The Story I Didn’t See Coming

January 19, 2023 § Leave a comment

A large part of my job as a bookstore buyer is perusing online catalogs. These days, most publishers include full interior PDFs of their picture book titles, so rather than taking a stab in the dark, I can read a book in full before deciding whether and how many to order. And with each catalog, especially the big ones, there’s a predictable flow. I begin with the excitement of Christmas morning—what treasures are waiting beneath this tree?—until my old lady eyes begin glazing over. I should take a break, I think. No, I should just push on! Only five more pages. Only a few dozen more titles. Where I began by carefully reading through each book, now I’m skimming. Then skipping. Now I’m bored. So bored. I’m bemoaning the fact that nothing feels exciting, nothing feels fresh. I should really take a break, because now I’m ready to give up my career because no one publishes anything good anymore. (All gross exaggerations, of course, but this is what computer fatigue will do to you.)

So there I was, back in October, perusing Penguin Random House, the monster of all catalogs, which also distributes titles published by the small press, Charlesbridge, when I came across the latter’s thumbnail for The Penguin of Ilha Grande, with a release date of January 17. No one buys a penguin book in January, I thought (as odd as it sounds, I generally can’t sell a book with snow once the New Year hits, because people are already thinking about spring). I was prepared to fly right on past, without clicking the link to open the book, only a tiny voice berated me: Don’t be lazy. You don’t want to miss something that could be great.

A few minutes later, I had tears rolling down my cheeks. I was shouting into the void of my living room, THIS STORY! Oh, my heart, THIS STORY! It turns out there wasn’t any snow or ice; this is the story of a Magellanic penguin, and Magellanic penguins migrate to feed in warm water. But to be clear: had it been covered in snow, I’d still have ordered it. Could I sell it as a non-traditional Valentine’s Day pick, seeing as it’s about an enduring friendship between a young penguin and an old man? Why not! Could I parade it out a few months later for our Earth Day displays, since it also carries a message about conservation? You betcha! Am I going to try and convince the author to come to our store? Yes indeedy.

Give me all the animal rescue stories! Especially if they’re based on true events; especially if they expose young readers to new corners of the world; especially if they teach the importance of science and conservation; and especially if they celebrate the amazing bond between humans and animals. Past favorites have included The Elephants Come Home, which landed on my 2021 Gift Guide, and Feathers Together, which was on last year’s guide. Is it my age that makes me a sentimental puddle? Quite possibly. But I’ve also seen firsthand how much children love these stories. They invite wonder about the world around them. They’re living proof that small hands can make a big impact.

Today, I can’t wait to introduce you and your children to The Penguin of Ilha Grande (ages 4-8), written by debut author, Shannon Earle, and illustrated by Brazilian artist, Renato Alarcão (the latter also illustrated this picture book from wayyyy back in the archives). The true story stars a penguin named Dindim, who was rescued off the coast of Brazil by an elderly man named Seu João—and the surprising and extraordinary friendship that followed.

WARNING: Before reading on, be warned that I am about to spoil the entire storyline for you (something I usually try to avoid). So, if you trust me, and if you want to keep the element of surprise for when you read it aloud to your child, please click here to purchase the book (this bookstore buyer thanks you) and be off with your spoiler-free self.

Seu João is walking through the warm ocean waters of his home in Praia Provetá, Brazil, when he encounters a group of children huddled on the beach. The children have discovered a young penguin, covered in the black goo of an oil spill and barely moving. (The book’s outstanding backmatter, which includes a pronunciation guide, goes into more detail about oil spills and the danger they present to a penguin’s feathers by effectively de-waterproofing them.)

The old man, who is a grandfather, carries the penguin into his home—specifically, into his green-tiled shower, which comes to play a special role in the book. There, the man uses dish soap to carefully work away the oil from the “slick, stuck-together feathers.” We never meet the grandson, but Seu João gets the idea for the penguin’s name from him: unable to say the Portuguese word for penguin, “pinguim,” the boys says “dindim,” and the name sticks.

Dindim quickly garners fame in the small beach town, as local fisherman bring him fresh sardines to eat. But he sticks to Seu João like the oil once stuck to his feathers: he won’t let anyone but the old man care for him. He’s especially fond of sitting on Seu João’s lap, as well as showering with him.

As fond as Seu João is of Dindim, he knows penguins belong in the wild, so when Dindim is once again strong enough to swim, he releases him at the water’s edge. Only Dindim keeps swimming back.

Even when Seu João takes Dindim far out in a fishing boat and leaves him, he returns to the beach. Honk!

Eventually, the two settle into a domestic life together in and around Seu João’s house. Dindim has the freedom to leave, but he chooses to stay. He chooses his friendship with Seu João.

Then, on a hot day in February, Dindim begins shedding his feathers—the process of molting—and things change. In the three weeks it takes him to grow new, waterproofed feathers, Dindim scarcely eats, swims, or plays. And once he has his new feathers, he is seized by the instinct to swim. This time, he swims where Seu João cannot follow, a bittersweet parting for the old man.

Seu João returns to his daily life, but thoughts of Dindim’s “silky feathers and the beat of his heart” are never far. And while our hearts break a little to witness Seu João’s grief, we marvel at the beauty of what he had.

But the story doesn’t end there. Because, remarkably, four months later, on the eve of Seu João’s birthday, Dindim returns! The two touch “bill to nose” and savor their sweet reunion. Dindim heads straight for his favorite room in the house—the shower!

Just like the real penguin, Dindim goes on to live with Seu João for eight months out of every year for seven incredible years. Together, they walk the beach, eat sardines, and shower together.

And if that doesn’t restore your faith in the beauty of the world this January (and for months to come), then I guess I really should quit my day job (honk, honk).

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