Friday, August 27, 2010

A little comfort reading

Atwater, Richard and Florence. Mr. Popper's Penguins. (1938)
Mr. Popper is a house painter and decorator whose work is over for the summer. Since he doesn't have another job, he spends his time reading about his biggest interest, the South Pole. He has even written to Admiral Drake, who is conducting expeditions there. After receiving a letter about how much Mr. Popper admires the penguins native to the area, Drake sends one to Mr. Popper! Accommodations are made to keep the penguin happy and healthy, but they are not enough. A zoo sends another ailing penguin to the Popper menagerie, and both penguins perk up enough to have ten baby penguins. The cellar is converted to a snowy playground for them, and the dozen show uncanny abilities to perform, so Mr. Popper takes them on the road to tour a variety of Vaudeville theaters. Comical complications ensue, and in the end, Mr. Popper gets to realize his dream of traveling to the South Pole.

I picked this up because I read in the paper that it was being turned into a movie with Jim Carey, who will play a wealthy New York businessman who gets six penguins in the mail and has his life thrown into chaos. This spin on the book is disappointing, because the most charming thing, to me, was the way in which the Depression Era Mrs. Popper was inured to the lack of money Mr. Popper brought in. She's not even sad when he goes off to the South Pole, because they now have plenty of money and she won't have to sweep around him during the day. Given the economic climate, bringing in the detail of an out-of-work man scrimping so he can feed the penguins canned shrimp would have been a nice touch.

This book, like The Trolley Car Family (read a nice review at Sarah's Book Journal), Gates' Blue Willow, Sorensen's Miracles on Maple Hill or Robert McCloskey's Homer Price have always delighted me with their depictions of every day life as it was when the books were written. Iceboxes, going to town in a wagon drawn by a horse, and in the case of Mr. Popper's Penguins, the great illustrations of women carrying grocery bags while dressed in heels, hats, and impressive overcoats, are all details that children no longer know about. Actually, a movie SET during the Great Depression would be wonderful-- true to the book and would give students some historical reference, and perhaps some pointers for how to survive a difficult economic climate!


  1. Blurgh. Do we really need another eccentric millionaire movie for kids? I'm sad and mad that they've jettisoned the working-class, self-educated Mr. Popper. Hopefully, they'll change the name of the movie to something inane so it doesn't get associated with the book...

  2. I loved this book when I was little and I enjoyed reading it to my own kids. I think it's still really funny. How disappointing that they are rewriting it for the movie! I wonder if they're using CGI penguins or real ones...