Mr. Popper's Penguins
This humorous animal story by Richard and Florence Atwater is published by Little, Brown and Company Books for Young Readers, a division of the Hachette Book Group, USA, and written for kids ages 7 to 10. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
Mr. Popper is a house painter. He spends his days dreaming of explorers and adventures, preferably in the Arctic (North Pole) or Antarctic (South Pole). One day he writes to the famous explorer Admiral Perry, telling him how much he enjoyed the pictures of Perry's latest expedition in National Geographic, and how funny he thought the penguins were.
In response, Admiral Perry sends a surprise — a live penguin — to Mr. Popper's house. The penguin, named Captain Cook, does some exploring of his own in the Popper house, and the Popper family makes a home for him in their refrigerator. They have a variety of adventures around town as Captain Cook adjusts to his new home, and the Poppers (and townspeople) adjust to him.
After a while, the penguin becomes ill. Mr. Popper, writing for advice, receives (instead of advice) yet another sickly penguin in the mail. It turns out the two birds were lonely. With each other, they quickly recover. The new penguin is a girl, and soon there are 10 more newly hatched penguins around the house.
The additional mouths strain the Poppers' already limited household finances. (Mr. Popper's painting business is seasonal, so the winter months are lean, even without the extra houseguests.) Mrs. Popper wonders whether they will need to sell the penguins or eat them. Then he thinks they can be trained instead and taken on tour. The Popper family puts together three acts, incorporating what the penguins spend most of their time doing. The owner of the local theater becomes enthralled with the penguins. He offers Mr. Popper a handsome salary, and books them on a 10-week, cross-country tour to some of his other theaters.
The tour is a tremendous success. Audiences across the country love the penguins, and the penguins love to not only perform, but explore. Their insatiable curiosity gets them in trouble, but their impeccable manners and genuine goodwill cover a multitude of sins.
Until, that is, the last leg of their tour, in New York City. A variety of complications arise, and Mr. Popper and the penguins are thrown in prison for disturbing the peace. They have no money for bail (their admittedly high salary matched by equally high travel expenses), and no way to contact their theater-owning benefactor. They only know he lives somewhere in Hollywood. And since the tour is done, they have no remaining obligations to him (or reason to think he will contact them). They hope he might contact them to renew the contract, but have no reason to think that he will.
Mr. Popper and the penguins languish in prison for about a week, when at last, the long-hoped-for call comes, and they're free to go. But surprisingly, there is no kind theater-owner posting their bail — it's Admiral Perry instead. He is in the States, curious to learn whatever happened to the guy with the penguins, and hugely impressed with what Mr. Popper has accomplished. He poses a question: Would Mr. Popper allow him to take the penguins to start a colony at the North Pole? (Penguins are common at the South Pole, but non-existent at the North.)
Just then the theater-owner arrives with a filmmaking friend of his and an offer of their own. Would Mr. Popper consider a movie deal? America (and Hollywood) would love the birds — there are untold riches to be made.
Mr. Popper doesn't know what to do but promises them an answer by morning. He and his wife spend a long evening weighing the options. In the end, he gives the penguins to Admiral Perry to take to the North Pole. It breaks his heart to see them go, but he knows it is in the birds' best interest. The Hollywood team asks for time to make a short film before they leave — just a clip to record the penguins' tricks, which will be used as a newsreel to tell America about these brave pioneer penguins going North with Admiral Perry. Everyone agrees to this, and the filmmaker pays a generous sum to the Poppers for their trouble.
The Poppers stay in New York for a few days until the steamship taking the penguins and Admiral Perry is ready to leave. Mr. Popper says painful goodbyes to the penguins, carrying through with the decision to let them go only because he knows it truly is best for them. When he goes above deck to say goodbye to Admiral Perry, he learns that Admiral Perry is, in fact, expecting him to go with.
After a quick conversation with Mrs. Popper, Mr. Popper is set to leave. The book closes with an exuberant Mr. Popper heading off to live (and for all practical purposes, continue) this much longed-for adventure.
Only fleeting, high-level references are made to a general Christian culture. Sunday is seen as a special day, with the possibility of treats, and Mr. Popper's best clothes are described as his Sunday best. Mrs. Popper's main social activity outside the house is her regular meeting of the Ladies Aid and Missionary Society. And when she first hears about one of the more selfish behaviors of penguins in the wild, Mrs. Popper thinks they sound like rather a heathen animal.
Other Belief Systems
Although not exactly graphic, the penguins' wrestling is more aggressive (and approved of) than one might expect, given the tone of the rest of the book. Two brother penguins regularly fight with each other, which is encouraged by the rest of the penguins. The Poppers develop this into a “wrestling” act for the stage show. It is more like a boxing match though, where pushing and hitting are approved of and encouraged. The other penguins have a favorite fighter and regularly distract the non-favorite so the favorite can knock him out.
In one scene, the penguins are described as looking silly and girlish while wearing fireman hats.
Mr. Popper kisses his wife hello after returning from work. The only sexual reference in the book is Mrs. Popper's comment, upon arrival of the female penguin in the mail, that this will soon mean eggs and no more room in the refrigerator for all the penguins (which it does).
Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at ThrivingFamily.com/discuss-books.
Spanking: Mrs. Popper “spanks” a penguin once as discipline, and the children follow her example a little later. It's not a major part of the story. However, she “spanks” the penguin on his head.
Hard work: Living within one's available means is valued. Cash flow matters, and when finances are tight, the main options are to (1) do without, or (2) find creative ways to earn money by using one's skill and available resources. The Poppers do go into debt once, but this is seen as an unfortunate necessity rather than an easy convenience. They know that one of their neighbors is being shortchanged until they pay him for his work, and paying him is the first thing they do with the money they earn.
Politeness is held in high regard, as is curiosity. In fact, the two make a rather useful combination. The penguins' insatiable curiosity causes more than a few problems, but what tends to keep them out of any real trouble is that those around see how very sincere and polite they are while exploring everything.
Producers often use a book as a springboard for a movie idea or to earn a specific rating. Because of this, a movie may differ from the novel. To better understand how this book and movie differ, compare the book review with Plugged In's movie review for Mr. Popper's Penguins.
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Readability Age Range
7 to 10
Richard Atwater, Florence Atwater
Little, Brown and Company Books for Young Readers, a division of the Hachette Book Group, USA
Newberry Honor Book, 1939