Children’s authors Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr detoured from their cross-country trip to Freeport Sunday to join two dozen volunteers to sort through boxes of books stacked on rows of tables.
The couple, along with their four children, learned to categorize the donated books by condition and other factors in the non-profit book fairies’ book bank on the ground floor of a building where a Sunday service could be heard from the church upstairs.
It was a detour they were happy to take.
“We’re the lucky people who get to do the fun part of it,” Swanson told Newsday. “Hopefully we can draw attention to the great work others are doing.”
The fun part Swanson is referring to is a planned 10-month trip the family is taking to attend at least one elementary school in each of the 50 states and Washington, DC
The couple said they raised $150,000 to purchase 25,000 copies of their books, which are being shipped by First Book, a nonprofit organization that provides books and study materials to children in need.
They call it the “Busload of Books Tour”.
The couple left their home in Chestertown on Maryland’s east coast in late August, traveling with their four children and a Boston Terrier named Dumbles in a school bus that Behr painted with bright colors and drawings of children and animals reading books.
So far, they’ve visited eight schools, including one in upstate New York, giving students and teachers hardcover copies of books they’ve written and illustrated, like Everywhere, Wonder.
Like the book, the journey is about finding wonder in the spectacular and the ordinary in nature and in life, they said.
In Freeport on Sunday morning, they saw the arduous task of organizing boxes of books before they could be distributed to children and adults.
“It’s amazing how much work goes into getting these books to the places they’re supposed to go,” Behr, who illustrates her books while her husband writes, told Newsday.
Book Fairies collects and distributes new and used books to low-income communities on Long Island and New York City.
Amy Zaslansky, who founded Book Fairies in her Bellmore garage in 2012, said the idea came from a book drive she organized that year after learning teachers in Hempstead needed books to give to students over the summer could send home to read.
“There were really two groups of people on Long Island,” Zaslansky told Newsday.
“There is a group of people who had a lot of books they didn’t know what to do with anymore and they needed them out of the house,” she said.
“And then there were kids right on Long Island who didn’t have access to books.”
Book Fairies distributes an average of 600,000 books a year to schools, homeless shelters, care facilities, correctional facilities and other groups, said executive director Eileen Minogue.
The need has become even clearer during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
“During COVID, the homeless shelters came to us and said, ‘Sometimes WiFi is patchy. Sometimes we don’t have enough pills for everyone. We need something for these kids to get them out of the pandemic and out of the homeless shelter.’” Minogue recalled.
“There are large parts of the country where children don’t have direct access to books,” Swanson said Sunday. “It’s… such important work that’s happening in there.”