Mr. Popper's Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater

Sep 21, 2012

In a nutshell, Mr. Popper's Penguins was not as wildly funny and entertaining as I was hoping it would be. I'm wondering how it has managed to stand the test of time.

Mr. Popper is a husband and father who paints houses for a living and dreams of Antarctica for the rest of the time. One day, just after the painting season has ended, a package shows up on his doorstep, and wonder of wonders, it's a penguin! Mr. Popper couldn't be happier. He names his new pet Captain Cook and enjoys taking him on walks. Then Captain Cook grows lonely, and through a series of fortunate events, a female penguin (Greta) is also sent to Mr. Popper. Together, Captain Cook and Greta have ten baby penguins. Mr. Popper is in heaven and lives to be down in the freezing basement watching his beloved birds. But Mrs. Popper realizes that they will soon be out of money. And thus, Popper's Performing Penguins is born.

I remember my mom reading this book aloud when I was a child, and I don't remember disliking it. It seemed like a good choice for my next read-aloud to Aaron because he has quite the sense of humor, and what could be funnier than twelve penguins living in a house?

I guess you can already tell that the book did not live up to my expectations. First of all, it's terribly slow. A whole chapter was spent describing the nest Captain Cook (the penguin, remember?) built in the refrigerator. A walk around town took up another two chapters. There just wasn't anything very gripping about the plot to make us want to read another chapter. (But we plugged along anyway.)

Also, through no fault of its own, the language is outdated. Neither Aaron or Max had any idea what was happening when the "service man" came to fix the "ice box." Of course, this provided some great opportunities for learning new words, but it also made the slow pace of the story even slower since I had to stop and explain what had happened every few pages.

And then there's Mr. Popper himself. He's just not your normal children's book protagonist. In fact, I found him to be odd and quirky but not really in a funny or entertaining way. He's oblivious to the needs of his wife and children, and there's not anything endearing or redeeming about him.

To top it off, the ending was just so ridiculous, even Aaron and Max could tell I did not approve. At the last minute, Mr. Popper hops aboard a ship bound for the Arctic, and without asking a single question, his wife and children happily send him off for the next two or three years. What?! In a single paragraph, Mr. Popper went from odd and quirky to downright irresponsible.

So that's my honest opinion. Now as far as Aaron and Max are concerned, I think they liked it well enough. They were definitely bored at times, but there were scenes that captured their attentions and which they relived in the days afterward. Aaron is still talking about the snowstorm inside the house, and he keeps telling me he wishes he could jump off the chair into a big snow pile. Ahhh, dreams. And a few days ago, my sister-in-law was at our house, and she was acting out scripture stories with the boys. She asked Aaron what his favorite story was, and he said, "Mr. Popper's Penguins!" I'm consoling myself with the hope that he didn't realize she was talking about scripture stories. At any rate, I guess he liked the book well enough to list it as a "favorite," at least for a short time.

My final opinion is that even though this book received a Newbery Honor, it has worn out its popularity. It's not a bad book, but there are many far better books to choose from.

Do you have any good recommendations for a four-year-old? I'd love to hear them!


  1. Sorry you didn't love it. Some books truly are better when we're kids.

    Books for 4 year olds?

    I think if you haven't already met my sister from another mother, Danielle ( you should check her site out. She's the go to girl for kids book.

  2. I'm having the same problem! Right now I've been grabbing things I remember liking but since it's been 25-ish years I forget how dated they will be (especially since most of them weren't new when I read them). Abby tends to enjoy them and Ginny is a little lost. She loved "The Mouse and the Motorcycle" and she loves Winnie the Pooh which are both dated. The main thing for me is if the story moves. I don't mind stopping and explaining things as long as it's not every other sentence. Sometimes I promise to look things up on the computer afterwards so that they can see what things look like.
    Are you familiar with Bill Peet? Abby loved those when she was 3-4. They are older but I think they wear their age well. They are not chapter books but longer picture books. Her favorite was "Chester the Worldly Pig".
    See why I don't leave comments? Apparently I don't do brevity.


    Aaron is so advanced these seem a little young for him- but you can look!

  4. I admit I love Mr. Popper and when we listened to the audiobook in the car on a recent trip my kids laughed and laughed! But not all books are for everyone. A short time ago I wrote a post about chapter books to read to preschoolers. Although Mr. P is on it! :)

    1. Us, too, Momand Kiddo! The audiobook was a near-perfect experience for us. I think the implausibility is what makes this book so fun. Plus, we don't mind dated language. It adds to the charm somehow.

    2. Maybe we'll have to try the audio sometime in the future. Sometimes I like a book much better when I listen to it. Thanks for the link to your list! Great ideas!


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