Mr. Popper's Penguins
by Richard Atwater
A review by Martin Jones
It's time for comfort reading. Something light. Something frivolous. Something
completely irrelevant to Iraq, the economy, health care, the environment, or anyone
or anything from Texas or Massachusetts. For some, that might mean a moody spy
thriller, or a trashy celebrity bio, or a stirring historical romance. Others
will find solace in astronomy or bugs or food (though Martha Stewart fans may
be at a disadvantage this year). For me, it's penguins.
Even as a little boy, I loved penguins. Who doesn't? They waddle. They toboggan.
They squawk. And those little black suits! Come on America, we love black and
white. What's not to love? That's why this month I'm recommending one of my
favorite childhood books, Mr. Popper's Penguins.
I hadn't read Mr. Popper's in about three decades, but recently stumbled
across a copy and enjoyed it like I was eight-years-old all over again. And
let me tell you. It's a lot more fun than the Hitler biography I've been working
my way through for the past two months.
The story is simple. Mr. Popper is a common house painter who secretly longs
to travel to Antarctica with Admiral Drake (and what bored house painter doesn't?).
So he sends his hero a long adoring letter. The Admiral is so impressed, he
not only responds, he sends Mr. Popper a gift: one adult penguin (named Captain
Cook). Soon, Mr. Popper receives a second gift, a mate for the Captain, and,
by the end of the chapter, baby makes twelve. The Poppers turn their gaggle
of penguins into a traveling stage act and become rich and famous. The story
has charming illustrations by Robert Lawson and is told with a subtle wit reminiscent
of E. B. White.
Still, this title is not right for every reader. Originally published in 1938,
Mr. Popper's Penguins is somewhat outdated. For starters, in the final
chapters, Admiral Drake returns to the US and asks Mr. Popper to join him on
a trip to the North Pole. The North Pole doesn't have penguins, and he wants
Mr. Popper to bring his troupe along and introduce them as a seed population.
An obvious environmental faux pas. You can bet Tipper Gore wasn't reading this
title to her youngsters.
Far more disturbing, though, is the scene toward the end of the story where
Mr. Popper is approached by a big Hollywood producer. By this time Mr. Popper's
Penguins have become quite famous, so the producer, hoping to make a buck, offers
the Poppers a lucrative film contract. After careful deliberation, Mr. Popper
decides that the well-being of his Penguins is more important than money --
or Hollywood! -- and turns him down. Naturally, some parents may find
this a disturbing message for impressionable young readers and might prefer
a more commerce-friendly title.
But quibbles aside, Mr. Popper's Penguins is an established classic
that will delight readers of all stripes -- especially those looking to avoid
any mention of red and blue.