It has been 13 years since Betty Birney began writing about the sensitive, talkative, and perceptive hamster who makes his home in Mrs. Brisbane’s Room 26. Since then, she has visited schools across the country and around the world, and the love for our furry friend is palpable. When Betty set out to write The World According to Humphrey, she couldn’t have imagined that it would be embraced by entire elementary schools, school districts, and sometimes even entire states. Since writing World, this book, and all 12 of the books in the series, have been used in classrooms for units on kindness, empathy, imagination, history, weather, writing, and conflict resolution, to name a few.
Betty writes, “What amazes me the most is the creativity of teachers and administrators in making the book accessible and fun for students and their families. From the dramatic build-up to the “Big Reveal ceremony” where the book is unveiled, to the final Humphrey family party, daily activities range from trivia quizzes, visiting pet store hamsters and vets, scavenger hunts, “hamster hops,” and lucky toy hamsters going home with different students. And there is no shortage of wacky hamster costumes.”
As the popularity of all school reading programs grew, many educators and administrators were drawn to The World According to Humphrey for its ability to speak to a wide range of students, boys and girls alike. And what young reader doesn’t love a talking animal? Since then, many who have repeated the program have chosen subsequent books in the series. They are a perfect read-aloud selection for the Kindergarten, Grades 1 and Grades 2, and some 3rd, 4th and 5th graders can read them independently. Schools began to construct curriculum for the One School One Book, or All School Reads program, and the book became a staple in the selection process. It has now been used as a one school one book selection in more than 500 schools and 45 states…and counting! Humphrey himself has become a bit of a celebrity in classrooms.
School-based common reading programs have become wonderful opportunities for community outreach programs to take root: with firefighters, police officers and local officials coming into classrooms to read a chapter of Humphrey aloud during the process. Small theater groups and musicians have come in for performances based on the books, and the schools themselves pull out the red carpet when the author is available to visit during the program. If outside readers aren’t available, schools can create a mentor program or buddy system, where the 5th graders and the 1st graders will be paired up together to read a book aloud, which can be one of the most powerful messages to send across the community.
Read to Them is a literacy nonprofit based in Richmond, VA that supports schools that want to collectively read the same book and provide their community with resources and tools that promote reading aloud and literacy. Bruce Coffey, Director of Programs, says “At Read to Them, we want to help families build what we call the culture of literacy – which means we want them to develop the habit of reading together regularly. Humphrey turns out to be the perfect fit. He’s engaging, lively, funny, and very user friendly. And he’s got sequels! Nothing tells us this better than hearing that after reading Humphrey kids ask Santa Claus for the complete set of Humphrey books. That tells us he’s helping us develop that culture of literacy in homes all across America. Humphrey works because it’s both sassy and wholesome, witty and fun. Kids like it because it puts them in their classrooms and they recognize themselves in all the characters Betty creates – from “Speak Up Sayeh” to “Repeat It Please Richie” to “Stop Giggling Gail”. Parents like it because it offers a safe, quick-moving series of adventures. Betty’s use of the first-person means everyone identifies w/ Humphrey, and everyone is moved by his do-gooder’s heart. The books have all the elements because Betty Birney packs it all into each chapter – quick dialogue, teasing, conflict, resolution, humor, and life-lessons.
From Betty’s home in California, “I can track the popularity of the program by the volume of mail I get. And for every enthusiastic student response, I get an equal amount of mail from teachers and parents. One of my favorites was from a mom admitting that once her children got on the school bus, she couldn’t resist sitting down and reading the next chapter ahead of them!”
The power of a shared reading experience is especially tangible with a community’s youngest set: and the Humphrey phenomenon has been an incredible journey that doesn’t seem to be slowing down. We hope you’ll take a look at the series’ offerings, and try one for yourself!