Interview with Betty G Birnley, Author of the famous Humphrey the Hamster books American author Betty G Birnley has written more than 35 children’s books including The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs and The Princess and The Peabodys and also worked for the Disney Channel, writing over 200 episodes of animated and live-action television programmes, among them Welcome To Pooh Corner, Fraggle Rock And Where’s Waldo. However, she’s best known as the writer of the world famous and beloved stories about Humphrey the school pet hamster stories. Mike Davies dragged her away from the typewriter to answer Primary Times’ questions
Why read a book when I can watch TV, go on the Internet or play on my Xbox? TV, the Internet and video games are all fun, but in the end, I think we have a more involving experience with a book. You have to bring your own imagination to the book. I’ve written TV, I like games, and I’m on the internet all day long, but in the end I would choose books over all of them. Often, it just takes one book to open the door to a lifetime love of reading and a much richer life.
Which is better, to read or be read to?
I personally prefer to read rather being read to. When I read, I can go at my own pace, enter the world of the book and let my imagination do the rest of the work.
Do you enjoy reading to people?
Most authors enjoy reading their stories to an audience, but it’s actually not my favourite thing to do.
What books did you grow up with?
My sister and I were huge readers growing up, we went to the library and brought home armloads of books. I loved the Little House books, Nancy Drew, Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, Little Women, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. A lot of them aren’t well-known now, but there was a series about a girl named Maida which I adored and the Betsy-Tacy books, which I loved because Betsy reminded me of myself – she wanted to be a writer
What made you want to write?
As soon as I started reading books, I realised I wanted to figure out how to write them too. When I was seven, I wrote a little chapter book called Teddy Bear In The Woods, gave it to my parents and announced, ‘I am going to be a writer.’ I’ve been writing ever since. One of my grandmothers was a voracious reader. My other was a wonderful storyteller. I think I got the best of both of them.
Why do you want to tell stories?
From early childhood, I loved living in my imagination. Writing allows me to do that. I think that writing is more than a choice. If you have a passion for it, you have to write. But you really do have to put in the work it takes to succeed.
What was the first book you had published?
The first book that had my name on it was called Disney Babies Bedtime Stories. I had a shared credit with two other writers. One is the now-acclaimed American author, Nikki Grimes. It was great fun to be able to hold the book in my hand, but I looked forward to the day when I was writing about my own characters.
What was your favourite TV programme that you wrote for?
It was one of the first shows on the Disney Channel, called Welcome to Pooh Corner. I wrote 90 scripts, rewrote another 20 or more and wrote 120 educational segments called ‘The Thoughtful Spot.’ My favourite show of all time that I wrote was Madeline. I won an Emmy (an American TV award) for that.
What is your favourite Disney film?
I was absolutely delighted with Cinderella and Lady and the Tramp. My dog, Mitzi, looked a lot like Lady, which delighted me.
Why made you start writing the Humphrey books?
I have to be completely honest and admit I don’t have a hamster and I never have had. One day, many years ago, I was in my son’s science classroom. The teacher had the room lined with cages and tanks with all sorts of animals. There were cute furry hamsters and mice, lizards and turtles, and they even had a boa constrictor named Lumpy, which the children loved. I remember thinking, ‘I wonder what these animals think of what they see and hear in the classroom?’ I didn’t write Humphrey for years after that first idea but when I did, I put a lot of thought into what animal it should be. It could have been anything but hamsters seemed to be the most popular classroom pet. Still undecided, I went to the pet shop on the corner and I fell in love with the hamsters and Humphrey was born.
I don’t usually have trouble coming up with names, but I did with Humphrey. So I looked through a baby naming book under ‘H’ for hamster. I saw Harry, Henry, Harvey, etc. At the end, I saw Humphrey and I knew that was it for a very special reason. My parents grew up two houses away from each other and were best friends from the age of nine. My aunts and uncle and both sets of grandparents all lived on this same street in St. Louis, Missouri, and my sister and I loved to stay with my grandparents. It was called Humphrey Street!
Are the Humphrey stories based on real events?
Some bits and pieces in the Humphrey books are from real life. Sayeh, the girl who never speaks in class, was inspired by a girl who was in my class for six years and never spoke when called on. The bully on the bus in Friendship According to Humphrey was based on the awful bully on my bus. The idea of being wrongly accused of something in Trouble According to Humphrey was inspired by something that happened to my husband when he was a child.
Is Humphrey based on anyone you know?
He’s quite like someone I know: me! I’m not as little and furry, but we have a lot in common. We want to help people but don’t always know how. We’re both excitable and sometimes let our imaginations run away with us. We both believe that you need a Plan in order to get something accomplished. And we both write our secret thoughts in a notebook!
Why have you written more Humphrey books than anything else?
Most of my career was spent writing children’s television, but for a long time, I’d known I wanted to write children’s books. The World According to Humphrey was the first I wrote and sold and before that was published, I was asked to write a second one. Since then, Humphrey has taken up most of my time. And now with the new Humphrey’s Tiny Tales books, I’ve written three in one year with a fourth in the works. I do have two non-Humphrey books close to finishing but just when I’m almost there, it’s time to write another Humphrey book. Not that I’m complaining!
Why isn’t there a Humphrey TV show?
There may be one soon. I recently signed a film and TV deal with a company and I’m working on developing a series which they will try to get on television. These things take a long time.
Do you write stories about other animals?
I’m working on a book about a group of kids and their dogs. I’m definitely a dog person so it’s a lot of fun. Do you only write children’s books? I really enjoy writing for children. I think it’s because when I was child, I found books to be absolutely delightful! I have no great longing to write for adults.
What’s great about being an author?
People think it’s exciting to have a book published. But that doesn’t come close to the thrill of hearing a reader say how much they loved a book I wrote. Writing doesn’t mean anything if no one reads it and connects with it. If someone loved my book, then I accomplished my goal.
You wrote The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs. What are your seven wonders?
And they’re all part of my fan club; except Desi, who doesn’t read and doesn’t like hamsters. To find out more about Betty Birney and Humphrey, see bettybirney.com