I am deeply fond of penguins, and my house is littered with penguin figurines and penguin cookie jars and oh, I cannot count the number of penguin ornaments on my Christmas tree. I have never, however, wanted a penguin for a pet, and in this way I differ from both Mr. Popper, the hero of the first children's book about penguins that I ever read, and Joe, the hero of my new favorite children's book, My Penguin Osbert.
Joe has had his difficulties with Santa in the past; somehow he never manages to get exactly what he wants for Christmas. This year, he is painstakingly specific in his letter to Santa -- he requests a living, breathing, 12-inch-high penguin from Antartica. His name should be Osbert, Joe adds.
Joe is gratified to find the living, breathing Osbert under the tree on Christmas morning, but his excitement soon wanes when he discovers that Osbert likes to play in the snow -- all day long. And that Osbert likes to take really long, really cold baths -- with Joe. And that Osbert doesn't like chocolate chip waffles for breakfast -- he wants creamed herring instead. Joe begins to think that he made a mistake, and he writes Santa back to ask if a swap might be possible. Santa arranges a solution that is mutually acceptable for Joe and Osbert, if a little bittersweet.
I love the gorgeous illustrations in this book. I love that Osbert enjoys looking at snow globe catalogs. I love that Joe never shirks his responsibility for Osbert, even though it's difficult for him. Mostly, I love this line, which is repeated throughout the book: "I had asked for Osbert, and now I had him. So I [insert objectionable task here]." Which is a pretty nice summation of some aspects of pet ownership, and parenthood too.
Here's a seasonal problem that may only afflict me. Of course I want to donate a book to our bookstore's Giving Tree; I'd rather give books to "the poor people," as Phoebe probably indelicately calls them, than anything else. But this is what happens. I select a tag from the Giving Tree for, say, a 10-year-old girl, and the following inner monologue ensues:
"Let's see, ten years old...naturally, go straight to the L's for A Wrinkle in Time. Maybe I should get the whole Kronos quartet? Wait, though, remember how in fifth grade you brought A Wrinkle in Time for Ms Hinton to read aloud to the class and everyone else hated it? Maybe it's too difficult. Maybe I should do one of these series books...The Babysitter's Club? No, those books suck. Except it doesn't matter what I like, it matters what this girl may like -- wait! Harriet the Spy! I love Harriet the Spy. Everyone would love Harriet the Spy, it is the best book ever. Except wait, what if she's already read Harriet the Spy? How much of a bummer would it be to get one book for Christmas, and it turns out to be a book you've already read? Gah!"
...and so on for ages as I stumble about the children's section, rejecting each book I see for esoteric reasons of my own.
This year, however, the big chain bookstore mere steps from my office (which, yes, is a daily temptation) just ask for donations at the checkout stand -- $2, $5, or $10. You name the amount, you don't have to pick a specific title, you never know if the child ends up with Nancy Drew or Captain Underpants or Meg and Charles Murry. For an obviously neurotic booklover like myself, this is the way to go.