Summer Reading Challenge, Week 3: Mr. Popper’s Penguins


We’ve added a Summer Reading Challenge tab at the top of our website, to help you keep up with the posts as the summer goes on.  Here’s a link if you’d like to check it out!

This week in our trip Around the World in 60 Days, we’re staying in the U.S. for a bit, and then heading to the Arctic with Mr. Popper.  We’re also going to hear from Nive Burris on how we can use food to help us in our journey.  Til then, you can get a taste of her work at Hive Resources Ministry Monday: Passport to Summer Missions.  (Apparently, Thriving Family magazine, a publication of Focus on the Family, has done it’s own Around the World in 60 Days project, and with resources well beyond ours, they have created some amazing resources that nicely complement our own challenge.)

One final note, in many cities this week, the movie version of Mr. Popper’s Penguins is being shown as part of Regal Cinemas Summer Movie Express.  We’re hoping to catch it for $1 at a nearby theater tomorrow morning!

 Book Review

Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater.  Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, Reissue 1992.  139 pgs. Ages 8+.

PopperCoverMr. Popper’s Penguins is one of my most treasured library finds.  My kids and I were headed on a trip last year, and I hurriedly grabbed the audiobook from the juvenile section when I saw the Newbery Honor sticker on the front, as well as pub date from the 1930s.  (Newer Newbery winners get passed up at this point, since they often deal with darker themes than my first grader is ready for.)  When we “popped” it in the CD player (ha) and entered Mr. Popper’s world, I was a little hesitant to begin with.  The narrator tended to meander, and several minutes into the story, we had no child protagonist, no action to speak of, and instead, the focus was a house painter with a peculiar fixation on Arctic and Antarctic exploration.

How he wished that he had been a scientist, instead of a house painter in Stillwater, so that he might have joined some of the great Polar expeditions…Whenever he heard that a Polar movie was in town, he was the first person at the ticket-window…Whenever the town library had a new book about the Arctic or the Antarctic…Mr. Popper was the first to borrow it.

To my great surprise, my children were mesmerized from the first moments, though the plot doesn’t seem especially childlike and breaks many rules of today’s kidlit.

What’s so wrong about it?  Well, first of all, Mr. Popper’s strongest relationship, not counting the penguins, is with his wife.  Whoever heard of a kids’ book about a man, his wife and their dire financial straits?  (Incidentally, the back story of the Atwaters’ own marriage is worth checking out.)  These are admittedly adult concerns, putting such a story outside even the consideration of most publishers today.  The problem at the center of the tale is that since Mr. Popper can’t paint houses in the cold weather, it will be another winter of eating beans for the Popper family.  While Mr. Popper waits for spring, dreaming of “great white shining expanses of ice and snow,” Mrs. Popper respectfully bemoans her plight:

“It will be very nice to have you home for a vacation, of course, but…. Last year you painted the bathroom four different times, because you had nothing else to do….” And “…what worries me is the money.  I have saved a little, and I daresay we can get along as we have other winters.  No more roast beef, no more ice cream, not even on Sundays.”

How will this conflict be solved?  That’s where things get more typically kid-friendly.  Mr. Popper’s letter to Admiral Drake, an Arctic explorer, is answered with a box that lands on his front door step.  Inside that box waits a black and white tuxedo-ed surprise that will change his life forever–his career, his finances, and gain him even the admiration his loving wife, who will no longer have to deal with the winter perturbation of finding it “hard to sweep with a man sitting around reading all day.”

Which brings us to what is eternally childlike about this story: the simple, magical idea of a Penguin. In. The. House.  What child wouldn’t be thrilled by the arrival of such a package on his own doorstep?  And imagining that possibility in Mr. Popper’s world–with the Atwaters as our guides–is nearly as a enjoyable.

In a way, the basic premise is shared by hundreds, thousands of other stories.  I wouldn’t want to count all the funny animal-inserted-into-to-human-world picture books at my local grocery store, much less all of literary history.  But there are some subtle differences here that help to make the story unique.

