Tacky the Penguin
written by Helen Lester
illustrated by Lynn Munsinger

Helen Lester's Tacky the Penguin
Illustrated by Lynn Munsinger

Children's book review by Steve Barancik

Ages 4-8

Originally published in 1988, Tacky the Penguin is Helen Lester's lasting gift to people who are "different"...and who the heck isn't different???

It all starts with illustator Lynn Munsinger's perfectly conceived cover. There stands Tacky with a dopey grin, wearing a Hawaiian shirt in his soon-to-be-familiar slouch, looking a befuddled bear (who happens to be hunting penguins) directly in the eye.

You see, Tacky isn't at all like the other penguins. And here's exactly how concerned he is about that:


The others wear tuxedos and walk about with their noses in the air. Everything they do, they do with great aplomb and usually in unison.

Tacky? Not so much. He plays the accordion and likes to sing, "How Many Toes Does a Fish Have?"

It's Tacky's day to shine though when the hunters arrive on Tacky's ice floe. The other penguins hide, leaving Tacky to face the fearsome crew.

As mentioned, they're looking for penguins. But this Tacky fellow, he's not very penguin-like...and he knows it. He demonstrates a number of his unpenguinish behaviors to prove it. Then he drives the hunters from the floe with his famous rendition of "How Many Toes?"

So Tacky saves the day, and the other penguins warm up to him. It's not only okay to be different, but being different saves the day! The end.

Now, how successful has Lester and Munsinger's Tacky the Penguin been? Well, I just visited Amazon and found no less than six followups. In fact, I was first introduced to Tacky when I happened across 1994's Three Cheers for Tacky.

I have to tell you: as much as I enjoyed the original, I'm an even bigger fan of Three Cheers.

Review continues.

Tacky eats a fish sandwich, the other penguins turn their noses up

Tacky is his same goofy self. The other penguins are still their same uptight selves. Everyone goes to the same school, and the uptight birds have gotten it into their heads to compete in The Great Penguin Cheering Contest.

There'll be a lot of cheering in formation, and that appeals to them. Unfortunately, they have to include Tacky. And staying in formation is not exactly Tacky's thing.

Come the day of the big competition, Tacky still struggles to get the routine down. But his team competes last, and the judges are growing rather tired of the staid performances.

Do you think they might be in the mood for some rather inspired improv?

I think the reason I prefer Three Cheers for Tacky to Tacky the Penguin is because it doesn't have the "tacked" on life and death scenario posed by the hunters in the original.

"It's okay to be different" is a great message. I'm not sure "being different saves lives" has the same ring of truth. Judging from the titles of the other followups, I'm guessing Helen Lester came to the same conclusion.

(I'm being careful to refer to the six later books as "followups," not sequels. Nothing about Three Cheers for Tacky requires your child to have a knowledge of the original.)

Lester and Munsinger haven't limited their "okay to be different" message to penguins either. I also highly recommend A Porcupine Named Fluffy, and Hooway for Wodney Wat (about a wat - I mean, rat - with a speech impediment) is very popular as well.

Have a child who's feeling out of place? Tacky the Penguin has an important message.

More picture books promoting self-esteem.

Read more of Steve's reviews.

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