Archive for the ‘Friends and Family’ Category

It’s That Time of Year Again

August 24th, 2012





Color coordinated with my Princess phone!

It seems as if every time a new school year rolls around, I put up a picture of me from Kindergarten or first grade. So today … I’m time traveling to high school!

After my recent Esther Williams blog, I was in touch with my old friend Sandy, whom I wrote about. By the way, she’s still swimming and doing water aerobics, which doesn’t surprise me. She asked me if I remembered us being in the pool and hearing the school bus make its practice rounds – and how excited we’d be. (Almost as excited as when I got my own Princess phone!) I’d forgotten but it made me recall the great anticipation of a new school year. We didn’t know who our teacher would be until the last moment. Sandy and I would walk to Ben Franklin (a five-and-dime store, like Woolworth’s) and buy our school supplies. There were always new fall clothes – dresses and skirts only, of course.  And there’s nothing sweeter than grabbing that last bit of summer fun. Hello, Sandy? Want to walk to the Crest to see that great new Gidget movie?

I loved summer so much … but I was happy to go back to school and see all my friends. I hope I wasn’t the only one who loved school! Still, there was nothing like summer for reading.






  Ah, summer reading on the front porch – my great-niece Rita de Leeuw.


Here’s my great-niece Rita reading Mysteries According to Humphrey in June. We were visiting her family in Glen Ridge, NJ for the day and she read the whole book while I was there. She found a few mistakes in the bound galleys, but they were corrected. (Future copy editor?) And she told me there’s a Mr. E. at her school, just like in the book. By the way, Rita contributed some excellent material for School Days According to Humphrey!

  Great-niece Josie de Leeuw tracking down more Humphrey books!

Meanwhile, her sister Josie was out scouting the Humphrey books at a local shop. I have a whole network of family members reporting on the stock at their local store. She also gave me a fun idea that I just might use one of these days. I’ve got to keep those girls working on Humphrey ideas!

Anyway, ready or not … here comes the 2012-2013 school year. And I know one classroom hamster who’s unsqueakably happy to go back to school!

    U.S.                                                            U.K.










It’s HOT-HOT-HOT, as my friend Humphrey would say. And while I was watching the synchronized swimming events of the Olympics, suddenly a waterfall of childhood memories tumbled over me as I had one very cool thought: Esther Williams.

I feel much cooler already.

When I was growing up, my sister and girlfriends and I loved Esther Williams. Who didn’t? She starred in many unique films where she displayed unbelievable feats of swimming and diving (and water-skiing) expertise … and she was smiling and gorgeous the whole time. There’s the old joke about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers saying that Ginger did everything Fred did, but she did it backwards and in high heels. Well, Esther had all the grace and athleticism of Fred and Ginger … but she did her thing underwater. And during my 1950s and 60s childhood, we reveled in her amazing exploits in a nice cool movie theater, even before we had air conditioning ourselves.

When I was very young, on hot and humid St. Louis afternoons, my mother would take my sister, Janet, and me down into the cool basement. Janet and I would strip down to our underwear or slips (remember ?) and play in front of the fan. When it was almost time for dinner, we’d go upstairs for a bath and clean clothes and feel quite refreshed.










After dinner on hot evenings, we might take a drive to ride the boats on the lagoon at Forest Park – Janet and I got to steer the motor boats – or just look at the big fountain with the changing colors. Or we’d go out to a big swimming pool, like Springdale, and cool off. But an Esther Williams movie was the coolest thing of all. Just watch this little video tribute and you’ll be a believer.

When I was older, about middle school age, my life changed completely when Sandy Birnie moved in across the street. Yep, my married name is Birney and my childhood best friend was named Birnie. Little did I know! Sandy and I were inseparable, especially during the summers. Mostly, we’d play cards all day and evening. We’d take the Hoyle’s Book of Rules and play everything,  including poker with just about everything wild. There were insanely high-speed games of double solitaire and War. We’d also walk our blonde cocker spaniels every day. Mitzi (a mix) was mine and Ginger (a purebred)  was hers. They weren’t that friendly, but they tolerated each other for the walks. Ginger even had puppies one summer, thanks to the neighborhood rogue, Buttons.

Sandy and I would also walk to the Crest Theater to see Esther Williams or Doris Day or anybody at all, to cool off.

