands me a manuscript and the things I circle and draw smiley faces next to are the same lines he finds funniest, too.

MS: I live for those smiley faces. 

RB: The humor fills in the cracks around the bigger themes. It’s what makes it all stick together.

MS: But whenever we try to actually describe the themes, they don’t sound funny at all. For example, book one deals with mortality and living life to its fullest. Book two is about learning the difference between patience and procrastination. Book three is about the perils of perfectionism. Book four is about justice. And I’ll know what book five is about as soon as I start to write it. 

RB: But they’re so funny. I promise! 

 

JP: All right, since it’s the premise of the first book, if either or both of you knew it was the last day of your life (or last week or whatever!) what would be on your list of things you would do?

RB: If it were my last day, I’d go skydiving. I’ve always wanted to try it, but it’s always seemed like an unnecessary risk. But if it were my last day…

MS: First, I’d watch Robbi jump out of a plane, and then I’d go for a hike with my kids. And eat a really good burrito. 

 

JP: And in a more realistic follow up, do either of you have a ‘bucket list’ of things you want to do in your life? Willing to share something that’s on it?

RB: I want to visit a cranberry bog, learn simple automotive mechanics, go ice skating on a canal in Quebec City, and play bass with Led Zeppelin in a sold-out arena. 

MS: I like a gal with specific and attainable dreams. 

RB: I’m glad you think that last one is still attainable, given that I haven’t learned to play the bass yet and John Paul Jones probably wouldn’t be on board. What about you?

MS: I want to live in a house that is clean and orderly. Even for just one week. 

RB: Talk about unattainable dreams. 

MS: I also I want to explore the Irish countryside with Robbi. And I want to spend a year living in a school bus with my family. 

RB: Now that seems totally doable.

 

JP: Finally, what’s coming next for Swanson and Behr?

MS: Funny you should ask, because we are actually planning that school bus trip as we speak.
RB: For real! This is not one of Matthew’s funny bits of writing. 

MS: Yes, we bought a 24-foot, decommissioned school bus that we’re converting into a tiny home. The plan is to spend a year visiting high-poverty schools in all 50 states, giving presentations about creativity and giving away thousands of free books. 

RB:  We’re planning to hit the road in the fall of 2022. It’s going to be epic. 

MS: You might need to learn basic auto mechanics sooner than you think.

RB: Oh sweet! That’s TWO items off the bucket list!

MS: In the nearer term, our next picture book Sunrise Summer comes out in April. It’s about our family’s summer adventures in Alaska where Robbi and her brother run a small, commercial salmon fishing operation. 

RB: It’s the sort of thing I’d definitely put on my bucket list if I hadn’t been doing it every summer since I was 18 months old.  

MS: I just wish I would have gotten a fortune cookie growing up that said something like, “You will marry a cranberry-craving illustrator in hip waders.” 

RB: So you could have run the other way the moment you saw me coming? 

MS: No, because that would have been less confusing than the whole gift horse concept. I knew full well never to look you in the mouth.

 

Robbi Behr and Matthew Swanson are the wife/husband, illustrator/author co-creators of the Cookie Chronicles series, the first two books of which will be published by Knopf Books for Young Readers on March 2, 2021. 

To learn about their many other books, visit www.robbiandmatthew.com.

To follow their adventures (and watch their daily, 60-second videos) follow them on Instagram or YouTube

Ben Yokoyama and the Cookie of Doom (Cookie Chronicles #1) Cover Image
By Matthew Swanson, Robbi Behr (Illustrator)
$12.99
ISBN: 9780593302750
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Knopf Books for Young Readers - March 2nd, 2021

Ben Yokoyama and the Cookie of Endless Waiting (Cookie Chronicles #2) Cover Image
By Matthew Swanson, Robbi Behr (Illustrator)
$12.99
ISBN: 9780593302767
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Knopf Books for Young Readers - March 2nd, 2021

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