Pomp and Circumstance all over again

May 14th, 2015

I was stunned a month or so ago, when the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences of Webster University, David Wilson, called to say I had been selected as this year’s recipient of the Outstanding Alumna Award. I certainly didn’t feel worthy to accept it but how do you say “no” to such a generous offer? So I said “yes.” Then Dean Wilson said I would be delivering the commencement address – not to the whole university, but to the College of Arts and Sciences graduates in a separate ceremony where they receive their diplomas. Not only would I be receiving this great recognition …. but the ceremony is held at the Muny in Forest Park! Some of the happiest moments of my childhood were spent at the 11,000 seat open-air amphitheater where musicals have been staged for the last 96 summers. I saw so many stars sing and dance across the mammoth stage and even remember lying with my head on my mother’s lap and looking up at the stars when I was very young. My mother remembered her favorite stars from childhood performing there: Irene Dunne and Archie Leach (later to become Cary Grant). Sitting onstage at the Muny with the faculty of Webster University? YES-YES-YES!



It was Webster College when I was there, transitioning from a girls’ college to co-ed and immediately transitioning from a Catholic college run by the Sisters of Loretto to a lay school – that all happened when I was there. At the time, Webster was well known locally for its theatre arts program and generally for its fine arts. I started out in theatre but switched to a straight English major. I was editor of the paper, worked on the yearbook and was a happy Webster student. I even loved my student job, working for the new Master of Arts in Teaching degree. Then, Webster was a standout for its personal attention to students. Amazingly, that hasn’t changed with growth. I’m now on the Advisory Board of the College of Arts and Sciences and am thrilled to discover that the same attributes that made Webster special when I was there haven’t changed.


Webster Alumna Award


There was a great party the night before – a dinner at the Khorassan Room of the Chase Park-Plaza where we stayed. Hey, I had my proms at the Khorassan Room – deja vu! A group of us had drinks afterwards and then my son arrived. That was truly the best part of all – my son, Walshe, who lives in New York (so far from our home in Los Angeles that we don’t get to see him often) flew in for the event, which also happened to coincide with Mother’s Day! And we got to celebrate his recent engagement. Here he is with husband Frank and me. Walshe hadn’t been to St. Louis in many years, so we all visited with cousins, aunts, my sister Janet, brother-in-law Steve, niece, Jen and her husband Jeff, her daughters, Samantha and Carter and nephew Todd. What fun!Frank, Betty, Walshe in St. Louis 2015


Speaking in the Rain


My speech was delivered on the rehearsal stage in the pouring rain. Luckily, it didn’t rain until the very end of the larger ceremony, but it poured for the second part. The speech, my clothes, my hair were soaked. My shoes were ruined. The Dean’s introductory notes were in ink and they ran into a blur. My pages got stuck together and I had to stop to pry them apart. Everyone was more than  polite, I talked fast and every graduate got a signed copy of The World According to Humphrey! Left, I’m delivering the speech and a kind gentleman is holding an  umbrella over my head. You know what? I enjoyed it all!


Onstage at Muny 2    My soggy speech.Sodden speech Webster 2015

Above … yes I’m on stage at the Muny – can’t you see me? Actually, I was on the end of the inner aisle, row 2, so pretty much right behind the podium. Some of my cousins watched the live feed and they could actually see me!

Luckily, it wasn’t raining as the ceremony began. Pomp and Circumstance played as the students processed in while the faculty – and I – lined up. Then came the parade of flags representing every country with students graduating – carrying the colorful banners down the aisles of the Muny. Next, the bagpipers arrived, led with panache by Dean of the College of Fine Arts, Peter Sargent, who was there when I was in school. Finally, the faculty (and I) processed down the center of the Muny from the very top down to the stage. It’s very steep – don’t wear heels! (I didn’t). At this point, I relaxed and decided to enjoy every minute of the day, soak it all in (pun intended) because it was a once in a lifetime experience. I walked down to the stage with a big smile on my face, despite the threat of an oncoming storm.


Here’s a clip of how it looked from the stage.

It was the best graduation I’ve ever attended – formal yet personal, reflective and exuberant. The rain held off and honorary doctorate recipient, actress Jenifer Lewis, delivered the best commencement speech ever. Funny, sad, hopeful, musical,  honest and most of all inspiring. She rocked it. If you want a few minutes of inspiration, skip through the intros and watch her speech.


