by Judy Newman with Alexie Basil
Sometimes I find it challenging to come up with interesting stories about my life as a reader that relate to our Scholastic Book Clubs Book of the Week.
When that happens, I have to dig deep into my memories—or the boxes of photos and letters and newspaper clippings I have been promising myself for many years that I will sort and label and categorize. But when it came to inspiration for this week’s post and The World According to Humphrey, I didn’t need to feel guilty about my delinquent sorting.…I hit pay dirt while chatting with my sister, Emily.
Emily and I were discussing her son Leo’s 18th birthday and how I wish I were there to celebrate; her new grandniece, Sophie Rae, and how Emily can’t wait to meet her; how we haven’t seen our dad in person (or each other) since his 90th birthday party last year; and the plan for him, now almost 91, to get his COVID-19 vaccine through the amazing folks at the Benchmark Assisted Living Facility, where he lives in Newton, Massachusetts. (Big shout-out to Executive Director Todd Raymond: caring, professional people make all the difference!)
To lighten things up after all that talk about pandemic-caused separation, we turned the conversation to work. I told Emily about our Book of the Week, and remembering that she had lots of gerbils for a while when we were kids, I asked her why they were her chosen pets. She told me this story:
Back at the John Ward School in Newton when she was in first grade, her teacher, Miss Barnes, took all the kids outside for recess after a new snowfall. Miss Barnes just said “follow me” as she led her first graders in a line around the schoolyard. The kids thought they were just getting some exercise tromping through the snow.
When they got back inside, Miss Barnes led them to their classroom on the second floor and told them to look out the window. From that vantage point, looking down for Emily’s first grade class—and the whole school—to see were the words “BABY GERBILS” spelled out in the snow. Their class gerbil in Room 1B had just had babies, and this was Miss Barnes’s way of telegraphing the news.
For Emily at the time—and for me listening to this story all these years later—that was pure magic!
There is so much to unpack here in my sister’s memory: The imagination and creativity of incredible teachers like Miss Barnes, who create indelible memories for their students; the empowering presence and companionship of a small, furry class pet (which, in this case, inspired my sister to get her own gerbils at home); and for me, a great connection to this week’s Book of the Week, The World According to Humphrey by Betty G. Birney.
The World According to Humphrey is the first book in a series of 12 chapter books (and then many, many more spin-offs!) about a very thoughtful, very curious, very expressive hamster with a notebook and a pencil who lives in Room 26. He reads, writes, shoots rubber bands, and spends each weekend with a different student. In short, hamster life is pretty great!
“Humphrey’s views underscore the importance of knowing the full story before making judgments, and his presence makes a positive difference in the lives of the people he meets. All in all, a winning book that will appeal to children who like tales about animals, school life, and friendship.”
But then Humphrey learns a lot about himself and the students in Room 26 when his good friend and best advocate, long-term substitute teacher Ms. Mac, leaves and Mrs. Brisbane comes back as their regular teacher. Mrs. Brisbane is not a Humphrey fan, and suddenly Humphrey’s perfect life is turned upside down.
This week, all of us at Scholastic Book Clubs echoed Emily’s enthusiasm for the power of a class pet:
• The Book Boys discuss what it would be like if Humphrey came to stay with them at home.
• In Book Talks, fourth grade teacher Kelly Matthews shares some wonderful class activities for students after they read about Humphrey.
• Author Betty G. Birney shares her love for writing about Humphrey in an inspiring Behind the Scenes video interview.
• Blog manager and contributor Alana Pedalino collaborated with some wonderful teachers to create a writing prompt activity and discussion guide in Cooked Up from a Book.
As he does each week, David Vozar exercised his creative muscles to explain why he admires hamsters.
Oh, one more thing—Emily already called me back to tell me that in addition to gerbils, she had two hamsters: Chester and Francesca. I am sure Chester and Francesca stories will surface on this blog someday soon.
In the meantime, please send me your class pet stories. I would love to come to your classroom in person (after the pandemic, of course) to see them in their cages or on their spinning wheel—or, like the snake in Betty Birney’s son’s class that she mentions in her author interview, wrapped around the teacher’s waist.
Hopefully, we’ll be back in action visiting classrooms soon. While we wait, please email your class pet stories and photos to: email@example.com
As Humphrey would say, I hope you have fun-fun-fun reading!