Sunday, May 11, 2008

Richard Atwater

Born December 29, 1892 in Chicago, Illinois
Died August 21, 1948 in Downey, Wisconsin

This is an unfortunately short author's essay but a testament to the fact that great books can be produced under the most unexpected and difficult of circumstances. Richard Tupper Atwater was born December 29th, 1892 in Chicago Illinois. He attended the University of Chicago and graduated in 1910 with a B.A. in Greek. He stayed another seven years as a graduate student and teacher in Greek studies.

In addition to teaching at the University, he worked with the university's drama club in a variety of ways including writing a play for them. He was also an occasional contributing columnist for the Chicago Tribune. During this time at the University of Chicago he met his future wife in one of the classes he taught.

In 1917 he left the University and, after a stint in the Army at the end of World War I, he joined the Chicago Evening Post writing a column as "Riq." His first book, Rickety Rimes of Riq in 1925, was a collection of verse from this column. He moved to the Chicago Daily News, still publishing his Riq column. His first foray into children's books was Doris and the Trolls in 1931, but which did not leave a lasting impression on the reading public. He also translated the Secret History of Procopius which was published in 1927 as well as an operetta, The King's Sneezes, 1933. By this point he had authored four books, each in an entirely different genre; journalism, juvenile literature, translation of classics, and operetta.

It was in this period that the Atwater family took in a documentary film about the Byrd Antarctic expedition. This film left an impression on Atwater and when one of his two daughters complained about how many history books she was having to read, he set out to write a fantasy tale about penguins as a counterpoint. He completed the manuscript and it was much enjoyed by his daughters but he set it aside, not happy with it in its final form.

Tragically, Atwater suffered a stroke in 1934 and, though he survived till 1948, he never recovered sufficiently to write again. His wife, Florence Atwater, was faced with supporting an invalided husband two young daughters in the midst of the Great Depression. Evidently she had talent, intelligence and huge amounts of resolve.

She wrote a number of articles for the New Yorker and The Atlantic. She returned to university to obtain her MA in French as well as obtaining Chicago teaching certificates in English, French and Latin. Casting around for ways to make additional income she went back to Atwater's original manuscript and took it to a couple of publishers, both of whom rejected it.

Florence Atwater reviewed the script and decided to recast the story which, in its original version, was a complete fantasy. Keeping the middle of the book as her husband had written it, she rewrote the beginning and the end, counterbalancing the fantasy with a story line that accentuated the practical consequences attendant to a fantasy. This revised version, illustrated by the terrific Robert Lawson of The Story of Ferdinand fame (See Featured Author of September 16th, 2007), received a much more positive reception from publishers and Mr. Popper's Penguins was published in 1938 to immediate acclaim. It won a 1939 Newberry Honor and has been in print ever since.

Mr. Popper is a Walter Mitty type figure. He is a house painter by trade and is good enough at what he does but is clumsy, untidy, and absent minded. What he really loves to do is to spend his time reading books of travel and exploration, particularly polar exploration.

In response to an admiring letter he has sent to the world famous polar explorer, Admiral Drake, Mr. Popper is surprised to receive a live penguin. Very shortly afterwards, he ends up with a second penguin and, consequently, soon after that a further ten little penguins. Slowly but with great dedication, Mr. Popper, supported by his resolute, practical wife, transforms his home into an arctic refuge for penguins. After many adventures, Mr. Popper ends up having to make the difficult decision that a house in the city is no place to raise penguins and he makes the commitment to turn them over to Admiral Drake who plans to take them to the North Pole, where, regrettably, there are not yet any penguins. This difficult decision is mitigated by Admiral Drake's surprise invitation to Mr. Popper to join the expedition.

There is no message to Mr. Popper's Penguins, but a lot of information and most importantly a lot of plot, humor and adventure. It is simply a wonderful, charming story produced from the unplanned efforts of three participants, Florence and Richard Atwater along with Robert Lawson in which the two writers undertake a most unusual collaboration. There is antic humor married to dead-pan practicality that in its juxtaposition makes the fantasy both more hilarious and more believable. For example, shortly after the arrival of the first penguin, christened Captain Cook, the Popper's family goldfish falls prey to Captain Cook's peckish appetite.

If your child has not yet read Mr. Popper's Penguins, give them a copy. If they are not yet an independent reader, it serves very well as a read-to book.

Independent Reader

Mr. Popper's Penguins by Richard and FLorence Atwater and illustrated by Robert Lawson Highly Recommended

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