But the best part of summer was swimming. Our wonderful neighbors, Lora and Gil Hansmann, had the only pool in the subdivision. On certain days, Mrs. Hansmann would hang a flag on the outside of the pool, signalling the neighborhood kids that they were welcome to come swim at a certain time. Sandy and I did that at first, tolerating the rowdy younger boys, but later the Hansmanns invited the two of us to swim without the rest of the pack – no flag needed. After all, Sandy was a superb swimmer and a certified lifeguard and we were (fairly) mature and responsible. We had to clean out the pool – they taught us how – and respect their rules of not running and not making too much noise.

Miss Birnie and Mrs. Birney-to-be had all afternoon to swim and play in that pool by ourselves and it was glorious – thanks to Esther. As we did handstands, backwards somersaults and our own version of synchronized swimming, we were channeling Esther Williams. We raced (Sandy was a much better swimmer than I was). We dove for pennies on the bottom of the pool. We had the best time two best friends could ever have.

To repay the Hansmanns for their incredible generosity, we would occasionally “Grandma-sit” for Mrs. Hansmann’s 90 year old mother, Mrs. Pippin. She was a sweet little old lady who had no teeth, but still chewed Chiclets gum incessantly. She liked cards, so Sandy and I would teach her “our” card games with their crazy rules. Invariably, sweet Mrs. Pippin beat us. We could never really figure that out and despite our plots to unseat her as the reigning champion, we never succeeded. Mrs. Pippin was a loveable shark.

Those summer days were just as hot as the days we’ve been having, but much sweeter to me. I can still remember walking back up to my house in my swimming suit, then taking a long, hot bath and feeling amazingly refreshed and relaxed.

I can still remember feeling just like Esther Williams when Sandy and I were in that pool.

Esther Williams is still alive at 91. I hope she’s well and can still dip her toe into the water. I have a lot to thank her for – not just the pleasure of imagining myself to be her, but also for the fact that she inspired our family to visit Cypress Gardens on a big trip to Florida. We loved it because we felt that Esther had been there.

By the way, my other childhood idol was cowgirl Dale Evans. Somehow, I think that longing to be feisty Dale or Esther – whose athleticism paralleled her beauty – was a little better than wanting to be a model or a princess. But then … that’s just me looking back in time.

I still think Esther was the coolest thing around.






















[Note: Humphrey asked me to tell you that if you’re a fan, he’d be unsqueakably happy if you “Liked” his Facebook page at]

  Mom, me, Janet


I once knew a woman who had an unusual daughter.  Many parents panic if they notice anything about a child’s behavior that falls into uncharted territory, but this stay-at-home mom was unflappable.

While her daughter played outside endlessly by herself, way, way  back in the yard – weaving in and out of the row of evergreens that lined the back wall – the mother glanced out the window from time to time. Her daughter talked to herself in a highly animated manner, acting out some kind of a story but the mother was merely bemused. When the girl came back in the house to get ready for dinner, the mother never, ever asked her what she was doing in the backyard. (I’m not sure whether she had to bite her tongue.) Once the girl told her about the little hotel that was back there -each evergreen was a door to a different room – and her mother accepted it without question.

Without question.

When the weather was bad, the girl played in her room. She lined her dolls up on the bed and pretended she was their teacher. It was a small house and the mother couldn’t help overhearing the girl’s monologue, but the mother didn’t questions, although from time to time, she could be heard telling other family members, “I know everything that happened in school today from listening to her play. I knew who got in trouble, who got a bad grade, who talked out of turn.” On Sundays, her daughter returned from church and re-enacted Sunday School.

The girl also spent long hours at her desk, drawing and writing. The mother surely noticed the accumulation of drawings of an endless cast of characters in the wastebasket and the wadded-up pieces of writing, but she didn’t let on. Her mother let her type on the old upright typewriter on the back porch as soon as she could form words.

Sometimes, the girl showed her parents a story or poem she had written. Her writing got good grades at school. The mother was pleased, but she when she saw her daughter scribbling away for hours, she didn’t ask what she was writing.

The unusual daughter had a father, too. He was tolerant, as well. The parents were already used to a daughter who loved to read. After all, their older girl was a devoted reader and when she was very young, they’d take her to three or four libraries at a time. The libraries only allowed children to check out a few books, and their first daughter needed more to get her through a week.

