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!

 

 

 

My Secret Dream

September 2nd, 2014

When people ask me: “What’s the one thing you’d like to change about yourself?” like most of us, I have many answers: be thinner, be richer – you know the list. But in the end, what I always come back to is this: I wish I could draw! My dad was a great artist and woodcarver, but I inherited ZERO talent. Although I can draw a passable rose, a not bad tree and a recognizable horse – because he tried to teach me –  I didn’t ever take art as an elective because it would be embarrassing. But in my secret life, I spent countless hours and used up reams of paper drawing. All during my childhood, I drew rows of girls with different hair and different dresses and yes, I did make up storylines about them, but I didn’t write them down. It was just for fun. I’m also an inveterate doodler. I even dabbled a little in throwing paint on paper a few years back and found I could manage postage stamp sized paintings but not big ones. The problem is, I can’t draw. When it comes to art, I’m a klutz!

To make things worse (well, better, really) I worked in advertising for years where I was always teamed up with an artist or art director (think Mad Men), so all my close friends were and are artists. Even my two beautiful stepdaughters, Rebecca and Anna, are amazing artists, both graduates of prestigious art schools, while artistically, I am chopped liver! Even today, I am lucky to count amazing children’s book illustrators as my friends. I can’t believe they’d even speak to me.

I was so lucky that my book, The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs, was illustrated so beautifully by Matt Phelan – his first book and he now has an impressive body of work. Here’s a sample from the bo

    

I had two wonderful picture books published almost two decades ago – Tyrannosaurus Tex, illustrated byJohn O’Brien, whose cartoons I had long admired in The New Yorker, and Pie’s in the Oven, illustrated by Holly Meade, who sadly passed away far too early last year. She generously sent me the artwork for an entire spread, which is on my wall and will remain there always.

  

But the According to Humphrey books aren’t illustrated. They have photographs (wonderful ones) on the covers both in the U.S. and U.K.  I like that because it makes Humphrey totally real and believable . But when Humphrey’s Tiny Tales were underway, the question was what would Humphrey look like? And even more importantly, what would his classmates and teacher look like? The books were published in the U.K first, charmingly illustrated by Penny Dann.

When the books were going to be published here in the U.S., I knew they would be re-illustrated. Different countries, different publishers, different tastes. And then my editor, Susan Kochan, said the magic words: “How about Priscilla Burris?” I know Priscilla! She’s a Southern Californian, as I am, but she’s actually a native Angeleno,  while I’m a transplant. I knew who she was because she’s on the board of SCBWI! (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and I know you may be tired of hearing it, but if you want to write or illustrate children’s books, JOIN!).

My answer was: YES-YES-YES! And I wasn’t disappointed. Priscilla is the perfect illustrator for Humphrey. I always say that I AM Humphrey but now she is Humphrey, too. She creates so much heart with her deceptively simple lines.

So as a “wish I could be” artist, I was delighted to see this video of her drawing Humphrey. In typical Priscilla fashion, she added a charming bee friend for Humphrey. I’m so happy, I could spin on my wheel! In fact, I think I will!

The first two Tiny Tales; Humphrey’s Playful Puppy Problem and Humphrey’s Really Wheely Racing Day are now available in paperback and hardcover.  And there will be more!

Humphrey’s new series debuts this week!

August 23rd, 2014


While Humphrey’s Tiny Tales are already available in the U.K., U.S. Humphrey fans have had to wait for awhile. The good news is, you only have to wait until August 28  - almost here! – and the first two books in the series will be released. YAY-YAY-YAY! Both books will be available in hardcover and paperback at the same time! I do love the hardcovers, however – especially because you can take off the dust jacket and still see the beautiful cover art on the actual book!

You can learn more about the stories, see some art, read reviews and even see Humphrey spin his wheel here on my website.

I’m personally in love with these books, not just because of the stories – which are shorter, for younger readers – but for the artwork by Priscilla Burris! I’ve long admired her (deceptively) simple, sweet and spicy children’s art,  so how lucky could I get? I don’t know how Priscilla manages to pack so much emotion in so few lines, but she’s the perfect illustrator to bring Humphrey and his friends to life. I also love the layout of the books – lots of white space for beginning readers, some large graphic type – really fun.

We both live in Southern California so I even get to see her in person from time to time. Here we are together after the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference earlier this month. Don’t we make a colorful pair? (If you want to write or illustrate children’s books, please join – go to scbwi.org and join – any writer/illustrator who is serious will tell you it’s been a lifeline, a support system and a total educational resource. Inspiring and fun.)

