Mr. Popper’s Penguins: An Odd Children’s Book

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.

Mr. popper cover

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?


35 thoughts on “Mr. Popper’s Penguins: An Odd Children’s Book

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  1. Emily, the movie is a little odd, but enjoyable. Interesting view on the book conclusion. I agree with you. On the flip side, there may have been a reason she wanted him to go that the book did not cover. Thanks, BTG

      1. I keep thinking of that movie “Letters from Juliet” where Vanessa Redgrave’s character is looking for the love of her life who has a common Italian name. As they come across one potential candidate, the candidate’s wife says “please take him.”

  2. I first read this book as an adult, and although it’s really strange, I loved it for its flights of fancy. You had that right that they go to the North Pole, right? Silly silly silly. I would love a basement like that, though! Also, I think a child needs to know what an ice box is because it starts with the penguin living in the ice box, right?

    1. Yes, you’re right. It is just silly and crazy and fun. And there is some explaining to do with terms and old-fashioned things in the book. I love those conversations, though.

  3. Great review of this book. We’ve listened to it as an audiobook but not read the actual book. We also saw the film which we quite enjoyed – Jim Carrey suits the zaniness of the storyline. The ending in the film is not the same as the book and the family situation is different too (don’t want to say too much to give it away). I think I would find the book ending odd and I wonder if it appeals more to the daydreamer adult than the child (and perhaps this is why your daughter kept zoning out of it – the main character really is the father and his dreams).

    1. Yes, you hit the nail on the head! The protagonist IS the father, which is maybe why I objected to the ending. I’m a mother and a wife, and there’s NO way my husband is running off to the North Pole to fulfill childhood dream! 🙂

  4. I was reading this to a competent group of second graders that overall found it rather ho hum. They had seen the movie. Of course it was written so very long ago, and there are a lot of things in the story that must be explained as one goes along. It’s not one of my favorite books.

    Have you read Ursula LeGuinn’s Cat Wings books? They are amazing – for kids, and for adults. I recommend them if you haven’t already come across them. The group of children who were reading them with me were totally invested in the stories.

      1. The Cat Wings series is written well enough that it totally engaged my attention. They are short, have nice illustrations, and are outstanding stories.

  5. I liked your review. I saw the movie with my son, who was eight at the time. I thought it was pretty good and he enjoyed it. I have not read the book and didn’t know there was one until I saw your post. The movie has a modernized sub-plot but is still totally unrealistic! It depends what kind of mood you’re in, I guess!

  6. The movie is quite good. It’s different than the book but it has much better life lessons. I am also partial to Jim Carrey, he is so cute and good with kids. This was one of my favorite books when I was a kid, but I was in first or second grade when I used to read it so I wouldn’t have known about the inaccuries of penguin life (they live in the South not North, etc.) or of the shoddy lesson, or lack of a lesson, at the end. I would like to reread it but maybe it would ruin the charm it had on me as a young child.

    1. You might enjoy a nostalgic look at it. It is definitely for younger kids than my daughter, so you read it at the right age. I’ll check out the movie. Maybe Olivia will like that better than the book!

  7. I read this book when I was in 3rd grade, and recently my first graders and I read it together in a “shared reading” situation. I think I loved the book more reading it with them, because of how they found it funny. I feel like if you take the book too seriously, you miss the point, because there are a ton of odd things that happen in the book.

    I liked the movie, too. But don’t compare it to the book. You have to see it as two different things, because they pretty much are.

  8. When I was young I wrote a story for school about a hippo in my bathtub, it was completely fantastic, obviously, but that was the point. There was no lesson about the inappropriateness of keeping wild animals at home, there was no lesson about letting go at the end. There was no accurate science info about hippos. To my knowledge, my hippo is still in my tub! It seems sometimes we’re so worried about educating morals into our children we forget how awesome it is to let the imagination run free and create whatever scenario it wants to whether it is realistic or not or moralistic or not. I haven’t seen the movie but I imagine it’s good because Jim Carrey is a fantastic comedian and is ridiculous with awesome silliness. Penguins are cute. I can see the appeal of building a basement ice rink for them.

  9. I so loved this book as a child! I was possibly my favorite until I was old enough to read “real” books. I don’t want to see the movie. I loved the book. I would rather not have that ruined.

  10. I read this book years and years ago when I was in elementary school (probably about first or second grade). I remember loving every single moment of it. It was interesting to hear your opinions of the book, and I’m now quite eager to read it again!

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