I came across Mr. Popper’s Penguins (1938) by Richard and Florence Atwater in a display of the children’s section of our library. It looked cute, and I knew that somebody had made a movie of it starring Jim Carey. We gave it a try. Although my eight-year-old daughter claimed to like it and kept asking me to read it to her, whenever I did and then paused to talk about what was happening in the narrative, she had no idea what was going on, which is not hard to follow. I think it was a little boring to her because she’s almost too old for it. I thought the book was both creative and strange.
It is about Mr. Popper, a simple house painter who finds himself bored during the winter months. He also fancies himself a wannabe explorer of the Antarctic, but he has never had the chance to travel because of his responsibilities to his family. He instead reads National Geographic and dreams about visiting the places where famous explorer Admiral Drake is.
One evening, he listens to a radio broadcast in which Admiral Drake responds to Mr. Popper’s letter to him. The admiral promises a surprise. The next day a package arrives containing a penguin. Hilarity and disorder ensue. Mrs. Popper is, of course, put out by the mess and the expense of having a penguin, but they name him Captain Cook and their children love him. He has quite the personality, a personality not likely to belong to an actual penguin.
So the book isn’t realistic at all. The penguin eventually gets a mate and the two of them have 12 eggs in one season, although penguins usually only have one or two. The book leaves out the fact that male penguins care for the eggs while the females go looking for food. Instead these penguins live in the basement, which the Popper’s have turned into an ice rink. They also train the penguins, all twelve of them, to perform, and take the show on the road. It is both delightful and hard to believe. Although my daughter’s mind kept wandering while we read, I could see a younger elementary school student, in first grade or so really, enjoying this book.
The “worst” part is the end. The penguins end up going with Admiral Drake to the North Pole to start a new colony. When Mr. Popper says goodbye to his animals, knowing they will be happier, it is touching. Then that moment of learning to let go is abruptly ruined by the admiral inviting Mr. Popper to go along as well. He then waves goodbye to his family and says he’ll be away for two years or so, although his children are still young. Mrs. Popper doesn’t complain at all, but lets him go. I found it even more hard to believe: that he would go, that Mrs. Popper would let him, and that there wouldn’t be a greater discussion or consideration of raising their children. It was odd.
I haven’t seen the movie. I have a feeling that it is more odd, given that it stars Jim Carrey. Should I see it?