Saturday, May 1, 2010

Mr. Popper's Penguins, by Richard and Florence Atwater

I'm not sure how I managed not to read Mr Popper's Penguins until now; it seems to be a book that everyone has read, and lots of people love. At the library checkout counter, the man checking my books held it up and said it was the first book he remembers reading, and that same afternoon when I mentioned the blog to a former schoolteacher I ran into at church, she loved the idea and asked if we'd read Mr Popper yet!

This book is a jolly little romp into the world of 1930s idealized penguin husbandry and Polar exploration. Mr. Popper is a housepainter/interior decorator who spends his winters reading travel books, especially about the poles. He even writes a fan letter to Admiral Drake, to tell him how much he likes the stories about the men on expeditions and the penguins. The response to this letter is a surprise to everyone - a friendly penguin is delivered to the Poppers' door, courtesy of Admiral Drake himself!

The penguin is soon named Captain Cook, and the Poppers and Captain Cook have a some relatively tame adventures (air holes in the refrigerator door, getting him to wear a leash, and inquiries to City Hall about licensing requirements for pet penguins, to name a few). But, Captain Cook is soon lonely and listless. A letter to the largest aquarium in the world, about what to do for penguin ennui, is answered with a surprising reply - a new penguin named Greta, who had also been lonely! Captain Cook and Greta get on famously, and there are soon eggs, and a large family of 12 penguins. There is only one problem: Mr Popper hasn't had a decorating job since the Fall, and the family is running out of money to feed themselves, let alone 12 penguins with a taste for fresh seafood.

An ice machine in the basement, a furnace in the living room, and several unpaid bills later, we find the Poppers and their penguins at the center of a nationally famous performing act! Their monetary worries over, the family enjoys train travel and hotel living. But when spring comes, Mr. Popper realizes that something is going to have to change.

Admiral Drake, meanwhile, hears about the show, and meets the family in New York with a proposal: the men on expeditions to the North Pole are lonely without penguins to play with, and he'd like to start a colony of penguins in the Arctic. Would Mr. Popper's penguins be interested?

They would indeed. And at the end of the book, Mr. Popper says a tearful goodbye to his penguins in the hold of the expedition ship, only to have Admiral Drake invite him along on the expedition! His dream come true! He says a quick goodbye to his wife and two children, and tells them he'll see them in two years or so. And they all live happily ever after, presumably.

This is not a good guide to Caring For Your Pet Penguin, and it's best if you don't think too much about the ecological effects of starting a colony of (inbred) penguins in the Arctic to amuse expeditioners, but it is a fun story. The lady at my church said she used to read it to her children and add scenes, because the story lends itself to it so well, and I can see that too. I can easily see 8- and 9-year-olds enjoying the penguins' antics, and those of Mr. Popper himself!

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