Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

I have been fortunate that for almost all of my son’s growing up and since then, I have been able to work at home. Even before books were my major endeavor (but I was always working on them), T.V. animation writers like me worked from home.

There are drawbacks, of course. Lack of social interaction is the major one so if you freelance, you have to make sure to schedule face-to-face visits with colleagues and friends. But there are advantages as well. Traffic in Los Angeles is horrible and continues to get worse. My commute is about 22 steps across my backyard to my little blue writing house. I make that walk MANY times a day! In fact, many’s the day I log 10,000 steps and I haven’t left the property. But I do walk around the yard, usually listening to audiobooks.

Another plus is that it’s quiet and conducive to concentration, but I can be as distracted as the next person, if the truth be known. I can distract myself without any outside intervention.

Although we have neighbors on either side and behind our house, we have total privacy. Our house is 80 + years old with lots of old growth trees and California greenery including the epically huge avocado tree outside my office.  It’s like a little cottage in the woods.  At night, the light by the door serves as a nightlight for the whole yard. In a word, it’s cozy.

It may sound a little bit lonely out there, but I have lots of company. For one thing, I have my characters, like Humphrey and Og, or Eben McAllister and Rae Ellen Hubbell (rhymes with trouble) from The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs. They all live in my imagination and are good companions. There are also plenty of living creatures around whose lively workdays include hunting avocados (the squirrels) and building nests (the birds). Maybe I took Disney’s classic Snow White and Cinderella films too seriously, but I talk to them frequently. (To date, however, none of them have ever sewed me a dress – one of my favorite scenes ever.)

 

 

I do miss the best dog who ever lived, the irreplaceable Desiree Birney (Desi for short but often called Miss Birney), who lived a very long and happy life and loved spending as much time as possible in the yard, where among other things, she hunted squirrels as well as avocados.

She was vigilant about squirrels, seeming to believe they were our worst enemies that – without her – would take over the yard. (She was right. They have.) She never met a human she didn’t like but squirrels  were her sworn enemies. First thing in the morning and last thing at night, she sniffed the entire perimeter of the yard to see if any intruders had crossed into it. She even went behind the office, which abuts the neighbor’s fence and is frankly, a place I don’t want to go. There was one particular corner of the yard that commanded so much of her attention (it is hidden) that we came to call it Where Evil Dwells. Miss Birney kept the evil at bay.

 

 

 

 

This might look like a sunny and inviting spot, but behind that greenery is Where Evil Dwells. Maybe. You can’t be too careful.

These days, the squirrels fascinate me and keep me well entertained during the day as I sit at my desk near the glass door. I have a great view of the tree that I call The Squirrel Superhighway. The squirrels go up and down that tree dozens of times a day and often we even make eye contact.  Sometimes the males tell me off. The cute little females aren’t even afraid of me. Those big males carry huge avocados in their mouths and sometimes, unfortunately drop them along the way. Once an avocado is dropped, they don’t pick it up again. In fact with most avocados, they take a few bites and leave the rest on the ground.

Like today, for instance. What a waste of some potential guacamole! In fact, it’s the pits!

 

That tree outside my office  is amazing! It’s green most of the year, but turns red in the winter – I’m just starting to see a few red leaves. Soon it will look like the picture at the top of this post, which doesn’t LOOK like Southern California but we do get some fall color … in the winter. While there are still a few red leaves on the branches, the tree blossoms with beautiful white flowers. Eventually all that white looks like snow on the ground. Here’s Desi in the “California snow” some years back. There were still a few colored leaves on the ground.

 

I’ll write more about the squirrels soon. But there are other critters out there. I wake up really early and am usually walking those 22 steps at 5:00 or 5:30 am, in my pajamas. (Don’t worry – no one can see me.) Recently, in the shadows (heading toward Where Evil Dwells), I saw something small and black with a great big white stripe down his back. I tiptoed back into the house. I came even closer to one once when I went out early to get the paper. I retreated into the house VERY-VERY-VERY quietly. Desi, however, was happy to take on the skunks and we all suffered from her encounters. Once a skunk sprayed her squarely in the eyes and nose and we thought she was going to die. She was just dazed but for the first and only time in her life, she had to sleep in the garage. She didn’t argue. We tried the tomato juice routine and she turned a lovely shade of pink! The folks at our Petco store just down the street says the skunk removal stuff is one of the biggest sellers in our neighborhood. We even have a skunk season where we are awakened almost every night by the overpowering smell. Luckily, that season doesn’t last too long. But believe me, you will never see a photo of a skunk taken by me! It’s not worth the risk.

In the 20+ years we have lived here, only once have I seen a raccoon. That was last year,  in the still-dark early morning as well. I’m glad the family didn’t settle in the neighborhood as they are destructive AND smart, which is a bad combination. Long ago, I twice saw coyotes in the very early morning. One was lying in the driveway. One was in the front yard against the hedge. This is not normal behavior for them. But with so much building encroaching on their territory in the hills, I’m sorry for them. Where are they to go for water and food? Not that they don’t make me nervous.

I won’t even talk about rats. Nope, not going to mention them. Just forget I typed the word. They’re gone now (the rodent rats, not the human kind). Occasionally, we’ve had opossums, too. Those slow movers are hardly a threat … but yep, Desi took them on, too.

More to come about the fauna and the flora in Mrs. Birney’s neighborhood – because it’s a very busy place!

 

 

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.

HAPPY-HAPPY-HAPPY Reading!

 

 

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!

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!

 

 

… 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!