Thank you, Christopher Cheng, for taking this photo!

My Really Wheely Racing Day was inspired by an actual hamster race in Iowa – I’d visited the school and seen the video. There’s a frog race in the book, too, inspired by fellow Missourian Mark Twain’s story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”  One of the things you’ll see in the book actually happened. AND you’ll get to see Winky again -he’s the one-eyed hamster from Trouble According to Humphrey. Below is the real hamster that inspired his character. That photo is a little fuzzy because hamsters don’t like to sit still. But maybe you can tell that when he was born, one of his eyes didn’t open. It didn’t keep him from being an adorable hamster – he just looked like he was winking!

                    

My Playful Puppy Problem was inspired by another cute critter: my grand-dog, Bodhi! He was rescued running in traffic on the 405 Freeway here in Los Angeles, not too far from the airport. Angelenos will cringe at that thought — it has to be one of the busiest freeway sections in the world. But now he has a happy home. More recently, he has a brother named Flash, also rescued from not-good circumstances. They are truly lucky dogs! (That’s Bodhi in front – because he thinks he’s Top Dog).

       

  Didn’t Priscilla do a beautiful job?

 I loved seeing Humphrey, Og and all their friends come to life thanks to Priscilla’s talents. She and Humphrey have something in common: they both have big hearts!.


BEST-BEST-BEST of all – there will be two new books coming out for the next few years!

August 28th – start your engines!

Illustrations © Priscilla Burris


   


   

      


A huge pain in my neck

August 20th, 2014

An explanation for why I’ve been away from this blog for so long. Over a year ago – in July, 2013 – a neck issue I’ve been dealing with for years escalated and suddenly I was thrust into the world of pain and pain management. Over the past 13 months I have had innumerable tests and treatments. The only thing that helped was a course of steroids, which reduced the pain somewhat. Nothing else worked: muscle relaxers, epidurals, vicodin – zilch. I went into physical therapy, and then months of Pilates and massage (twice weekly). That became my life and I got stronger.

I had certain obligations and deadlines which made me put off the inevitable. On April 8, I finally had surgery: three discs were replaced on the right side, major clean up of arthritis on both sides of my neck and a titanium plate to cover the replaced discs and stabilize them. Apparently there was a large, sharp bone spur digging into my nerve: hence the tingling and the numb thumb. 4 1/2 months later, I am finally feeling better. The recovery is slow and long, but I’d been told that. In total, it will probably be a year or more. But my neck is finally feeling better and my thumb has some feeling back.

I’m not going to dwell on the gory details, tempting as that is. I’m appreciative that I’m finally feeling some improvement but still not ready to go back into physical therapy until the bones have fused. At least that process has started.

I can work and I’ve made adjustments to how I work. Early on, I got a sit/stand desk, as sitting is the worst thing for your neck and the rest of your body. All I do is push a button and the desk rises up or down. Sitting is the new smoking – a true no-no and I get up and walk for 1/4 or 1/2 a mile every half hour or so.

No more laptops  - ever. I have an all-in-one monitor which I love. It’s even touch-screen. And I have a very ergonomic set-up. I’m just sorry that like most of us, I ignored all warnings until I got past the point of no return.

I’m also sorry that I haven’t answered fan mail for a year! There are people out there who probably hate me.  I’m sorry that I’ve had to turn down all travel (I can’t lift over 10 pounds for awhile yet). I learned to say no – and believe me, people don’t like to take no for an answer. But I’m grateful that medical science is so advanced – this was a much worse operation only a few years ago. And I’m grateful that my body has been able to heal like this. Pretty amazing!

Through all of this, I have continued to write. Funny to say, but the month or so I was pretty much housebound was actually good for my creativity –  many new thoughts and attitudes grew out of that time.

Best of all, there’s something NEWcoming soon in the wonderful world ! On August 28, the first two books in the Tiny Tales series debuts in the U.S. The series has already been launched years ago in the U.K. but these are newly edited and newly illustrated books for younger readers. Shorter, illustrated Humphrey adventures! Best of all, they are illustrated by Priscilla Burris, who is like me, a southern Californian. She is PERFECT for Humphrey and I feel so lucky! I’ll be sharing the reviews (good!) soon and trying to keep this blog up-to-date. Thank you for your patience. And thank you to my husband, Frank, who made all of this run as smoothly and painlessly as possible.

I just can’t wait to go back to Pilates!