It didn’t bother the father when his younger daughter followed him around while he worked in the yard, her nose stuck in a book, spelling out words she didn’t know so he’d tell her what they were.  It didn’t bother him when she’d call out at night (the family all read in bed every night) and spell out words. He’d just call back down the hall with the word and they all went on reading. No one ever told her she was reading too much, even when she tripped over furniture as she walked through the house reading.

At seven, the younger girl wrote a book (with pictures) and when she  gave it to her parents, she told them she wanted to be a writer. They were surprised but proud. The father, who was an excellent amateur artist, took a shoe box and made a little diorama of her book, with cardboard cut-out figures of her hero, Teddy Bear, and his girlfriend, Tallulah.

When the family converted from an old coal furnace to gas, they painted the old coal bin in the basement, with its thick walls and the little window for loading the coal, and made it into an office for their writerly daughter. She had a desk, a blackboard, a chair, a little china cabinet. She carried a pitcher of water down there and wrote and wrote and wrote. It was her first office, the first of many and one of the best.

Perhaps if the little girl had been a loner, her parents might have worried, but she had loads of friends and in addition to playing alone, she loved to play jump rope, hopscotch, roller skate, ride her bicycle, play with her dog, play piano, play board games (and jacks and pick-up-sticks), watch TV and giggle.

Still …. still …. she spent a lot of time in some kind of imaginary world that they didn’t know. And they never tried to know.

Somehow, this girl’s parents knew that even a child has a right to privacy … the right to grow and change and create without intervention. A decade or two before people started saying, “I need my space,” they already knew it.

I can never thank these parents enough, for I was this girl, and these were my parents and I am grateful.



            I have something in my pocket

            It belongs across my face,

            I keep it very close at hand

            In a most convenient place.

            I bet you’ll never guess it,

            If you guess a long, long while.

            So I’ll take it out and put it on,

            It’s a great big Brownie smile!



(Could any uniform be less flattering?)

Happy 100th Birthday to the Girl Scouts! I was a Brownie and a Girl Scout and on this occasion, I’ve been reflecting on what I got from those organizations besides Thin Mints.

I was very lucky to get Mrs. Anderson for a Troop Leader. As an adult, I’ve thought a lot about all the hard work she put into our troop activities. Lots of magical things happened in her basement. I loved the Brownie songs – especially the one up above, which ends with us reaching in our pockets and plastering that Brownie smile on our face. We also sang “Make New Friends and Keep the Old,” “Kookaburra sits on an old gum tree,” a politically incorrect Indian song, and a silly song called “I’m a Nut” which almost has the word “underpants” in it.

We made things: sit upons, wooden trains, Christmas ornaments, gifts for our parents. We played games. Our favorite was called “Murder” and I wish I remember exactly how it worked but we sat in a circle and someone was named the detective and was sent out of the room. While she was gone, one of us was “murdered” – which meant the victim got to lie down and play dead with a ghastly expression on her face. The girl returned and had to guess who the murderer was. I don’t remember that part, but we liked it. Little scraps of paper were involved. (If anyone remembers how to play this – please help me out!)I doubt that the Brownies endorsed that game or that any parents would let their kids even think about murder but it was fun.

(Most memorably, I broke my pinky finger playing cannonball -a very rough game which we adored- in Mrs. Anderson’s driveway while waiting to be picked up.)

We went to Camp Cedarledge in Peveley, MO and earned several badges, including outdoor cooking. I’m sure that marshmallows were involved. Something must have gone awry with the cooking because all of the girls except Ruth Ann Blum and me made numerous hurried trips to the latrine all night. Ruth Ann and I sat outside on a fence railing and laughed at them. I don’t know what they ate that we didn’t and  I’m sure that was not behavior condoned by the Girl Scouts of America!

One of my favorite events was the annual re-enactment of the Brownie story, which involved the elf-like type of Brownies. I always was selected to read the narration because I was a good reader and I loved the part that referred to a “wee bairn.” Mrs. Anderson explained that meant a baby and it just delighted me to say it.

The low point of my Girl Scout years: the annual cookie sales. Our parents didn’t sell them at the office. We didn’t sell them to relatives or accost people at the supermarket. We went door-to-door. I hated it. We took orders and when they came in we had to deliver them door-to-door. Believe me, I never won the award for selling the most cookies. But I suppose it did challenge me to do something I really dreaded.

