September 21, 2023


The King Penguin. By Vanessa Roeder. Dial. $18.99.

     Being a king is not all it’s cracked up to be. That is the lesson – or part of it – in Vanessa Roeder’s delightfully daffy The King Penguin. There really is a bird called the king penguin, and that is Roeder’s starting point for a story in which one such penguin takes his kingship a bit too seriously. Declaring himself the ruler of all other penguins – the specific types, amusingly presented and illustrated, are a part of the tale – Percival Penguin makes whatever rules please him, such as assessing taxes by eating some of the sardines caught by other penguins.

     Eventually and predictably, the other penguins unite on the basis of “who (other than you) declared yourself king, anyway?” They toss Percival out of the penguin colony – but, being resilient, he does not care very much. He simply decides he will find “a new kingdom to rule,” since it is so obvious that he is destined for rulership.

     Umm...maybe not. Again and again, hapless Percival Penguin encounters groups that simply do not accept him as their king – and, to make matters worse, every single “motley crew in dire need of leadership” tries to eat Percival. Yipe! Bad enough that the seals go after him (including the one seal proclaiming that he has mustard). Worse that the killer whales swim so quickly that they almost catch him. Troubling that the polar bears will have none of the king unless they get to consume all of him. And so it goes, again and again – even the sardines get into the game, as one of Roeder’s funniest pictures shows distinctly annoyed Percival standing with 10 sardines attached all over his body in a futile attempt to consume him.

     To make matters even worse, if that is possible, pondering Percival suddenly bumps into an emperor penguin – also a real type – and the emperor declares that he is the ruler of Percival, whom he calls a “miniscule minion.” Percival will have none of it: “Just because you are an emperor penguin doesn’t mean you’re in charge.” Umm…right. It is time for some self-realization, which leads Percival to enough self-awareness to return to the penguin colony, with the emperor penguin in tow, and say he is sorry. Good thing he comes back: another of Roeder’s best illustrations shows the now-chaotic colony, where almost all the penguins have proclaimed themselves king. This really won’t do, Percival realizes, so he works with the other penguins to establish a new, democratic order, in which everyone votes on important principles such as “never trust sardines.” The emperor penguin sticks around, too, becoming just another member of the group, although he retains some of the emperor-style regalia that he wore when Percival first met him.

     About that dress-up element: the inside front cover and facing page of The King Penguin show eight real-world types of penguin, all anthropomorphized and a few wearing something-or-other reflective of their type – the chinstrap penguin, for example, sporting a helmet attached by, yes, a chin strap. The inside back cover and facing page show the same eight penguin types completely decorated with things reflecting their names: the Magellanic penguin is reading a map, the snares penguin is playing a snare drum, the macaroni penguin is reading a book called “Your Life as Pasta,” and so on. Thus, the book’s opening and closing add a bit to its fairly minimal educational value – it does, after all, use the actual designations of various penguin types, however lightly it refers to them – and more than a bit to its amusement value, which is considerable. The King Penguin is fun and funny, and the lesson of not thinking too much of yourself and not trying to lord it over other people…err, penguins…is entertainingly formulated and presented with proper pomp and penguinity.

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