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Book Rec: The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell

Updated: Apr 9

"I was hoping against hope that the penguin would survive because as of that instant he had a name, and with his name came the beginning of a bond which would last a lifetime." The Penguin Lessons is a unique, real-life story of the extraordinary bond between a teacher and a penguin. I have loved penguins since I was a little girl, even doing my fourth-grade science report on the Macaroni Penguins. When I heard about this book, I had to learn more (and secretly wish I found a penguin)!

a little penguin wearing a red scarf that carves around the title of the book

In 1975, twenty-three-year-old Englishman Tom Michell follows his wanderlust to Argentina, where he becomes assistant master at a prestigious boarding school. But Michell’s adventures really begin when, on a weekend in Uruguay, he rescues a penguin covered in oil from an ocean spill, cleans the bird up, and attempts to return him to the sea. The penguin refuses to leave his rescuer’s side. “That was the moment at which he became my penguin, and whatever the future held, we’d face it together,” says Michell in this charming memoir. Michell names the penguin Juan Salvador (“John Saved”), but Juan Salvador, as it turns out, is the one who saves Michell. After Michell smuggles the bird back to Argentina and into his campus apartment, word spreads about the young Englishman’s unusual roommate. Juan Salvador is suddenly the center of attention—as mascot of the rugby team, confidant to the dorm housekeeper, co-host of Michell’s parties, and an unprecedented swimming coach to a shy boy. Even through the collapse of the Perónist government and amid the country’s economic and political strife, Juan Salvador brings joy to everyone around him—especially Michell, who considers the affectionate animal a compadre and kindred spirit.

Discussion Guide

  1. This book is not only humorous but deals with environmental issues and a turbulent political arena. What did Michell bring to light for you?

  2. Argentina is currently in another economic crisis with political upheaval. Is history repeating itself?

  3. How does Juan Salvador save so many students, faculty and staff with his eye contact and “great listening skills?”

  4. What surprised you about the human-penguin interactions?

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Dec 10, 2023
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