Saturday, August 06, 2005

Author Interview: Betty G. Birney on Friendship According To Humphrey

Friendship According To Humphrey by Betty G. Birney (Putnam, 2005). Humphrey's still the class pet in room 26, but suddenly, he's not the only one! Enter Og the Frog. "Boing!" Can these different species become friends, and what about the other relationships in Mrs. Brisbane's classroom? It can be HARD-HARD-HARD to be a friend, but it's worth it. Ages 8-up. A companion book to The World According To Humphrey.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Only a few months after buying The World According To Humphrey, (editor) Susan Kochan (cyn: see also this interview) asked for a sequel. I was still basking in the glow of selling my first middle grade and now had a contract for another one! It was a tight deadline to get it out one year after the first book was published but we did it. I was given full rein and I didn’t even have to tell them the subject of the book until it was completed. That sounds like a dream – right? Well, if the first book just poured out of me, the sequel was a somewhat different story. It wasn’t a nightmare, but it was no dream, either.

What were the challenges in bringing it to life?

The big challenge was to keep Humphrey and his friends consistent with the first book but to add new elements to make it fresh. Then there’s always the issue of a child picking up the second book without having read the first book – there has to be some backstory in it but you don’t want to bore the child who did read the first book. Arrgh! I was biting my nails from the start. Although a typical classroom has around 30 students, the first book really only mentioned eight students (plus Aldo, Mrs. Brisbane, Principal Morales and parents). I added four characters to Friendship. Three of them were regular students whom Humphrey didn’t know so well until Mrs. Brisbane rearranged the classroom. The fourth was the new girl, a lonely foster child.

Although The World According To Humphrey is episodic in the way Humphrey has self-contained adventures on the weekends, there was a strong through-line revolving around the idea that Humphrey was convinced Mrs. Brisbane not only didn’t like him, she was out to get him. (He was brought to class by a substitute.) That gave the book a lot of drive. Several children have written to say they were scared when Humphrey had to go home with Mrs. Brisbane. What would give the sequel the same kind of oomph? I rather quickly decided that Humphrey would have the shock of his life when a new classroom pet was added to Room 26: a frog.

Humphrey’s challenge would be to make friends with this frog, called Og, who did not appear to be particularly friendly. I did a lot of frog research but the rockiest part of writing the book was working on Humphrey’s efforts to befriend Og and also cope with his own jealousy. (Now there’s a problem kids can relate to.) Then I decided that friendship would be a general theme linking all the stories. (There was no such link in the first book). The title was up in the air but when I came up with Friendship According To Humphrey, I realized that there could be a whole series of “According To Humphrey” books.

The stories about the children came fairly easily to me, but definitely have more depth than in the first book: dealing with a bully, a lonely foster child, two best friends feuding and two warring stepsisters. Humphrey lends a paw in resolving these problems and stars in a magic show, too. But the ongoing relationship between Humphrey and Og was a constant trial. I had wanted to include Frog Care Tips at the end of each chapter, to mirror the Hamster Care Tips in the first book, but it didn’t work out because there were too many chapters where Og didn’t appear. So I ended up putting in quotes about friendship.

There’s another event that drives the action of the book: a Valentine’s Day Poetry Festival. I had a lot of fun writing good and bad kid poems and even a couple of poems written by Humphrey. The idea for the Poetry Festival stemmed from an event that was held at my son’s elementary school each year. Students didn’t actually have to write their own poems but they had to memorize and recite them at an assembly. They picked and chose each year and it wasn’t until about his fourth go-round that Walshe was accepted, so he had several years of deep disappointment. Happily, I made sure all the children in Room 26 got to participate.

While the stories came easily, making the Og/Humphrey relationship work was grunt work and I revised the sections where they interact many times. However, I had the big climax (which I won’t give away but is dramatic and visual) in mind from the start. I had my map, remember?

Because this book was more difficult to write, I am constantly amazed that the sequel got equally positive reviews and many people have told me they like it even better than World. It does have more depth than the first book. And I’ve also queried people who read Friendship without having read World to see if it all made sense without having read the first book and I’ve been relieved that there seems to be no problem with it.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

The World According To Humphrey was released in paperback in June. Friendship According To Humphrey will be in paperback next summer. The U.K. version of World will be published by Faber & Faber in February. A Dutch version was just released by Facet. (Only Humphrey is Bertje!) I am writing the third book, Trouble According To Humphrey now. It’s halfway between the first and second book in difficulty. I was nervous when I began, but then Humphrey took over. As I said to my husband, “I don’t have to worry about the book now. Humphrey’s taken over and he’ll do the writing.”

I recently sat in on a hamster examination at the vet’s office (research!) and even held a hamster. I must admit, it was easy for me because he was a pet store reject named Kramer who had one eye and no teeth. He was adorable – looked like he was perpetually winking – but the best part was, he couldn’t bite me. So I guess you can imagine the kind of trouble Humphrey may be getting into soon!

Cynsational Note: see also Betty G. Birney on The World According To Humphrey (Putnam, 2004).

Cynsational News & Links

Read Gail Giles' LJ (The YA Novel and Me) lately? Recent gems include: "Want to be a writer? Pull up a chair. Seriously, pull up a chair." and "Am I crazy or just Southern? Or is that a moot point?"

An Interview With Libba Bray from Young Adult Books Central. Ms. Bray is in true wacky form. She also alledgedly has a Web site now (but the splash page image doesn't show up on my Mozilla or Netscape browsers; perhaps you will have better luck).

realwritingteachers@yahoogroups.com: a discussion group of 650 plus writing teachers, children's authors, librarians, homeschoolers, etc. who discuss reading and writing strategies, resources, etc. A prolific list with more than 1500 posts last month alone, but any topic or question usually results in learning about great resources, Web sites, etc. Owner/Moderator Robert A. Redmond encourages interested parties to join.

Surf by Austin writer/illustrator Shannon Lowry's Web site. Learn more about Shannon, check out her portfolio, visit her studio and more!

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