Two Read-Aloud Adventures

The Silver Arrow and The Popper Penguin Rescue, two brief novels for middle-graders, offer cozy thrills and a safe return home.

The Silver Arrow by Lev Grossman. Little, Brown, 2020, 259 pages.

Reading Level: Middle Grades, ages 8-10

Recommended for: ages 6-12 as a read-aloud, 8-11 independently

“Kate knew only two things about her Uncle Herbert: He was very rich and totally irresponsible.” She knows only these two things because that’s all her parents have told her. But she can’t help wondering, especially since her parents don’t seem to have much time for her and her brother Tom. It’s not that they don’t care; they’re just too busy to notice that Kate is growing out of childhood and growing into something else. She could use an adventure, or at least something unexpected. That’s why she writes a letter to Uncle Herbert on the eve of her eleventh birthday, asking for a present. Since she didn’t know how to address the envelope, and didn’t even put a stamp on it, it was unlikely that her uncle would appear with a present. But he did.

And not with just any present: with a full-size steam locomotive. The only explanation he can give is “magic.” But that’s all Kate and Tom need for the adventure of a lifetime.

After a strong start, the plot meanders a bit, but the introduction of characters and places make for a nicely-paced read-aloud. “The [real] world is more interesting than it appears,” Uncle Herbert observes; a point well taken, and hopefully applicable even after a long journey in a magical world.


There’s one misuse of God’s name, and three OMGs.Speaking to the children, the locomotive asks, “Aren’t you just a robot made of flesh and bones?” Well, actually, no.Overall rating: 3.75 (out of 5)

Worldview/moral value: 3.25Artistic/literary value: 4

The Popper Penguin Rescue by Eliot Schrefer. Little, Brown, 160 pages.

Reading Level: Middle Grades, ages 8-10

Recommended for: ages 6-10 as a read-aloud, 8-10 independently

We all know the story of Mr. Popper’s famous penguins–who, after a brief career in show business, retreated to an island above the Arctic Circle for a happy retirement in their natural habitat. They’re gone but not forgotten in Stillwater, Mr. Popper’s hometown, where the annual Popper parade is a big event. Nearby Hillport also made a big deal of the penguins, but by now the bloom is off the rose and attractions like the Penguin Pavilion have gone to seed. The new residents of the Pavilion are distant relations of the original Poppers: Joel and Nina and their mom. They have a big cleaning job ahead before they can move in. But first Nina has to explore the basement, where she finds not one, but two penguin eggs. What if they hatch?

That’s exactly what happens, once the eggs receive a little TLC. It’s unclear how long they’ve just been sitting there, but that’s just one of many unexplained circumstances. Soon enough the family understands that they need to get little Earnest and Mae back to their own kind, namely Popper Island in the Arctic.

Mr. Popper’s Penguins deserves a better sequel; this one is lightweight with some odd gaps, like what’s up with Nina and Joel’s dad. (Since their mother is Mrs. Popper, there should be a Mr. Popper somewhere.) The pacing could be better too, as the ending seems rushed. But it’s a pleasant-enough read for younger children who like penguins.

Overall Rating: 3.5 (out of 5)

Worldview/moral value: 3.5Artistic/literary value: 3.5Also at Redeemed Reader

If you haven’t read Mr. Popper’s Penguins, what are you waiting for??It has a few problems with profanity, but On the Blue Comet is another cracking magical-railroad yarn.Also by Eliot Schrefer: Threatened

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