It’s not unusual for rodent characters to make it big in the world of children’s books. (Look at Stuart Little, for instance.) Currently, a humble hamster named Humphrey is riding his yellow hamster ball to popularity as star of a series of books by Betty G. Birney. A hamster’s-eye-view chronicle of the school year during which Humphrey leaves Pet-O-Rama for a new home as the pet in Room 26 of Longfellow School, the Putnam series kicked off in 2004 with The World According to Humphrey, and continues this month with volume #5, Adventure According to Humphrey. To date, the Humphrey books have more than 400,000 copies in print.

Birney has noted that Humphrey was inspired by the author’s general curiosity about animals’ musings, as well as by visits to her son’s science class, where the kids cared for a number of pets. Humphrey’s tale was among the works that Birney first submitted to literary agent Nancy Gallt back in 2002. “I detest hamsters,” says Gallt. “My children had them growing up, and we even named one Houdini because it escaped from its cage so many times. We would hear the dog barking and wouldn’t know why, and pretty soon we’d find Houdini,” she recalls. “But I get around it by thinking of Humphrey not so much as a hamster, but as a second-grade boy, a really cute little kid. He’s innocent, yet observant. I fell in love with the character.”

Young readers show off their
favorite Humphrey titles.

Gallt says there was good interest in Humphrey when she initially sent out the manuscript and she quickly received an offer from Putnam. The book proved a good match for associate editorial director Susan Kochan, who was on the lookout for younger middle-grade manuscripts after hearing teacher friends say that there was a need for novels that first-graders with very advanced reading skills could enjoy. “The main draw of these books is Humphrey’s funny, warm, entertaining view of humans,” Kochan says. “His personality is so humorous and friendly that everyone who is introduced to the Humphrey books just loves them, especially kids—they’ve voted the series the winner of eight state children’s choice awards.”

Kochan believes the books contain a number of elements that can deliver a sizeable fandom. “Animals are popular with boys and girls and these books appeal to kids in a wide range because they approach familiar childhood issues that aren’t specific to a certain grade.” Gallt agrees, noting that “Betty has such insight into the psyche of a classroom. The stories have real heart.”

Humphrey’s fame is growing on other shores as well. Foreign rights in the series already sold include U.K., German, Dutch, Japanese and Hungarian. Gallt says that the books are most successful in England where they are published by Faber and Faber. Adventure According to Humphrey is actually the extended version of a short story that was commissioned as a centerpiece of World Book Day in England last March. Birney attended and was feted along with eight other authors, including Neil Gaiman and Dav Pilkey.

Stateside, Penguin plans further promotion for the series on the teacher and librarian section of its Web site, and bookmark distribution at educational and library conferences. Birney will also be signing at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival at the end of April. Throughout the year, Birney does a good number of school visits and her Web site has a Humphreyville section filled with reading guides, activities and other extras.

Even class crayfish Popeye is a Humphrey fan.

Last spring, Gallt was able to surprise one lucky classroom of kids—the classroom belonging to her sister, who is a third-grade teacher—with a Birney appearance. The author was in town visiting relatives (who live very near to Gallt) and she offered to do the visit. “The kids were wild with excitement,” Gallt says. “They don’t have a pet hamster, but they have a class crayfish named Popeye and they took pictures of it holding an I ‘heart’ Betty Birney sign and reading one of the Humphrey books.”

Luckily for Popeye and human fans, too, Humphrey’s adventures appear to be far from over. Birney will deliver book six to her editor this month, and at least three other Humphrey titles are in the pipeline. And there are potential plans for a new series from Birney, described as a “younger Humphrey.”