The high point of my Girl Scout years – and you knew this was coming – was earning the Writer’s Badge. When I saw that in my Girl Scout Handbook, I knew I had to have it. I’ve been rummaging around my office to find my little notebook … I know it’s here somewhere and Mrs. Anderson’s note was priceless. (Basically saying, “I didn’t know you could write.” And here I thought everyone knew I could write.)

My mom wasn’t a saver and I’m not either.  I don’t know what happened to my badges but I’d sure like to have that Writer’s Badge. I was the only girl in the troop who was even vaguely interested in it, but I love that the Girl Scouts gave us ways to challenge ourselves in so many areas.  That still puts a great big Brownie smile on my face.

I stayed in the Girl Scouts until Junior High. As soon as I discovered boys, I lost interest in the Girl Scouts. And I think Mrs. Anderson didn’t continue the troop and I would have had to find a new one. Somehow, I knew it would never be the same.

Were you a Girl Scout, Brownie, Cub Scout or Boy Scout? I’d love to hear your experience.


A Writer’s Free Time

November 15th, 2011


Third Act 2nd Meeting July 2011








What do writers do when they’re not writing? Ummm , mostly hang out with other writers and attend book-related events.



Here’s one group of L.A. Children’s Book Writers that likes to gather together. Left to right, Kathryn Hewitt, Lin Oliver, Betsy Rosenthal, Marla Frazee, Eve Bunting, me, Susan Goldman Rubin, Susan Patron, Hope Anita Smith, Amy Goldman Koss (front) April Halprin Wayland, Ann Whitford Paul. Missing (because she’s taking the picture) is Sonya Sones. And Lisa Yee, who couldn’t make it that day.

Here we are again – this time Sonya’s in the picture – back row, far right, but Marla and Lisa are missing and Hope’s taking the photo. Hey – where’s Eve? She was there.

Third Act 3rd meeting2 August 24, 2011

I’ve also been attending a lot of more formal book-related events spanning the letters of the alphabet.

First came the SCIBA Awards (Southern California Independent Booksellers Award) two weeks ago in Long Beach, preceded the night before by a signing at the brand new and gorgeous Mysterious Galaxies bookstore in Redondo Beach. Summer According to Humphrey was nominated but I was pretty sure that The Marbury Lens would win and I was right. What chance does humorous middle grade have against an edgy dystopian YA book, but I had no problem with that. I did have a problem with the glitch that meant there were no books for me to sign. They had a plethora of writers there to sign, including keynote speaker Brian Selznick – a witty and wonderful speech, by the way. The other nominees had books to sign but not me. I was grumpy about it for two whole days.

Last week was the CLCSC Fall Gala and 50th Anniversary. Okay, that’s the Council of Children’s Literature for Southern California and was held in South Pasadena. Lois Lowry gave the keynote – how lucky were we? – and I saw a ton of writer and librarian friends, including Denise Doyen, Antoinette Portis (she was also at the SCIBA event), Eve Bunting, Susan Patron, Susan Rubin and Sharon Hearn, who receive a well-deserved honor for her contribution to children’s book in L.A. with her fabulous bookstore, Children’s Book World. I’m doing an event with Sharon this week.

Last night (after a fun baby shower with great friends – no, the shower wasn’t for me), I attended the CSLA (California School Library Association) banquet along with a ton of writers. Each of us hosted a table but I got the BEST table – a great group from Berkeley. My pal, Amy Koss was there, as well as old friends Barb Odanaka and Carol Tanzman. And I enjoyed meeting Maile Meloy, whose book Apothecary is hot and I can’t wait to read it. (I know most writers run around and get pictures of themselves taken with everyone they meet, but I like to talk to people and always find that distracting!)

But my favorite letters of the alphabet are SCBWI … a fantastic organization that’s a MUST for any aspiring  or published children’s book author or illustrator.

I have events this week at The Mirman School, Children’s Book World (at Overland Elementary School) …. then comes  Thanksgiving, immediately followed by a trip to NY – and that’s  immediately followed by 4 days in the Bay Area. Meanwhile, I’m writing Humphrey book 9 (title to come). Back to work!