First, the first penguin isn’t the hero and we don’t get his point of view.  Bumbling, resourceful, imaginative Mr. Popper remains our anchor, and as such, all the antics of the penguins and silly scrapes they get into all seem just as safe and entertaining as the man himself.  This is one of the big differences in the book and the movie.  The movie makes Mr. Popper into a work-a-holic with little imagination who gets converted through the penguins–think an Arctic version of Liar, Liar.  But the book presents an unflappable character with an almost endless capacity for simple, childlike wonder.  And it’s that childlike wonder throughout the story that feels so wholesome and even exciting.

Second, the story never fully devolves into pure slapstick.  Unlike many tales today in which the monster/puppy/kitten/bad kid/pig/mouse/llama/etc. turns the world upside down with his wild ways, the penguins of this book are generally well-mannered and polite.  (Except for the scripted brawling during their shows…?)  Rather than wrecking everything in sight (a la Wreck-It Ralph or the story archetype, Where the Wild Things Are), the penguins generally follow the rules, which makes their deviations that much more funny.  This too is a huge deviation from the movie, which tends to play up the chaos and slapstick.  But the Atwaters knew, as the American public of the 1930s knew, just the presence of penguins in our world can be entertaining enough.  Kids don’t need a penguin version of  The Three Stooges to tickle their funny bones.

So, these are a few of the reasons we love Mr. Popper, and I hope very much that your family enjoys the book as much as mine does.  Even if you’ve seen the movie but not read the book, I highly recommend you put all the Jim Carey antics aside, and take up this most cherished, hilarious literary work for kids.  It’s certainly earned its place as a classic on our bookshelf.

Worldview/Moral Value: 4.5 (out of 5)

Literary Value: 4.75

Discussion Questions

1. What is Mr. Popper’s Penguins about?  What did you like?  Anything you didn’t like?  (One of the best exercises for young minds is to try to summarize what they read.  Putting a 150 page book into one or two sentences is very challenging and will help kids learn to see the forest as well as the trees.  If they need help, try to focus them on the main problem of the book and how that is solved.)

2.  Look again through God’s Word.  How can the Bible help us appreciate this story?  While you may come up with other angles such as the positive view of marriage, here’s one idea.  Mr. Popper’s Penguins may not seem to be very Christian at first glance.  It’s just a silly story about a funny guy and his penguins.  But if we consider for a moment that the humor comes from penguins acting like humans, then it harkens back to Genesis 1:25.  By making animals both like people but also very different, and by making them procreate after their kind (that is, not able to mate with other species), He created both the walls of separation and the points of overlap that make imagining animals in our world so much fun.  Instead of creating colors that, like your kids’ playdough, get mashed into one boring gray, God has created the world in such a way that it remains filled with bright colors.

3.  Make it personal.  Can you find the North and South Pole–the Arctic and Antarctic continents–on a map or globe?  Would you like to visit these places?  Why or why not?

Don’t forget that we recommend a number of books to help you extend the fun of this read along to younger kids in our 100 Great Adventure books for kids.  In addition, you might want to consider some of the penguin books listed on this Squidoo site.  Later in the week, we’ll also discuss some fun ways to use food to enhance your trip around the world perfect for kids young and old.  In the meantime, here’s a Coloring Page for the book.

And if you’re interested in my comment about later Newbery award winners not being suitable for my young kids, we address that topic more fully in a recent Library Podcast.

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  1. Anna S. on June 19, 2013 at 7:44 am

    Mr. Popper’s Penguins is one of our favorite books! Thanks for the articulation of what makes it so enjoyable. I always wished I could be there in the house with the penguins, sliding around on the ice.

  2. Janie Cheaney on June 19, 2013 at 10:08 am

    I read MPP more than once as a child–I remember feeling so sorry for the penguins during their summer spell (the illustrations are great, too). It’s worth mentioning that one of this year’s Caldicott winners is an intentional (I think) tribute to Mr. Popper’s Penguins: One Cool Friend.

    • emily on June 19, 2013 at 2:44 pm

      Yes, good point, Janie. One Cool Friend is on our 100 Great Adventure Book extension list, too, for that very reason. (Our library did a play of it a while back, which I was very sad to miss.)

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