Cookies are sweet, uncomplicated treats, right? Not for Ben, the main character in “Ben Yokoyama and the Cookie of Perfection,” a new illustrated novel by Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr. A cookie – or, more exactly, the fortune inside – starts the third-grader on a tangled, funny adventure.
Ben is a kid who takes things literally. For example, if he hears the expression “It’s raining cats and dogs,” he expects tabbies and terriers to fall from the skies. Or a metaphor such as “a bunny as big as a barn” might send him searching for a gigantic rabbit.
When his fortune cookie yields a scrap of paper printed with “practice makes perfect,” Ben decides to apply this advice to his father, his mother and his best friend, Janet. All of them, he knows, are far from perfect and could benefit from much practice.
The problem? No one wants Ben to relentlessly perfect them. And then Ben makes a new friend, Darby, who wants to perfect him. There are hilarious plot twists, lousy pancakes, a superhero, a terrifying obstacle course called the Chute – and lots of questions about the accuracy of the cookie’s advice.
The co-creators of the novel, Swanson and Behr, are the husband-and-wife team behind many books for young people, including two previous tales about Ben in the Cookie Chronicles series (though you need not have read them to enjoy this story).
During a three-person phone call, the couple recently talked with a Washington Post KidsPost reporter from the home – a converted barn – that they share with their four children and Boston terrier Dumbles in Chestertown, Maryland.
Ben is frequently confused by words, a situation many young people can relate to right now, whether they are puzzled by odd phrases or trying to learn a new language as recent immigrants.
“I was a lot like Ben as a kid,” Swanson said. “I often wrestled with metaphors and what they meant. And I also felt I had to do everything perfectly. But is perfection really the secret of a good life?”
It’s certainly not their secret to making a book, Behr said. The couple’s shared creative process is messy, inventive and full of surprises, with Swanson’s writing and Behr’s art working together to tell a complete story.
Swanson wrote the new book in a few months, “in a fury,” Behr said. He then gave the manuscript to her for feedback and revised accordingly. Behr then designed and ingeniously illustrated each one of the 325 pages.
Look for Ben’s dog Dumbles (whose name the couple’s kids gave to their real dog), a neighborhood map and even a tiny talking brain and stomach. “It helps that we live together,” Behr said with a laugh. “We can talk about the books (we’re creating) as we take the dog out or make a meal together.”
Their life together is fueling another big project: the Busload of Books Tour. Beginning next September, Swanson, Behr, their kids and Dumbles will take to the road in an old school bus.
They plan to talk about and give away books at underserved elementary schools in all 50 states, schools chosen because they’ve never had an author visit. The couple hopes to spark excitement about reading, writing and creating art as the students learn and ask questions about making books.
There’s a lot to do before they leave, Swanson said cheerfully. They are raising funds, fixing up the school bus to include a tiny kitchen and sleeping quarters, and oh, yes, finishing the final two books about Ben Yokoyama, “Cookie Thief” and “Cookies of Chaos.”
Hopefully, this busy duo can take a break this holiday season to enjoy their favorite cookies – for Swanson, it’s what he describes as a “buttery almond crescent” and for Behr, the “really special” oatmeal raisin cookies from a nearby bakery, Evergrain Bread Co.
To learn more about Busload of Books and follow the family’s planning and nine-month journey, ending in Alaska, visit robbiandmatthew.com/busload-of-books.
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