Archive for the ‘School Visits’ Category

Humphrey takes his job as a classroom pet VERY-VERY-VERY seriously (and so does Og, as you’ll learn when his first book comes out in July) … but he is far from alone in the category of working animals.

Dogs are particularly suited to many jobs from security dogs at airports, police and war dogs, cancer-sniffing dogs, dogs that visit hospitals, rehabilitation and retirement homes and rescue dogs (oh, the hard work of dogs after 911 and the Oklahoma City bombings).

But SCHOOL dogs? I did encounter a working school dog during the years I spent traveling around the country and speaking at schools. I wish I could remember where. That fine dog’s regular visits were calming and helpful to students struggling with reading. They could read to her and her complete attention and lack of judgment fostered the confidence they needed to move forward.

And now, please meet the very handsome Thabiso! His name aptly means “Bringer of Joy.”  As his partner in this work, Allison Smith, says, “He visits libraries, an assisted living facility and a homeless shelter as well and is closing in on 800 total visits made.” Thabiso has been visiting 4th grade classes for two years and 2nd grade classes weekly for five years at E.J. Arthur Elementary School in Athens, NY … and that’s how he came to know the Humphrey books.

(Thabiso is certified with Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs and Allison and her husband – along with Thabiso – are featured in the book RESCUED by Peter Zheutlin.)

Allison donates Humphrey books to students in the classes … and the books are “pawtographed” by Thabiso!

She says, “He loves his kids so much and they love him and they are more confident readers because of him. We know from many past classes that he helps inspire a love of reading What could be better than that?”


He also recently was loaned to a school where several children were victims of a terrible tragedy and he helped comfort their classmates.

This is work. This is hard work. And it’s something that dogs do so well.

Our own departed but still beloved dog, Desi, created jobs for herself. She would have loved to have had a REAL job but looking after rather limited humans was her lot in life. Yes, she thought we were limited, with extremely poor senses of smell and hearing but an uncanny ability to score yummy food!

She was a true pack dog with a rather paltry pack. One of the ways she showed her allegiance to our pack was the fact that she would lie outside the room of whichever person was the last one still in bed, facing outward so she’d see the enemies coming. She wouldn’t budge until that family member got up.

She also thoroughly searched the perimeter of our yard (which has some rather wild areas) first thing in the morning and last thing at night. She checked every inch without fail to see if any critters had crossed the line.

When they did, she took care of that situation with many “notches”” in her collar for ridding the yard of possums, skunks (not a good idea), squirrels and other rodents -no hamsters, thank goodness!

I am not making light of her work. She was the smartest dog I’ve ever known and took her job seriously. She was a playful pet and sympathetic friend to my son, but also always on alert for anything that wasn’t quite right. She was not the kind of dog who sat at your feet, but rather sat outside of the circle, facing out, watching for danger. But we had a blind friend and somehow she sensed Carolyn couldn’t see. She would plant herself at Carolyn’s side so she could pet her easily and would NEVER get under her feet. She was the only visitor who received this treatment.

I’m sorry Miss Desi didn’t meet Thabiso. She would have loved his job!

… 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!




Hi – this is Humphrey squeaking and just this once, I’m taking over Betty G. Birney’s blog because her paw is all worn out from signing lots and lots of books! She’s been spinning like crazy,  all over the U.S. (and even across the border) since mid-April to talk about my books. She says an airplane would be a very dangerous place for a small hamster like me but I’m pretty brave for a small creature and I’d like to try it sometime.








She started out in Vancouver, Canada, where she spoke at several schools and public events, sponsored by Kidsbooks. She LOVED-LOVED-LOVED Vancouver and showed me this  photo she took when her plane home took off from Salt Lake City.








With Tuan Nguyen of Mackin and Cynthia Oubre, Kolter Elementary School librarian

Betty came home to re-pack and then  – whoosh – off to Houston to visit Kolter Elementary School – which had won her visit in a contest sponsored by Mackin, an educational resources company. Too bad they don’t let hamsters on airplanes, because I think I’d be quite a prize to win! Kolter is an outstanding school … and they even have a buffalo. I’m not sure it’s real, but Betty says they have a prairie and a garden which among other things, yielded 200 pounds of sweet potatoes last year!









Betty at IRA


From Houston, she went – whoosh- directly to the IRA (International Reading Association) Conference in San Antonio.  I do love it when Mrs. Brisbane reads to us!  It was fiesta time in San Antonio (sort of like Mardi Gras), but it’s always a fiesta when Betty get to hang out with the people from her publisher, Penguin … especially her editor, Susan Kochan! She spoke at the One School One Book symposium, put together by Read to Them, a terrific non-profit which is growing the One School One Book program and expanding my unsqueakably wonderful audience!






Betty celebrating with John Rocco, Sarah Weeks and Jordan Sonnenblick at AIA


Whoosh – Betty left the hotel in San Antonio at 5:00 am to head to Rochester Hills, MI for Authors in April. I know she’d been looking forward to it for a long time because she was there with some really great people. Author, illustrator and Caldecott Honor Medal winner John Rocco spoke to the kindergarteners and first graders and Betty says he can draw a great hamster and other equally cool things. He has a very talented paw! Sarah Weeks spoke to the third and fourth graders about her hamster-rific books, including one about Oggie Cooder – I wonder if he’s related to Og the frog? And Jordan Sonnenblick spoke to the big kids and taught them a lot about writing. I’ll bet he keeps his ideas in a notebook, just like I do.

  John          Sarah


They were so busy, they hardly had time to eat … but when they had the chance, they chowed down on food that looks even tastier than my Nutri-Nibbles.

Betty spoke to the second and third graders at fifteen schools, attended a fancy banquet, did a library event and signed more books than she’s ever signed in one place before. She says the kids in Rochester and Rochester Hills are BIG-BIG-BIG Humphrey fans – so I LOVE-LOVE-LOVE them!