Because the weather forecasts were so dire, the College of Arts and Sciences videotaped me delivering my speech the day before graduation. It’s much tamer than the version I delivered in the rain and it was kind of odd to speak without an audience, but here it is, including the introduction by Dean David Carl Wilson. At least you can see me in cap and gown – though they thankfully reshot and edited the part where the tassel swung into my mouth. If only I had the out-takes!

Humphrey Show and Tell

January 24th, 2015

This week was so exciting, Humphrey’s whiskers were wiggling and his tail was twitching. I was pretty excited as well because of four BIG-BIG-BIG releases.

On Thursday January 22:


BOOK 11, Imagination According to Humphrey, was released in hardcover in the U.S. (It comes out in the UK on 5 February.) I love the cover and I’m especially excited because the book has a lot to do with using your imagination and writing. I’ve learned from many students I’ve talked to that writing can sometimes be more difficult than it sounds. In this story, Humphrey tries to write a story and is surprised that his imagination doesn’t seem to be working. (Sometimes mine is a little sluggish, too.) Here readers can get some tips about jump-starting story ideas … and also read about real and imaginary dragons, as well as ghosts, crying babies and so much more.

Here’s an excerpt from the Booklist review – I cut out some spoilers and I don’t know where the reviewer got the idea that Humphrey’s been around for 15 years, but other than that, I’m pleased. (It’s 11 years, by the way.)

“Humphrey celebrates 15 years in this eleventh outing of the forever popular classroom pet series. In characteristic hamster style,
Humphrey solves a new sibling problem for a student, helps a lonely classroom pet in another classroom, and learns about creative writing.
Working along with the students, Humphrey experiences difficulty with the process. Birney cleverly intertwines various characters and subplots.
For example, a hissing bearded dragon briefly disrupts Humphrey’s concentration when Mrs.Brisbane is reading an absorbing book about dragons.”


The same day Imagination came out, BOOK 10, Secrets According to Humphrey, came out in paperback. I’m always happy when the paperback versions come out so more people can read about Humphrey’s adventures.


I’m thrilled that on Thursday, the Spanish translation of BOOK 1, The World According to Humphrey, was published in the US.  I’ve been hoping for this for a long time and here it is!


There’s been quite a gap in the audiobook releases but also on Thursday, this 4-book audio collection was released. It contains Mysteries According to Humphrey, Winter According to Humphrey, Secrets According to Humphrey and Imagination According to Humphrey. I hear from lots of families who listen to Humphrey books in the car.

Now Humphrey will have to spin his wheel until May, when the third Tiny Tales book is published: Humphrey’s Creepy-Crawly–Camping Adventure!

As for me, Book 12 is just about to go into editing as well as the fourth Tiny Tales book. Next week, I’m doing a Skype tour for Penguin Kids, visiting 16 classrooms from my desk. If you wish you had known about this opportunity and want to keep up with events like these, please follow Humphrey on his Facebook page.  www.facebook.com/AccordingtoHumphrey.  You can follow me as well. Also follow Penguin Kids – they always have great ideas for teachers and librarians.




A Happy New Year

December 30th, 2014

Sending thanks to all the wonderful fans of Humphrey and Eben McAllister as well as best wishes for a HAPPY-HAPPY-HAPPY 2015!

Don’t forget to make those resolutions – they just might take off this year!

HAPPY-HAPPY-HAPPY Holidays from Humphrey and me

December 20th, 2014

It’s been an unsqueakably busy year – most of which was taken up by neck surgery and ongoing recovery – but I’m doing much better. Of course, for our furry friend, it’s been a year of great adventures, including the launch of the new shorter, illustrated Tiny Tales series. Humphrey’s Really Wheely Racing Day and Humphrey’s Playful Puppy Problem are already available and Humphrey’s Creepy Crawly Camping Adventure comes out in March. I’m so lucky that Priscilla Burris is the illustrator. I can’t think of anyone better suited to bring Humphrey and his friends to life!

Book 11 in the According to Humphrey series, Imagination According to Humphrey, will be published January 22 in hardcover. It’s all about writing! Also in January will be the paperback release of Secrets According to Humphrey.

As the year ends, I look back with gratitude for Humphrey’s wonderful fans – the best in the world. I wish each and every one of you a fantastic 2015! I hope you all read a lot of great books

Here’s a peek of me with Priscilla – I think we’re very colorful characters, too!



You can take the girl out of the midwest …

October 14th, 2014

… but she’ll always come back!

A few weeks ago, I was back in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. (My GPS says “St. Louey,” which makes me laugh every time.)

It’s a place in the news a lot lately.  In a perfect world, this would be an opportunity for everyone to come together and find a new path to improve life for everyone. I’m hoping for a perfect world. On the other hand, go Cards!

