While we’re off the road to keep ourselves and everyone around us safe during these scary times, the Book Bus team will be reading and reviewing books from the Book Bus for you. We’re looking forward to visiting you once COVID-19 passes, and we hope by then you’ll have list of books you’d love to pull out of the bus and read. Till then, stay safe and socially distant with your books!
One of our instructors, Sumitra Bogati, recommends ‘Secrets According to Humphrey’ by Betty G. Birney to all young readers, and even to older readers who are looking for a bout of nostalgia for their school-lives!
Betty G. Birney has written a series of stories around one main character, a classroom pet named Humphrey. ‘Secrets According to Humphrey’ is the 10th book in the series. I haven’t read the entire series yet. In fact, this is the first book I’ve read from this series. Since every book in the series is about a whole new adventure starring Humphrey, you can start reading from anywhere!
Humphrey is a hamster. He is a pet belonging to classroom no. 26 at Longfellow School. He has a cage, a tree, a wheel and a friend — OG, a frog who goes “BOING-BOING-BOING” in response to everything, splashing the water in his little frog-tank everywhere!
Humphrey is outgoing. From his little hamster cage, he takes part in classroom activities and has conversations with everyone who enters room no. 26. Although as a hamster, Humphrey is supposed to be squeaking, napping, and running on his wheel, the writer has given Humphrey a tender voice and notebook where he writes down everything he doesn’t understand in class.
As the title goes, this book in the Humphrey series is all about secrets…Shhh! In class with Mrs. Brisbane after a long holiday, the students and Humphrey are learning about ancient Egypt, starting with ‘Secrets of the Nile’ and the strange vocabulary from an ancient land. Humphrey copies out these strange words off the board to try and learn them. Some of these words he had never seen in his life:
Later in class, everyone goes to the library to watch a movie called ‘Secrets of the Nile’. Humprey is upset; he can’t go to the library with the rest of the class and he misses the movie. Besides, he’s upset about still not understanding those strange words. Later, when he overhears the Principal telling Mrs.Brisbane that they are going to be losing one of their friends in a few weeks, he grows even more upset.
The Principal gives Mrs. Brisbane a letter. She reads it and smiles. Humphrey is very surprised to see the teachers not being sad about losing a student. The name of the student who was leaving them seemed to be a secret.
Then, one after another, he encounters people at school who keep secrets for the sake of promises and each other’s happiness. Humphrey grows more and more upset about not knowing the whole story. He takes out his notebook and writes, “Secrets can be VERY-VERY-VERY bad.”
On weekends, the students of classroom no. 26 get to take turns taking Humphrey home with them. On these trips, Humphrey gets to go up and down in an elevator, gets fed by many Grandmas, gets to watch happy family moments, and most importantly, he gets to listen in on secrets, promising to keep them.
Over time, Humphrey falls into the trap of promising to keep lots of secrets. He is unable to share those secrets with his friend, OG the frog, after returning to school. While he had been upset about not knowing any secrets before, he now keeps so many secrets that it has started to bother him. He knows every one of the secrets flying around classroom no. 26. Soon, he begins to wish they would stop being secrets.
Humphrey gets his wish. When Mrs. Brisbane notices all the winks and whispers going around the classroom, she asks the students what is going on. She finds out that the students are running a secret club — and then the secret is out in the open. Mrs. Brisbane is not happy that such a club exists, and she makes the students realize all that they are missing out on by keeping a secret club. The students feel bad for keeping secrets and excluding others, so they decide to let go of the club.
Reading this book, I began to miss my own school-days. In the first paragraph, there is a sentence that says, “There is no such thing as an ordinary day at school.” You can feel the truth of this in every chapter of the book, and also when you look back on your own school life. And just like in the book, there are some things you did in school that you always end up regretting. When I was in school, we had a curious way of distinguishing between two people with the same names. We added adjectives like “tall” or “short” or “fat” before their names, referring to their physical attributes to tell them apart. It was mean of us to use the word “fat” to tell two of our friends who had the same name apart, while we referred to the thinner one just by their name. I feel so bad about it now, and I wonder why nobody ever stopped us. In fact, even our teachers had begun attaching “fat” to this friend’s name!
In ‘Secrets According to Humphrey’, the teachers are different. When they notice that the students are keeping secrets among one another and excluding the rest of the class, they gently put an end to it, letting the students know why what they’re doing isn’t fair and friendly. The teachers are thinking about student’s problems: whether it’s about their mood in the classroom or even while choosing books in the library. They discuss their issues personally with them, in a straightforward way, and create safe spaces in the classroom for them.
I always wished I had teachers like that, instead of teachers who started doing the mean things that students did as well, and some teachers who were just mean in general. In school, I always felt like hiding under the benches when the teachers would call on me. When the teacher began to ask questions, my friends, who had moments ago been energetically playing badminton, would say they were feeling unwell. We were so afraid of doing the wrong thing or not knowing the answer — because that would end in our hands getting bruised!
I loved Secrets According to Humphrey, not just because of the wonderful teachers and the way the book made me miss my childhood, but also because of the playful little secrets in the book. To wrap this up, I would like to share one of these secrets with you. After school, Humphrey jiggles the lock-that-doesn’t-lock on his cage until his door swings open, and scurries to the library every night! How sweet is that? As for the other secrets? Well, you’ll just have to read the book to find out.
Sumitra Bogati is a poet, a member of the Word Warriors, and a science instructor at U.S. Embassy’s Book Bus.