Wednesday, November 7, 2007

We have three penguins living in our fridge

We have three penguins living in our fridge. They're named Captain Cook and Greta and "Baby Penguin", after the characters in Mr. Popper's Penguins. And they mark an important milestone in literacy. Mr. Popper's Penguins is the first chapter book that we've read aloud.

Since starting first grade, Tommy has to read for 20 minutes a night. He's a relatively fluent, but reluctant reader. So, we're keeping the books that we ask him to read simple. We've been through the entire series of insipid alphabet books: My Little 'a', My Little 'b', etc. The stories all begin the same way: "Little b (or a, or c, or d) had a box. Little b found some buttons (or ants or coats or dogs). She put her buttons (or ants or coats or dogs) in her box..." The plot doesn't get any more interesting than that, and it definitely does not improve with reading and re-reading. We've also been through the whole Clifford phonics reader series, whose only redeeming qualities are that Tommy is interested in them and they are easy to read.

But there is only so much of early, simple phonics readers that a mother can take. Enter Mr. Popper's Penguins. We had received it as a gift this summer, and it had gotten buried upon return. When I unearthed it this fall, a sense of relief came over me. I realized that Tommy had finally matured to the point where he could sit still long enough to listen to a chapter book. I wasn't doomed to early readers for the next two years!

And so our adventure began. Slowly reading a chapter every night or every other night, we were introduced to Mr. Popper, Mrs. Popper, Janie and Bill. As the chapters went on, we met Captain Cook, the penguin sent by Admiral Drake to Mr. Popper in Stillwater, and Greta, the penguin sent by a zoo where she had been languishing. Together Captain Cook and Greta started on a family and adventures.

I'm still not sure how much Tommy got of the plot, but he was getting some of the details. One day while we were driving in the car, he unearthed a toy penguin, a remnant of a Happy Meal. "Gok!" he said. "Mom, this is Captain Cook." Soon Greta (another Happy Meal toy) was found, and a baby penguin. They took up residence in the fridge, just like Captain Cook and Greta had. They live in the fridge during the day, and sometimes come out at night to sleep in the 'nest' under Tommy's bed. They get a bath weekly.

I'm pleased because our foray into chapter books has increased my interest in reading to the kids and it seems to be opening up new worlds of ideas and play. And I know that by reading chapter books, we're increasing vocabulary and literary skills.

Even without these side benefits, Captain Cook and Greta are enlivening the house. The other night, Tommy was watching Dad play computer games before he went to bed. Dad began to play a game called "Penguins". Tommy raced down the stairs, flung open the fridge, grabbed Captain Cook and Greta and raced back upstairs. He placed them carefully in front of the computer where they could see, and said "They've just got to see this!"