I was in town for several reasons: to reconnect with family first and foremost. Also, to attend my first meeting of the Webster University College of Arts and Sciences Advisory Committee in beautiful Webster Groves. And since I couldn’t go on a Humphrey tour because I’m still recovering from neck surgery and can’t lift anything over ten pounds, I did a little Humphrey business as well, because my husband, Frank, was with me and he CAN lift more than 10 pounds.

The best part of the visit was spending lots of time with my sister, Janet, and her husband, Steve, niece Jen and nephew Todd, nephew-in-law Jeff, gorgeous great-nieces Samantha and Carter! Oh, don’t forget dog-nephew Elmo. I brought along copies of Humphrey’s Tiny Tales and discovered – amazingly – that Elmo can read! Really- I didn’t stage this shot. I found Elmo with the books on the couch as pictured.

I also visited schools. I spent a day in the Affton School District, where I attended school grades K-12 Unfortunately, my elementary school, Reavis, was torn down long ago … and it was practically brand new when I attended! But when I spoke at Gotsch Elementary, I think the kids were pretty surprised to learn that Mr. Gotsch was our principal and a really outstanding one!

Then I went on to Mesnier Elementary. Mr. Mesnier was the Superintendent of Schools when I lived in Affton and lots of my junior high and high school friends went there. The most notable thing about Mesnier – at least from the outside – is the giant ice cream cone in front! I know that ice cream cone well. It stood in front of Velvet Freeze – a stellar ice cream place within easy walking distance of my house, in the days when milk shakes had real milk in them and they served actual malted milks. When Velvet Freeze was being torn down, they donated the ice cream cone to Mesnier, which makes it the yummiest school on earth! Great to connect with Affton students today, still going strong. Here I am with an authentic Affton School bus. There’s something funny about it if you look closely -my friend, Nancy, is standing behind me, peeking out. Maybe she was camera-shy?


Frank and I had another mission while in town: to get a picture of me with the street sign for Humphrey Street. Yep, there’s a place behind the name of that familiar classroom hamster! My parents grew up as neighbors on Humphrey Street in South St. Louis and were best friends – inseparable, people say – from the age of nine. So all my aunts and my uncle and grandparents were neighbors on Humphrey Street. Later, I spent a lot of time visiting my mom’s parents on Humphrey Street. The house looks quite a bit different now, but oh, the happy times my sister and I had there. And the wonderful stories my grandmother told about growing up in the country – some of which are in my book, The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs. Finding the Humphrey Street sign proved to be a bit of a challenge. It’s now a one-way street, so the sign closest to my grandparents’ house isn’t there. (Near Humphrey and Morganford for those in the know.) So we had to go further down to find a sign – and when we did – there was a huge construction truck next to it! Not good for a photo-op.  So we drove around the neighborhood awhile, down the street where my dad’s parents eventually lived, and the street where my great-aunt lived. And down Grand Avenue, which was the big shopping district, and Tower Grove Park with its amazing Victorian pavilions.

When we got back to the Humphrey Street sign, the truck was gone! Success!

On the weekend, my sister and brother-in-law threw a party for us, with all my local relatives – as well as the Braun “boys” – who might as well be relatives because we grew up not just as neighbors but as one family – and I’m not exaggerating. Great to see them, great to see that my aunts and my dad’s cousins are all in excellent shape! My son curated the cheese and charcuterie from Murray’s Cheese in NYC, where he is a buyer. Niece Jennifer and her caterer friend Heidi did the rest and – well – you can see it was quite breathtaking.

Back to “work” again meant traveling to the historic and picturesque river town of St. Charles (on the Missouri River – you DO know that St. Louis has both the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers) to Main Street Books. They handled all the books sales for Affton and for Hazelwood, where I spoke as well. All I have to say is this: Main Street Books is not only the most charming but the most jam-packed-with-goodness- indy bookstore ever. Indies rule! Thanks to co-owner/proprietress Emily Hall who journeyed all the way to Affton to sell books and to Mary who drove me to the schools in Hazelwood. Here’s Emily in front of her store, and don’t you love the old typewriter? I want it!

We see things on the news about St. Louis and there are problems to be resolved. But for those of you who see St. Louis as a fly-over city or a sound byte – it’s a physically and historically beautiful place, with great people of all ethnicities – and my fervent hope is for a bright future and progress for all!

Oh, and everybody should go to St. Charles. Charming place. And from there, we went to another charming place: New York City and the Hudson River Valley. Cheese caves! Rip Van Winkle! Coming soon to a blog near you!