Book Review: Mr. Popper’s Penguins

Mr. Popper’s Penguins
By Richard and Florence Atwater
Illustrated by Michael Emberley (cover) and Robert Lawson (interior)
Little, Brown & Company, 1992 (originally published 1938)
Age Range: 9-12, reads aloud well to any age

When my siblings and I pestered our parents to take us to see Star Wars when we were children, my mother took us to the library and checked out the books for us instead. As a result, when the original Star Wars trilogy was rereleased in the late 90’s, I was pretty much the only person I knew who was seeing them for the first time.

I don’t think I was scarred too badly by that, although my husband, brother, and brother-in-law might disagree. Still, reading the books instead of (or at least before) watching the movies is a tradition that I’m carrying on with The Four-Year-Old.

So when Mr. Popper’s Penguins hit the theaters this summer, instead of buying the family tickets, I hunted down a copy of the book. And it was only with great difficulty that I wrested that book away from The Four-Year-Old long enough to write this review. (Before you accuse me of stealing books from small children, you should know that we have read this 138-page book cover to cover three times over the past three weeks. My daughter has had plenty of time with the Poppers.)

For those of you who haven’t read the book, the basic premise is that a house painter who spends his off-hours reading about (and writing to) explorers in the South Pole receives a penguin in the mail from one of those explorers. Since his work is over for the winter, he becomes very involved in the comfort and care of said penguin (and the eleven other penguins that quickly follow). In the end, he transforms his basement into an ice rink (an idea my daughter wholeheartedly supports, by the way), and spends more than his wife ever thought possible on fish and canned shrimp.

I won’t tell you how an out-of-work house painter manages to pay for all that (wouldn’t want to spoil the ending), but I will say that the process is highly entertaining for all involved. I found myself looking forward to each night’s installment of Mr. Popper nearly as much as The Four-Year-Old.

Although I personally found the ending to be highly improbable, The Four-Year-Old saw nothing at all the matter with it–except for that little bit of unpleasantness with the policemen and firemen–and has spent many a happy evening reenacting the finale in the bathtub.

And now, if you will excuse me, I need to go read Mr. Popper’s Penguins to The Four-Year-Old again. I promised her I would as soon as I finished writing the review. Which means it’s your turn. What are you reading this week?

About Shala Howell

I spent two decades helping companies like Bell Labs, Juniper Networks, and a genetic testing company that was later acquired by CVS translate some of the world’s most complicated concepts into actionable, understandable English. Now I'm working on a much harder problem -- fostering children’s curiosity and engagement in the scientific, artistic, and linguistic world that surrounds them. The first book in my Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom?, focuses on how to use public art to nurture children’s curiosity in the world around them. My next book will focus on science, and how parents without a science degree can answer their curious child's questions without enrolling in a college level refresher course. In the meantime, you can find me blogging about life with a very curious Eleven-Year-Old at, chatting about books and the writing life at, and tweeting about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
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19 Responses to Book Review: Mr. Popper’s Penguins

  1. Mary McConnell says:

    Have you read The Catwings series by LeGuin? Yes, THAT LeGuin! It’s a classic!
    I always loved MPP….one of my favorites growing up!


    • shalahowell says:

      Yes, I got a copy of the series on your recommendation a little while ago, and we loved it. So much so that The Four-Year-Old asked me to sew a pair of wings for her cat stuffed animal. I find hand-sewing rather tedious, so it’s going to take a while. I suspect I’ll roll out the finished product around Christmas time. Keep the book tips coming!


  2. Reba says:

    I read it to my boys a few years ago, and we had a great time with it too. Funny, light-hearted, completely unrealistic, and pure pleasure! Thinking about pulling it out again for the younger two.


  3. Susan says:

    Sounds like I’ll have to get this book for my kids. Incidentally (and unlike you), I almost always watch the movie before I read the book (assuming haven’t already read the book before I knew a film was coming out). The reason? I often envision the characters quite differently from the way Hollywood casts them and end up spending the whole movie annoyed that they’re “wrong.” I’m also bothered by the omission of characters and scenes since a book invariably has to be cut to fit the time frame of a film. If I see the movie first, I tend to envision the characters the way I saw them and can still enjoy the richness that the novel has over the movie. [Of course, now that I have kids I see very few movies, so these days it’s less of an issue.]


    • shalahowell says:

      Isn’t that interesting? In my case, the differences don’t bother me (generally speaking). Instead I’m fascinated by the way stories have to be restructured to suit a different storytelling medium. That said, I watched 101 Dalmatians before reading the book by Dodie Smith. It turns out the process is just as interesting to observe in the other direction.


    • shalahowell says:

      Oh, and in case you are thinking of seeing Mr. Popper’s Penguins, you may want to watch the movie first in this case. If the trailer is to be believed, the movie bears only a very slight resemblance to the book.


  4. Sheila says:

    Did I really do that?
    Well, good for me. Am looking forward to reading this book as well,
    Love and happy reading,


  5. Kaylana says:

    That’s more than snesbile! That’s a great post!


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