Birthday girl Betty G.


She even spent her birthday there … and they celebrated at a fiesta at a Mexican restaurant. She says they don’t allow hamsters there either! Mostly, though, she talked about how wonderfully she was treated and how much fun the week was. (Note to self: find out when I have a birthday, please!)

Betty returned to Los Angeles, packed her bags again and – whoosh – she headed up to Bakersfield, CA. This time she went in a car and I know for a fact that they allow hamsters in cars. But she said it was 100 degrees in Bakersfield when she arrived and I must say, we hamsters don’t like weather that’s too hot or too cold.







Betty with authors Kristine O’Connell George, Tina Nichols Coury and Greg Trine

Again, Betty was paired up with unsqueakably great writers. They were busy, speaking all day at different schools. She spoke to big groups of kids there – I’d love to give them all great big hamster hugs! It was mostly work, but there was a banquet, speaking at the Kern County Young Authors Fair AND some of the writers sneaked out one night and went to Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace for a hootin’ and hollerin’ good time. (Hootin’ and hollerin’ hurts my small hamster ears.)

Betty’s home again and she says she’s never traveling again … but I happen to know that she’s going to the Edinburgh BookFest at the end of August and squeaking about me! Then off to London. Oh, how I’d love to shake paws with the Queen!

But I have to scurry off now, because now MY paw is tired.

Signing off …. your furry pal HUMPHREY




Searching for answers

January 30th, 2013










When you write a series, you end up answering the same questions over and over, which is understandable. Who wouldn’t wonder if I have a hamster or what was the inspiration for the book? Deborah Kalb recently interviewed me for her (adult) book blog and dug a little more deeply. I always like questions that make me think. Here’s the interview:

I recently was at a school where I did two sessions (third and fourth grade) and we had a lot of time, so it was more relaxed than usual. The students asked all the usual, obvious and again, perfectly understandable questions. But then a miracle happened: they started to ask questions about writing. Really good questions about writing. I wish that happened more often at school visits. Yes, the author is there to inspire the students, which is what I try to do. And entertain as well, so they don’t fall asleep. But often, people miss the opportunity to have a writer all to themselves and ask for answers they’d never get off my website, for instance, or in the bio on the back of a book.  Once the kids loosened up that day, they dug more deeply and I hope they enjoyed it as much as I did. I love it when a child asks a question that really makes me think!

I guess at a perfect school visit, the teachers would have had time beforehand to explore the possibilities of asking a real writer questions about how they really write. But I know how limited their time is.

It would be ideal if the students were asked to listen to each answer instead of waving their hands and hoping they’ll get called on. (They all do this, but if you really think about it, it’s rude to have your hand up while a person is answering another question.) And the students would not repeatedly ask questions that were already answered because then it’s obvious that they weren’t listening. (One of my son’s previous teachers, whose class I’ve visited several times calls students on that bad practice but she’s the only one.)

It would be really lovely if the teachers listened and didn’t do their paperwork while I spoke. When they do that, I realize that there’s no hope that they’ll take what I said and reinforce it back in the classroom. Most of the time, teachers do go back and talk to their students about what I said and give them a project that builds on that. But not the ones who don’t listen.

In the end, this is what school visits are like and 99%  of the time, the students and teachers are enthusiastic, interested and lots of fun.

Life isn’t perfect anyway, after all. But please – don’t hold back from asking those burning questions.




Humphrey’s hopping and he’s keeping me busy, too! No complaints, though. Here are some past and future highlights:

1– SIGNING – For those of you who live in or around Los Angeles, I’ll be signing at the fabulous Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, Saturday, April 21 at 1 PM at Mrs. Nelson’s Toy and Bookstore Booth, #538. For complete info, go to Hope to see you there!

2 – READ TO THEM – Humphrey’s fan base is growing fast, thanks in part to the One School, One Book phenomenon.  An organization called Read To Them is promoting these events at and The World According to Humphrey is on their recommended list. This spring, I know of 50 schools across the U.S. using it for their events. They’ve sent accounts of  fabulous, creative ways to involve students, teachers, parents and staff in reading and celebrating the same book.  I’ve been lending support when asked and loving the enthusiasm from new Humphrey readers. There are some GREAT-GREAT-GREAT schools out there, giving their all to get families reading together, and there has been media coverage in many cities.

3 – ALMANAC – I was honored when The World According to Humphrey showed up on one of my favorite blogs early this year. It’s Anita Silvey’s Book-a-Day Almanac and anyone who loves children’s books should check it every single day for a treat! Here’s the link to Humphrey:

4 -SKYPE WITH ME –  I’ve been Skyping with schools for Humphrey and The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs and it’s been so much fun! I do have to charge something for my time, but it’s a lot cheaper and easier than flying me to your city and putting me up somewhere. Besides, I do very little travel these days as I’m trying to complete some other projects.  I like doing a Q & A session and being able to converse with students from my own little office.

5 – THE BIG SURPRISE – For the first time ever, there will be TWO new According to Humphrey books this year. On May 31, last year’s new book, School Days According to Humphrey, comes out in paperback. In July, the eighth book, Mysteries According to Humphrey, will be released! It has a fall/Halloween theme. And TA-DA – in October, Winter According to Humphrey comes out! It’s a holiday themed book as Humphrey and his friends in Room 26 prepare for the Winter Wonderland program at Longfellow School. There’s a lot going on in both books! (For UK fans, Mysteries According to Humphrey is already available, you lucky readers! And the ninth book will be called Christmas According to Humphrey there. But it’s not just about Christmas. Humphrey even gets to spin a dreidel!)

I hope you’re reading LOTS of good books this year!