Every now and then, it’s fun to share a book with your child that is just completely silly and unbelievable. This week’s entry is a classic tale of whimsy and what if. What if a penguin from the South Pole ended up on our doorstep? What if we turned our house inside out to accommodate said penguin? What if we actually ended up with 12 penguins? And what if we trained those penguins to become a circus style act, performing for sold out audiences across America?
If this sounds interesting, then Mr. Popper’s Penguins is the perfect bedtime book to read over the course of 2 or 3 nights. Written by Richard and Florence Atwater, the book was first published in 1938 and tells the story of Mr. Popper, a small town home painter who has just completed the last job he has lined up for several months. He doesn’t seem terribly concerned about the lean times ahead but Mrs. Popper certainly is! After all, the couple has two young children to care for, on top of the expenses that come with running a household.
As Mrs. Popper frets about the coming winter and how to stretch the family’s food supply, Mr. Popper sits down to enjoy a radio program. He is a huge fan of the Arctic and Antarctic and is settling in to hear an update from Admiral Drake, the leader of an expedition currently underway at the South Pole.
To Mr. Popper’s surprise, Admiral Drake addresses him personally, after sending his greetings and well wishes to his own family. Mr. Popper had sent the expeditionary team a letter some time ago, which Admiral Drake appreciated. As a token of gratitude, he tells Mr. Popper to watch for a gift to arrive soon.
The family doesn’t have to wait long before a huge crate arrives at their doorstep. As you may have guessed, inside the crate is a penguin, direct from the South Pole! The family is surprised, to be sure, but never once do they entertain the idea of not keeping their new pet. In fact, Mr. Popper begins immediately making plans for modifications that will help the penguin to feel more comfortable in their new home.
At some point, they determine that the penguin is a male and they name him Captain Cook, in honor of the famed world explorer. He lives in the family’s icebox at first but Mr. Popper determines that he will be happier with holes drilled in the door for better ventilation. He hires a handyman to carry out the work, in addition to installing a door handle on the inside of the icebox so Captain Cook can come and go as he pleases. The handyman is sure that Mr. Popper is crazy until he catches sight of the penguin. He tries to alert the authorities but there is actually no law on the books that says a family can’t own a penguin as a pet.
Eventually, though, Captain Cook becomes distressed, as he is not meant to live indoors. Watching his beloved pet wither before him, Mr. Popper decides to write to the curator of the largest aquarium in the world. To his astonishment, he hears back from the curator within two days. He tells Mr. Popper that is it nearly impossible to cure a sick penguin. However, the aquarium also has a penguin in rapid decline. And without even so much as asking, the curator promptly delivers a female penguin to the Popper’s home! And that is how Greta came to join the family.
Now Mrs. Popper’s icebox was home to two penguins, with eggs surely to follow soon. She wonders how she will keep the family’s frozen food cold. Mr. Popper’s solution is simple; they’ll just open all of the windows in the home! Never mind that it is now winter and snow will certainly drift into the home. The family can just bundle up in their winter coats for the duration. I think it’s important to address the fact that Mr. Popper is certainly blessed with the most supportive family a man who received a surprise penguin in the mail could ever have.
Snow drifts have started to collect in the corners of the home and on the stairs. Instead, of pulling the plug on his idea, Mr. Popper takes it a step further by bringing the watering hose up from the basement to douse the room with water. It eventually turns to ice and the penguins and Popper children have a grand time tobogganing all over the room. By afternoon, however, the ice begins to melt and Mrs. Popper issues her first note of defiance. She insists that the family cannot go on like this. It may make for great exercise but it’s untidy. Mr. Popper vows to find a solution by the next day.
And he does! His solution is to hire an engineer to install a cooling plant in the basement that will allow the family to maintain an Antarctic atmosphere any time of the year. Turns out that Mrs. Popper was right about the eggs; a penguin couple should normally expect only two eggs a season, however Greta produced 10 eggs in all!
Now if the Poppers had money worries before, they were certainly multiplied by the addition of 12 penguin mouths to the household. To help solve their cash shortage, Mr. Popper vows to train them to perform for audiences. Both he and the penguins are very diligent in their practice and it’s a very short time before they are ready to take their show on the road. Fortunately, a man named Mr. Greenbaum owns a local theater, as well as several across the country. As luck would have it, when the performing penguins arrive to meet with Mr. Greenbaum, he learns that the closing act of his current show are missing. He decides to give the penguins a chance to wow the audience.
And wow they do! In fact, they are so impressive that Mr. Greenbaum gives the family a 10 week contract to perform around the country, offering to pay them more per week than Mr. Popper has made in a full year of house painting! They perform to far flung audiences and garner high praise, until a simple mistake threatens to undo everything the family and penguins have worked so hard for.
I won’t spoil the surprise of how the troop turns things around, or the insane twist ending that had me absolutely scratching my head in disbelief. Mr. Popper’s Penguins is a delightful tale of what’s possible with an unbelievably supportive family, commitment to hard work and practice and a little bit of luck. Enjoy reading this book to the child in your life; just be sure to punctuate with lots of exasperation and incredulousness… you won’t be faking it. Enjoy!