Our First Attempt at Literary Analysis: Mr. Popper’s Penguins

Dear Reader,

Since reading Deconstructing Penguins by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone (see my review here), I have been wanting to have a book group with my kids. For a little review, Deconstructing is the account of a parent and child book group the Goldstones ran at their local library. It is written anecdotally, telling of their own experiences, but along the way it also goes through a number of children’s books and tells how they would understand the books. The approach is the most important thing though; the authors are careful to say any answer is right if one can support it from the text.

I debated asking other homeschoolers to join us in a book group but in the end, not knowing how well it would work, I wimped out and decided to try it with just my own kids. There are four of them, though, which I think gives us a quorum for a good discussion.

The first book we attempted is the one Deconstructing Penguins is named after — Mr. Popper’s Penguins. Deconstructing is not written as a how-to guide but I went through their chapter on it and came up with my own list of questions to steer the discussion. It took us a while to read the book because we did it a chapter at a  time a read-aloud. But finally today we were ready to discuss. I guess I had told my kids ahead of time that there would be a mystery to solve– this is the Deconstructing approach, each book is a mystery and we must dig deep to find out what the author is trying to tell us.

Well, anyway, my youngest who is 9 years old, started us off before I could even ask questions this morning by saying she thought she knew the answer to the mystery. Her guess was that the author was trying to ask if penguins could live in other environments than their natural one. This kind of threw me, but I thought we would go with it. So we started by discussing her proposition and asking what the answer would be. Could penguins live elsewhere? How did they fare in the book? And what about the other characters? How did Mr. Popper do outside his natural environment? What about Mrs. Popper and the children? Though I didn’t see it coming myself at first, this actually tied in well with what Deconstructing said was the main idea — that Mr. Popper, unlike all the other people in Stillwater, was a dreamer; that he was “different” and they were “normal.”

For our own part, we ended up saying that some people, like Mr. Popper, could thrive in foreign environments, but that others, like Mrs. Popper, could not. We also discussed which of us would do well in other environments. Some of us are more adventurous than others.

My older daughter also made an interesting observation. She said that Mr. Popper is like a Christiaan because he doesn’t really belong in Stillwater; he belongs somewhere else, just as for Christians we are aliens here and our true citizenship is in heaven. We tried to make the penguins or Admiral Drake a Christ-figure but decide this might be going too far 😉

The conclusion is that I am very pleased with how our little book group went. The kids really came up with ideas that seemed to fit the book and yet went beyond what Deconstructing Penguins itself said. And, honestly, I liked their ideas better too.

Even though we didn’t end up using them as written, I would like to share with you the questions I can up with in case you would like to have your own book group. If you do, be sure to let me know how it goes and what conclusions your reach!

Questions for Mr. Popper’s Penguins:

  • What is this book really about?
  • Why penguins?
  • What kind of town did Mr. Popper live in?
  • Why “Stillwater”? Is the town’s name just accidental?
  • How would you describe the people in the town? (Have the kids guess “normal” in a  hangman-style game.)
  • What about Mr. Popper? (Again have them guess “different.”)
  • What makes him different? (Deconstructing‘s answer is that he is a dreamer.)
  • Why is it important to have dreams?
  • Does it bother you to be different? Did it bother Mr. Popper?

I plan to do future posts when we discuss more books. It may be a number of weeks between such posts though since it takes us a while to read them (hey, what a great reason to start following me!).

I would also like in future years to have similar discussions about movies based on another book I read recently, Meaning at the Movies (review here).


11 responses to this post.

  1. Thank you for sharing this. I look forward to hearing about more of your book discussions. I think I need to read Deconstructing Penguins.


  2. Wow, Nebby, it sounds like it went REALLY well! Maybe you should consider inviting those other homeschoolers after all. It sounds like it was pretty special for your own kids! Thanks so much for sharing!


  3. That is some impressive discussion! Those things never crossed *my* mind, much less my son’s when we read it last year (he was 9).


  4. […] attempt at literary analysis. You can read about the first one, on Mr. Popper’s Penguins, here. The whole enterprise on based upon the book Deconstructing Penguins which I really loved and […]


  5. […] I am ready to recount to you our latest foray into the realms of literary analysis. Our attempts are based on the book Deconstructing Penguins by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone which I reviewed here. Our previous attempts were on Charlotte’s Web and Mr. Popper’s Penguins. […]


  6. […] last literary analysis of the year we tackled George Orwell’s Animal Farm (see the earlier ones here, here, and here). This turned out to be a particularly good choice since we had studied both the […]


  7. Great post Nebby and congratulations on putting Deconstructing Penguins into action!! I recently did the same thing with a small group of 5th & 6th graders. We studied Wind in the Willows. It was rewarding to hear the kid’s responses.

    For further study beyond Goldstone’s book, I recommend Teaching the Classics by Adam and Missy Andrews. It’s a helpful resource.

    Our next book is The Adventures of Tom Sawyer…


    • Thanks for taking the time to comment. Those are great book suggestions. We are doing Bull Run now but I am looking for what our next book will be.


  8. […] On that note I also used Deconstructing Penguins by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone in middle school. The book is the story of their book club for kids. You could have high schoolers read it but it is better to read it yourself and then read the books they sued and discuss them. Along the way you will both hopefully learn something about delving into the ideas behind a book. I like that the Goldstone’s use fairly simple books. My opinion is that it is easier to start with books that are too easy for your kids. I have a number of posts that narrate out book studies based on Deconstructing. The first one is here. […]


  9. […] Atwater, Richard. Mr. Popper’s Penguins. A must-read, funny book. Elementary. Often these easier books are good for discussing literary techniques with older children as well. See this post. […]


  10. […] For introducing literary analysis, I highly recommend the book Deconstructing Penguins. See this post for an example of how we have used it in our […]


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