The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell


It is very rare that I read non-fiction, but when I heard of the true story of a teacher who adopts a penguin, I was eager to read The Penguin Lessons, Tom Michell’s memoir.

Back in the 1970’s, Tom was given a post as a teacher in South America. Returning to his apartment whilst in Uruguay, he stumbles across a distressing scene. Walking along the beach he discovers the bodies of hundreds of penguins who had fallen victim to an oil spill. This a chilling reminder of the devastating impact the human race can inflict on our much loved wildlife. Appalled, he continues to take in the scene when he spots a survivor. It is here where he considers whether he can save this bird. Could he abandon it? Put an end to its misery? In the end he opts to take the penguin into his arms, and back to the apartment.

From here we see how Tom’s single act of kindness, his determination to not let this creature down has an impact not just on Tom and the newly named Juan Salvador the penguin himself, but others around them. It is heart-warming to learn how Juan Salvador’s behaviour towards Tom changes. A bond quickly forms, and trust is gained as Tom embarks on his first mission – to clean and feed Juan Salvador. I particularly enjoyed the moments between Tom and Juan Salvador where despite the inability to communicate through words, a conversation of sorts takes place: ‘Is that it? Have you finished? Are we done? I hope you haven’t missed any!’ Juan Salvador says as Tom cleans the last of the oil from his feathers. This understanding between man and penguin is where the book’s main strength lies. This is a story of a bond between humans and wildlife, and how wildlife can enrich a person’s life as we can help theirs.

There were a couple of chapters where Juan Salvador was largely absent and it instead focuses on Tom’s travels within South America. This did include some moments which I personally felt seemed a little out of place with the heart-warming tone of the book. Reading on I did later find that inclusion of such scenes was maybe to get the reader thinking about their own relationships with different species, what we consider to be acceptable or not. What we consider to be right or wrong as far as our treatment of animals is concerned. Despite there being a couple of moments that were uncomfortable for me to read, this was nonetheless an interesting glimpse into a different way of life.

For the most part though, The Penguin Lessons is a lighter read. The dedication and passion to the cause from Tom, his students and friends was a delight to read. There were comical moments, most notably involving taking a penguin on public transport – and through customs! That bond between Tom and Juan Salvador as they got to know one and other. There were also moments to make you smile – Juan Salvador as a mascot, and as an inspiration to the children. This book serves as a reminder as to why we should respect and cherish the wildlife with whom we share our planet.

This is a sweet, affectionate look at an extraordinary friendship. It is also illustrated throughout with charming pictures of Juan Salvador which really adds to the books appeal. This is truly a tribute to the life of a very special bird.

The Penguin Lessons is due for publication on 5th November 2015 by Penguin Michael Joseph. Many thanks to Gaby Young at Penguin for providing a review copy.

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