Giant hamster encourages kids to read and write

News Photo by Julie Riddle Humphrey the Hamster poses outside Fresh Palate in downtown Alpena. The wooden cutout has been spotted around town in recent weeks, an eye-catching tie-in to a creative reading program at two local elementary schools.

ALPENA–A hamster on the move has Alpena residents asking, “What’s a Humphrey?”

Kids from Hinks and Lincoln elementary schools could answer that question. The children are reading the story of Humphrey the Hamster, a note-taking rodent who lives in a classroom and helps children see each other with a little more understanding.

An oversized, wooden cutout of Humphrey has been travelling around town, catching the eyes of residents. On Wednesday, he was in front of Cliff Anschuetz Chevrolet. Earlier this week, he was in front of the Fresh Palate. He’s also appeared at the Bay Athletic Club and elsewhere.

Students and their families who spot giant Humphrey can snap a picture to share on Humphrey’s Facebook page, where they can also answer a question of the day to be entered into a drawing. Prizes have been provided by area business.

Kindergarteners through fifth-graders are joining teachers, staff, and school families at the two schools to read Betty G. Birney’s chapter book, “The World According to Humphrey.” In 15 chapters, Humphrey reinforces a message of acceptance as he repeats, in his hamster way, “You can learn a lot about yourself by getting to know another species.”

The students at Hinks and Lincoln are reading the hamster tale as part of the national One School One Book program. The schools’ participation in the program has been led by Jennifer Marceau, instructional coach for the two schools. This is the first year Humphrey has appeared in Alpena.

All children and staff at each of the schools were given a copy of the book about the adventurous hamster. Marceau purchased 316 books using a $2,500 grant from the Community Foundation for Northeast Michigan, with additional funding provided by an Early Literacy Grant from APS.

Throughout the month of March, students and their families read one chapter a night, Monday through Thursday. In case parents aren’t able to read to their children some nights, videos of teachers reading a chapter are available on the schools’ websites.

Families are encouraged to engage in at-home projects each week to enhance the reading. The first week, for example, families were asked to create a poster about their pets.

“I didn’t have enough wall space for them all,” Marceu said. She has been very pleased with the response to the reading program and the amount of parental involvement evident in the children’s work and enthusiasm.

The second week’s assignment, writing a story about Humphrey, brought out the author in even the most reluctant writers, Marceau said.

This week, families were invited to build a fancy cage for Humphrey. Marceau was delighted with the children’s creations, all of which came with a tiny notebook and pencil for the journalistically inclined rodent. Photos of many of the creations are posted on the Facebook page created to enhance the Humphrey experience.

The use of social media has become somewhat of a requirement in engaging family involvement, Marceau said. She wanted to add that element to connect with a generation of parents for whom digital communication is second nature. The effort worked, it seems, with many posts from parents coming in daily.

The One School One Book program, created by Read To Them, a nonprofit organization promoting family literacy, is a national effort with the primary focus of encouraging reading aloud to children. The program offers a variety of books from which a school may choose for their March is Reading Month celebration.

Marceau chose Humphrey as soon as she started reading his book. She fell in love with the story and knew students and families would, as well.

Her goal with the program is to engage families in reading together. Assigning a chapter book to a kindergartener seemed like it might be too much, but, based on the animated discussions in classrooms and hallways, the students are reading the book and loving it.

One staff member even brings a live hamster, appropriately named Humphrey, to visit the classrooms at Lincoln throughout the school day. The book’s main character, who writes journal entries each day about the children in his classroom, is completely charming, Marceau said.

“I’m not an animal person, but I will tell you, after reading this story I almost did want to go get a hamster,” Marceau admitted.

Marceau is thrilled with the success of the program in its first year of implementation at Hinks and Lincoln. She has visions of the rest of the school district adopting it in years to come, if funding can be secured.

The children and their families have had fun chasing Humphry around town and engaging in his story. Some of the students have been so enthusiastic about the story that they’ve forged ahead, devouring the whole book already and then coming back to enjoy it again with their classmates.

The greatest victory, however, is a simple one: children are reading.

“Every single kid from both of these buildings are going to leave elementary school saying, I have completed a chapter book,” Marceau said with satisfaction.

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or