Pros:Amusing story, Newbery Honor book, still popular 68 years after publication
Cons:Parts sound a bit dated
The Bottom Line: An amusing, if not overly popular, Newbery Honor book
Mr. Popper was the town painter. He painted houses all during the season of nice weather. But Mr. Popper was also a dreamer. This made for some interestingly-colored houses, as he would sometimes forget the color he was supposed to be using while in the middle of the room.
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The thing Mr. Popper was dreaming about was far-off countries, as he had never been outside his town of Stillwater. The places he most regretted never visiting were the two poles. He even wrote a letter to Admiral Drake, who was at that time exploring the South Pole. One night during a radio broadcast from the South Pole, Admiral Drake thanks Mr. Popper for his letter and tells him to watch for a surprise.
When the surprise arrives, Mr. Popper and his wife and children are shocked to see that it is a penguin, whom Mr. Popper names Captain Cook. Mrs. Popper is concerned about keeping it, as house-painting season is done and there will be no more money coming in until spring. But Captain Cook stays, and soon the Poppers' lives are changed in almost every way imaginable.
First, there are the changes to the house. The Poppers' refrigerator gets air holes and an interior handle, as it is to become Captain Cook's home. Then, the fresh fish start getting flown in daily. Finally, the Poppers' basement is turned into a frozen wonderland by the installation of a large freezing plant.
Then, there are the other penguins. First comes Greta, who arrives after Mr. Popper writes to an aquarium asking how to cure Captain Cook of his loneliness. Then came the baby penguins: Nelson, Columbus, Louisa, Jenny, Scott, Magellan, Adelina, Isabella, Ferdinand, and Victoria.
Eventually, all Mr. Popper's expenses start to add up, so he decides to take the penguins on the road. He teaches them different tricks and routines, and they begin to delight audiences across the nation.
Mr. Popper's Penguins was written by Richard and Florence Atwater. They didn't mean to collaborate on the book; Florence finished the book when a serious illness forced Richard to stop writing. Their effort was deemed a 1939 Newbery Honor book.
Mr. Popper's Penguins seems to be one of those books that can stand the test of time. When I look over the list of Newbery winners and honor books, I don't recognize a good number of the titles. But Mr. Popper's Penguins is one that many, many people know. Aside from a few old-fashioned things (such as listening to the radio before the advent of television), this book could have been written as taking place today. It has a sort of timeless quality to it that causes it to remain appealing even two-thirds of a century later.
That being said, Mr. Popper's Penguins is not an overly popular title in my classroom library. Most of the kids who have checked it out are ones who read it for reading class last year. Most of my students are more drawn to the flashier looks of newer books--I guess the phrase "Don't judge a book by its cover" hasn't sunk in for them yet.
I'd say the book is written at about an early fourth grade reading level. There are 139 pages with many full-page illustrations. The words are pretty well spaced out, so it might be a good choice for someone (such as a child with ADD) who has problems visually tracking on a page with lots of words. (Don't laugh! I've had kids tell me, "But Miss Jennings, I can't read that book; I can't see words when they're all small and close together like that!")
For a complement to a study of polar regions, or just for an amusing read, Mr. Popper's Penguins is a good choice.
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