My co-worker and friend Mary Beth told me about this book, and we’re planning on starting a parent-child book group at the library, inspired by the Goldstones. They describe starting such a book group in Connecticut, and detail their method for analyzing books: “books are like puzzles–the author’s ideas are hidden, and it is up to all of us to figure them out.” They started with Mr. Popper’s Penguins–hence the title–and then moved on to many other classics. (Personally I found MPP quite dull when I read it as an adult, so maybe I should re-read it!)
Their approach entails a number of steps. One of the first is to find the protagonist and antagonist of the story by analyzing the characters (they use the Greek meanings, where the protagonist is the one who advances the action (not necessarily the “hero”) and the antagonist is the one who seeks to hold back the action (not necessarily the villain)). Then they ask one to identify their version of the “climax” of the story, when the struggle between the protagonist and antagonist reaches a peak (usually not near the end, but rather 2/3 of the way through). The primary goal is to get to the point where you can determine what the book “is really about.” The final step is to evaluate how well the author succeeded. Mary Beth and I both read primarily for story, so it’s been interesting for us to analyze books together using this system. The Goldbergs are very sure of themselves; while they acknowledge that there can be multiple interpretations, they give very convincing reasons for choosing the protagonist/antagonist/message of each book they analyze, which MB and I found rather intimidating. For example, they conclude that The Call of the Wild is about the relationship between bosses and workers (Buck’s owners, good and bad, effectively oppress Buck by making him go against his nature).
Deconstructing Penguins was a very exciting book to read–I couldn’t put it down and read it in one sitting despite having other things I needed to do! Unfortunately, the authors’ judgement disappointed me greatly in the appendix, where they gratuituously dismiss Harry Potter as just a “good read” as opposed to one that lends itself to critical analysis–this after promoting Edward Eager’s Half-Magic as one of their deep, significant books. I love Eager and I think Half-Magic is a wonderful book, but Rowling has way more going on thematically than Eager and E. Nesbit (Eager’s primary inspiration) put together!