We spent the first week of the Easter holidays with my parents, where the boys have fun rediscovering books and toys that my brother and I grew up with. One of the books there is Mr Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater and illustrated by Robert Lawson. I remembered it as being a nice story and it obviously involves penguins, which are cool, so I suggested that we read it together over the course of the week. Fils aîné isn’t always inclined to take up my book recommendations, much to my chagrin, so I was very pleased that he enjoyed this one. Fils cadet at three and a half was still rather young for it. We ended up with rather a marathon bedtime story on the last night to get it finished, but we made it!
First published in 1938, it was named a Newberry Honor Book in 1939 and won the Young Reader’s Choice Award in 1940. In fact, the copy we read must have belonged to my dad as a child and it certainly required careful handling.
So to the plot: Mr Popper is a housepainter living in the small American town of Stillwater. He has always dreamt of travelling the world and has a particular passion for Antarctica. He is so fascinated by the films and radio programmes of Admiral Drake, exploring the Antarctic region that he writes to tell him so. In return, the Admiral sends Mr Popper a penguin as a pet. Named Captain Cook, he soon becomes part of the family and they modify their icebox to accommodate him. Soon, however, Captain Cook becomes lonely and starts to decline. Mr Popper writes to the manager of a large aquarium for advice and they send their female penguin Greta for company. Greta then proceeds to lay 10 eggs and soon the Poppers are sharing their house with twelve penguins. As you can imagine, this causes many practical problems and considerable expense. Mr Popper’s solution is to train the penguins to respond to music and “Popper’s Performing Penguins” take to the road. They are a huge hit and, for a while, it seems their troubles are over. Of course things don’t go off entirely without a hitch, but Admiral Drake turns up again, just in time to save the day and, in the end, Mr Popper even gets to realise his ambition to travel.
The book is highly entertainingly written, and very funny. Fils aîné stuck with it for a whole week without wanting to start on something else while we were halfway through – high praise indeed! While I felt inclined to censor the dated attitudes to gender roles and housework it certainly stands the test of time in other respects. Robert Lawson’s original illustrations really capture a sense of movement and go perfectly with the text. I liked the way that it deals with the financial difficulties of such unusual pets too. Mind you, there was no mention of the smell. I understand that penguins are rather whiffy birds, whereas the characters in the book keep on about how clean and neat they are. I was also surprised by the Poppers’ friends and neighbours being quite unaware of what a penguin was – I suppose that shows how things change in 60 years.
Of course it’s all highly ridiculous, but mostly I was able to stifle the inner pedant’s qualms at the irresponsible behaviour of Admiral Drake and a strong feeling of sympathy for the long-suffering Mrs Popper, and go along for the ride. And there are quite a few educational snippets about penguin behaviour and mating habits – it does make clear that they don’t normally lay 10 eggs in one season! Quite similar to 365 Penguins in some ways, now I come to think about it.
As with Cloudy with the Chance of Meatballs, there is a recent film loosely based on the book. Live action this time though and starring Jim Carrey – make of that what you will. Having read the summary, I don’t feel inclined to see it myself. It does seem to have prompted a re-release of the book though, so if it introduces a new generation to it then that’s all to the good.
If you get the chance, I say: read it! And if you’ve seen the film, definitely read the book.