Charmaine Barr was a housewife with three kids when she decided to be a school bus driver. What she didn’t know was that she’d do it for 25 years and later serve as inspiration for a children’s book.
Barr, a driver with Falls Church City Public Schools, was one of six school bus drivers across the country who were consulted for New York-based children’s author Kate McMullan’s book, I’m Smart!, in which the trials and joys of driving a bus are conveyed through an anthropomorphic school bus.
To understand how McMullan and Barr became connected, the story goes back seven years to when Falls Church resident Stephanie Oppenheimer started a book club with a number of other local parents for their sons.
The kids would take turns looking up information about the author. Oppenheimer’s son chose McMullan for her popular children’s series The Dragon Slayer, and went above and beyond by sending an e-mail to the author. McMullan was so excited by the parent-organized book club that she corresponded with the boys and put a dedication to them in one of her books.
“It wasn’t completely bizarre that she would reach out in this way,” said Oppenheimer. “She’s always like this with her fans.”
Lately, McMullan has worked on a series of children’s books from the perspective of inanimate vehicles like a garbage truck and a race car, to name a few. Her first book to feature humans was one with a Zamboni and a driver called I’m Cold! She then decided to go with a school bus as a stand-in for the relationship between the school bus driver and their passengers.
“I was intrigued by the human element of the Zamboni,” McMullan explained in a telephone interview with the News-Press. “But I felt like while people love the Zamboni, it’s not like the Zamboni loves them back. I felt the school bus was an opportunity to show a two-way emotional connection.”
McMullan reached out to her network to ask if anyone knew any bus drivers she could interview and Oppenheimer, who had fond memories of Barr from being a Mt. Daniel School parent, connected the two. They had a series of conversations where McMullan asked her anything and everything from all the technical details to the day-to-day operations.
“Jim and I so appreciate the drivers and operators who have helped us make them as accurate as possible and give us the cool vocabulary they use that makes the books fun to read aloud,” said McMullan.
As for Barr, she says “I think all of us bus drivers are special, and just because I happened to drive the parent’s child and she knows the author of the book that she put my name in, but I felt real honored.”
Barr’s supervisor, transportation head Nancy Hendrickson, echoes the sentiment that all 16 of the drivers on her staff receive extensive training. The fleet exceeds the standard 48 hour training requirements in order to dedicate more time on how to talk to children and relate to parents.
“Parents of small children are very protective and so you do want to develop a relationship with them as much as you can. Hendrickson said. “We look at it as a team effort.”
Hendrickson noted that Barr is well-known within the community and good at remembering names of her students as well as their siblings. Barr also enjoys seeing the kids graduate as she often drives them from George Mason High School to their graduation site in Washington D.C.
While Barr didn’t go to any book release parties or travel to New York, she did get mailed a copy from McMullan with her name in the acknowledgements. She read it to three of her grandkids who visited this past summer.
“I love what I do,” said Barr. “Driving the kids safely, to and from school, and I enjoy what little time I have with them on their route.”