35 pages 1 hour read

Betty G. Birney

The World According to Humphrey

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2004

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Summary and Study Guide


Written by Betty G. Birney, The World According to Humphrey, published in 2004, is a children’s novel about a golden hamster named Humphrey who makes a positive difference in the lives of the students and staff at Longfellow School. With a cheerful attitude, a good sense of humor, and a wealth of wisdom, Humphrey narrates his experiences as the class pet of Room 26. Against this backdrop of school life, Birney touches on important themes of friendship, responsibility, and open-mindedness. The World According to Humphrey has been met with positive critical reception and has been picked as the “One Book, One Campus” for many elementary schools across the United States. 

Plot Summary

Humphrey is broken-hearted when his beloved teacher, the young, pretty Ms. Mac, leaves him behind when she departs Longfellow School to teach in Brazil. Ms. Mac was acting as a long-term substitute for Mrs. Brisbane, the original class teacher, who missed the beginning of the school year because her husband, Bert, was in a car accident.

Ms. Mac picks Humphrey out of all the hamsters at the Pet-O-Rama and gives him a tiny notebook and pencil, knowing he will quickly pick up reading and writing. Because of hamsters’ accelerated lifecycle, he learns within a week. Ms. Mac believes that you can “learn a lot about yourself by taking care of another species,” and predicts that Humphrey will teach the children a thing or two.

During the day, Humphrey observes the students of Room 26. He is fond of “Golden-Miranda,” who has golden hair (like him) and is the best at cleaning his cage. “Speak-Up-Sayeh” rarely volunteers in class, but she, too, is a gentle caretaker for Humphrey. “Wait-for-the-Bell-Garth” calls Humphrey a rat in disguise and has suddenly begun acting out, bullying the other students and ruining his friendship with “Lower-Your-Voice-A.J.,” who always talks too loudly. Humphrey meets “Raise-Your-Hand-Heidi,” “Repeat-that-Please-Richie,” and “Stop-Giggling-Gail,” among others.

At first, Humphrey is unhappy with Mrs. Brisbane, who is nothing like Ms. Mac, being short, grey-haired, soft-voiced, and fond of dark clothing. The unhappiness is mutual because Mrs. Brisbane does not want to care for Humphrey. Unlike Ms. Mac, who would take Humphrey home in the evenings, Mrs. Brisbane leaves Humphrey by himself at school. This causes Humphrey much anxiety: if Mrs. Brisbane does not grow to like him, his life in Room 26 is jeopardized.

Being alone at night is initially frightening for Humphrey, but he soon meets the school custodian, Aldo Amato. Aldo talks to Humphrey and turns on his radio and dances as he mops and dusts the classroom. Humphrey learns that Aldo is lonely: He is thankful for his job but misses his friends who all work during the daytime. Humphrey is adept at getting out of his cage, thanks to a “lock-that-doesn’t-lock.” One day, he finds a newspaper article about a social group called the Moonlighters Club, just for people who work night shifts. Henry leaves the article for Aldo to find. Aldo not only attends the Moonlighters Club, but meets a lady named Maria, and asks her to marry him. Aldo wants Humphrey to be the best man at his wedding.

Mrs. Brisbane, though a perceptive teacher, still doesn’t warm to Humphrey and refuses to take him home for the weekend. Principal Morales, who always wanted a hamster when he was a boy, takes him home first. Humphrey discovers that at school, Morales has the respect of all the students, but at home, his own children, Brenda and Willie, don’t listen to him. To help Morales, Humphrey escapes his cage, requiring the family to work together to get him back inside. Brenda and Willie learn to cooperate, and Principal Morales calls Humphrey a true friend.


After this adventure, Humphrey goes home with a different student each weekend. Speak-Up-Sayeh makes a deal with Mrs. Brisbane to raise her hand one time during the week. In exchange, Mrs. Brisbane will not send a note to her parents about Sayeh’s reticence. Sayeh raises her hand and volunteers to take Humphrey home. At Sayeh’s house, Humphrey learns that she is silent in class because English is her second language. Sayeh’s mother and little brother don’t speak English at all, and her father speaks just a little. Sayeh tells her family that Humphrey only understands English, so for the entire weekend, the family must speak English around him. By the time Humphrey returns to school, Sayeh’s mother has decided to take English classes.

Wait-for-the-Bell-Garth continues to get in trouble in class. He shoots rubber bands at his former friend, A.J., and winds up spending a recess with Mrs. Brisbane. She discovers that Garth’s mother is gravely ill, and Garth can’t take Humphrey home for a weekend, which he really wants to do. His misbehavior is due to jealousy. Mrs. Brisbane plans for Garth to see Humphrey on weekends.

During Humphrey’s stay with Lower-Your-Voice-A.J., he discovers why A.J. speaks so loudly: he must, in order be heard over the tv and radio that are always blaring in the house, even at night. The family eats in front of the tv, the parents stay up late watching tv, the kids get up early for cartoons, and Humphrey can’t get any rest. He escapes and unplugs the tv, forcing A.J. and his family to do other things together like tell stories, play games, and play outside. Garth comes over to visit Humphrey and restores his friendship with A.J.

When Thanksgiving arrives, Mrs. Brisbane is the only one able to take Humphrey home, which she does, though reluctantly. Humphrey finds that Mrs. Brisbane is absorbed with caring for her husband, Bert, who is now in a wheelchair because of his accident. Bert is angry at his condition, saying he feels like Humphrey, trapped in a cage. Humphrey hatches yet another plan. One day when Mrs. Brisbane is out, Humphrey escapes his cage and makes Bert catch him. Bert recaptures Humphrey with his baseball cap and realizes that the wheelchair does not limit him as much as he thought. Bert builds mazes for Humphrey, reigniting his love of woodworking. He goes on to teach a class at the community college as well as make an expansion for Humphrey’s cage. Mrs. Brisbane’s opinion of Humphrey changes completely, and she thanks him.

Ms. Mac returns for a surprise visit during the classroom Christmas party. While Humphrey is glad to see her, he realizes that his place is with the students of Room 26, where he can help them solve their problems.