Joel and his little sister, Nina, are dubious about moving into a new home. But things start looking up when they find a couple of penguin eggs in the basement.
That’s how Eliot Schrefer’s new book, The Popper Penguin Rescue, begins. This charming illustrated book for kids ages 8 to 12 is a sequel to the children’s classic Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater, first published in 1938 (and made into a movie starring Jim Carrey in 2011).
In the first book, a house painter in a small northern town called Stillwater comes by a flock of penguins, and zany adventures ensue.
Schrefer’s book is set several decades later, and Mr. Popper and his original penguins are long gone. But Joel and Nina and their mother are very distant relations, also named Popper.
The family is going through a rough patch and ends up in Hillport, one town over from Stillwater. Hillport for a long time thrived as a penguin tourism center — in fact, the house they’re moving into was until recently a penguin petting zoo.
All the penguins, though, are gone, many of them having been removed to a remote island near the Arctic. Yes, penguins are from the Antarctic, at the other end of the globe, but the theory is at least the climate will suit them.
As it turns out, a couple of penguins, or potential penguins, were left behind, hidden behind the heater in the house’s basement. Joel and Nina try to keep them hidden, swaddling the eggs in fleece blankets and hot water bottles and carrying them to school in their backpacks.
It works briefly — until the eggs hatch, and two fluffy chicks emerge. “The Popper Penguins were named after famous travelers,” Joel tells his sister, so they name the chicks after Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton and astronaut Mae Jemison.
Mae’s and Ernest’s vocabulary is limited to “oork,” but their talent for mischief is considerable. Soon the children’s mother finds out about them, and they all have to figure out the little birds' future.
That will lead the whole family, Mae and Ernest included, on an adventure that takes them from one end of the globe to the other.
Schrefer, who graduated from Countryside High School in Clearwater, is an accomplished children’s author. He’s a two-time National Book Award finalist for young people’s literature for his excellent YA novels Endangered and Threatened, which are part of a four-book series about great apes and their endangered environments.
He brings the same careful research to this book but deploys it with a light touch. Joel and Nina are believable, resourceful kids, the illustrations by Jim Marsden are engaging, the adventures at sea are thrilling, and the penguins are, of course, adorable.
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The Popper Penguin Rescue
By Eliot Schrefer
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 176 pages, $16.99
Times Virtual Festival of Reading
Starting Nov. 12, watch an interview with Eliot Schrefer at festivalofreading.com.