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“Not just the single best book on leading a book discussion group, Deconstructing Penguins is also about how to dig a tunnel into the heart of a book. In my ideal world, every reading teacher would trash that boring classroom text and adopt this book as a curriculum bible.”
–Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook
“This wonderful, easy-to-read guide will be a tremendous resource for librarians, teachers, and parents who want to help kids experience the joys of children’s literature.”
–Sally G. Reed, executive director, Friends of Libraries U.S.A.
Mr. Popper’s Penguins is about a housepainter who lives in a small town called Stillwater. Mr. Popper lives with Mrs. Popper and two little Poppers. He does not make a lot of money, possibly because he is so busy daydreaming about traveling to the Antarctic (a big deal in 1938 when this book was written). He couldn’t work in the winter, so he spent his time reading about explorers. As the story opens, he has just sent a letter to Admiral Drake, a famous Antarctic explorer, extolling the virtues of penguins. Admiral Drake responds by sending Mr. Popper a penguin of his very own.
Lots of humorous mishaps occur and a female penguin arrives, which quickly gives rise to ten additional penguins. Mr. Popper, in an attempt to afford all these penguins, takes them on the road as a stage act. They are wildly successful, earning the Poppers lots of money that they spend entirely on the penguins. Eventually, however, Mr. Popper and the penguins land in jail in New York from which they are rescued by Admiral Drake, who has just returned from his expedition. So impressed is Admiral Drake with Mr. Popper that he takes him on his next voyage. The book closes with an illustration of a smiling Mr. Popper in a fur hood, next to a penguin, looking over the railing of a ship.
“Welcome to the book group! Thank you all for coming,” we said, after everyone had gone around the room and introduced themselves and we’d made it clear to the kids that we were going to discuss the book for a while before we broke for snacks. “Books are like puzzles,” we began. “The author’s ideas are hidden and it is up to all of us to figure them out. Whenever you read a book you want to know what the book is really about, not what it’s about on the surface, not the story, but what’s underneath the story. . . .”
A little boy’s hand went up.
“Yes, Jeremy? Do you have an idea about what the book is really about?”
Jeremy (we’ve obviously changed all the names) was one of those kids you run into from time to time who appears to be actually a miniature adult. He was dressed in an Oxford shirt, V-neck sweater, corduroys, and what appeared to be little Rockport shoes. He stared intensely for a moment.
“Mr. Popper’s Penguins is about a man named Mr. Popper,” he reported. “Mr. Popper gets a penguin in the mail who he trains. Then he gets another penguin. They have babies. Then they go to New York.”
“That’s good, Jeremy, but that’s the story. We’re looking for what the author is trying to say underneath the story. What the story is really about. What do you think the story is really about?”
Jeremy nodded. “They get in trouble in New York. They even go to jail. Admiral Drake gets them out. Then Mr. Popper and the penguins go on the boat with Admiral Drake.”
“Yes, Jeremy, that’s very good.” Oh dear, we thought.
We tried some different, open-ended questions, like “Why do you think the authors chose penguins?” but it was proving impossible to move either the kids or the parents off the plot. After about twenty minutes, our worst fears were being realized: blank stares from the kids, restlessness from the parents, long silences, and two heavily perspiring moderators.
We continued to flounder until we asked, “The town that Mr. Popper lived in . . . what kind of a place was it? Why do you think the authors chose the name Stillwater? Was it just an accident?”
This had more success. One little girl said that she didn’t think it was an accident and we quickly (and gratefully) moved into a discussion of Stillwater. Everyone in the town except Mr. Popper, the kids quickly noticed, was “dull.” They were “boring,” “ordinary,” and “did what everyone else did.” “What do you think about people like that?” we asked. “How would you describe them in one word?”
Rebecca, a girl in the back, waved her hand furiously. “NORMAL,” she replied with triumph. The parents chuckled but shifted uneasily in their seats.
“What about Mr. Popper?” we went on. He was certainly not normal, the kids agreed. He was . . . they couldn’t seem to find the right word. So, on the easel, we wrote:
D _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
A mother raised her hand. “Demented?” she offered.
“Dumb?” suggested one of the little boys, obviously not a spelling whiz.
“What about ‘different’?” asked another mother.
“Yes! And what made him different?”
After a little more discussion it came out. Mr. Popper was different because he had a dream, and he was the only one in the town who did. What’s more, he had done something about it. He had followed his dream.
“Could this be a book about the importance of following your dreams?” we asked. “Was that what the book was really about?”
There was a slow nodding of heads.
“So,” we went on, “what did everyone think of this? Was it good to follow your dreams, or even to keep them?” The expression on each parent’s face changed. We went around the room, first asking each child, then each parent, “What is your dream?”
The kids, of course, had no trouble with this question. Although a couple had the very suburban dream of making a million dollars, there were also dreams of travel, adventure, and even world peace. When we came to Annabeth, a thoroughly adorable, cherubic little blond girl, she had no problem at all.
“My dream is that my brother gets eaten by a bear,” she said happily.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
|1||Penguins 7, Jets 0: How We Got Started||3|
|2||Everyone Loves a Mystery: Learning to Be a Book Detective||15|
|3||The Gift of the Greeks: Protagonist, Antagonist, and the Use of Character||25|
|4||Location, Location, Location: The Importance of Setting||43|
|5||Crisis and Conflict: Identifying the Climax||59|
|6||Putting It Together: What Is the Book Really About?||73|
|7||Who's Right? Point of View||87|
|8||Obvious Characters, Contrived Endings, and Convenient Plot Devices: Grading the Author||112|
|9||Songs Without Music: Poetry||130|
|10||A Book for Practice||150|
|11||Another Book for Practice||163|
|12||One More Book for Practice||175|
|13||Some (Almost) Final Thoughts||188|
|Appendix I||Books for Second and Third Grade||195|
|Appendix II||Books for Fourth and Fifth Grade||201|