Learning from Grumpy Penguins

So . . . it’s mid-January, the holidays are behind us, and there’s a long stretch of winter ahead. Which might make some of us a little grumpy.

If you find yourself feeling a tad down in the dumps, take a look at Claire Messer’s Grumpy Pants (Albert Whitman, 2016) for some coping strategies from a cranky little penguin.

I love this book, and was so impressed when I discovered that it’s Claire’s first (she’s both author and illustrator). It works beautifully—so, naturally, I wanted to figure out how she did it. Here’s my quick assessment:

Simple, child-centered text.
The text—roughly 200 words—is straightforward, active, and rhythmic, with lots of repetition. When we meet Penguin on the first page, he’s in a bad mood:

“A very bad mood.
He didn’t know why and he didn’t care.”

I think all of us can relate to that feeling at times.

Well-paced, realistic progression.
For most of us, bad moods don’t just disappear. We can’t just “snap out of it” on command. So it’s gratifying to watch Penguin try various strategies—removing his “grumpy socks,” putting on favorite pajamas, drinking hot cocoa.

None of these actions on its own turns his mood around, but collectively they start to lift his spirits.

Plenty of humor.
In addition to pulling off his “grumpy socks,” Penguin removes his “grumpy overalls” and “grumpy underpants” (a naked penguin is sure to get a laugh). I also laughed at Penguin in the bathtub making  a “bubble beard.”

Charming illustrations.
The linoleum-print illustrations are simple, with lots of white space. The focus is on Penguin and his emotional state, which we can clearly interpret through his expressions and body language.

Just one character.
Penguin is the only character in the book. At first this struck me as a little odd. No friends or siblings to interact with? No parents to comfort him? No teachers to offer words of advice? Then I saw the beauty in Penguin figuring out on his own how to manage his miserable mood and comfort himself.

The story is universal, the illustrations timeless, and Penguin’s emotions feel authentic and relatable. Plus I can see “grumpy underpants” becoming part of the family lexicon.

Interestingly, another book about a bad-tempered penguin also was published in 2016. (Who knew penguins were so moody?) In Penguin Problems (Random House), written by Jory John and illustrated by Lane Smith, a testy penguin complains about everything—the cold, the dark, the smell of the ocean, his own unattractive waddling. Then, out of the blue, a wise walrus appears, and—in a 150-word monologue—reminds him of all the beauty and wonders around him.

I highly recommend reading both books to see how differently their creators approached what is, in essence, the same premise—a cranky penguin sorting things out.


The Inland Northwest SCBWI is offering a 4-week Picture Book Webinar Series starting January 21st. Spend an hour each week with Tara Lazar, Jessixa Bagley, Josh Funk, and yours truly. Sign up for one session, or—better yet—all four (at a discounted rate!). For more info, and to register, hop over here.


Wishing you all a very healthy, inspiring, productive and not-too-grumpy 2017. Thanks for reading!


Linda Ashman

Linda Ashman is the author of more than 45 picture books, as well as The Nuts and Bolts Guide to Writing Picture Books, a how-to guide for picture book writers. Her books have been included on the ‘best of the year’ lists of The New York Times, Kirkus Reviews, the American Library Association, the Children’s Book Council, and The New York Public Library, among others, and have been translated into many languages.


  1. I’m feeling less grumpy just reading this!

  2. These look very fun to add to my penguin collection of books. Thanks!

  3. writing picture books about picking the perfect word, each and every word has to be just right. it like a puzzle. grumpy underpants how great is that!

  4. I’m feeling a bit grumpy today, maybe a bubble beard will help. Thanks for sharing this wonderful, fun book!

  5. Hi Linda, I’m anxious to read this one! I really enjoyed PENGUIN PROBLEMS! Thanks!

  6. I loved Grumpy Pants, Linda! I reviewed it in November, https://patricianozell.com/2016/11/11/ppbf-grumpy-pants/, and agree that Messer did an amazing job capturing the feelings of grumpiness & offering a means for children to lift their own spirits. I have not read Penguin Problems yet & look forward to comparing it to Grumpy Pants. Thanks for a great review!

  7. We’re on our way to the library to get Grumpy Pants. Can’t wait to read it! Thanks.

  8. I think we can all identify with being grumpy sometimes and not knowing why!

  9. Hmmm, sounds like a good book for my toddler. Really looking forward to the Inland Northwest webinar series.

  10. Thanks, Linda! This book looks great, and your assessment is full f tips for aspiring writers.

  11. What a cute story. Thanks for sharing, Linda!

  12. She had me at the title. Grumpy Pants. Hee, hee.

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