Desert Island Children’s Books: Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers

CHILDREN'S

Next up in my nostalgic romp through my favourite childhood books is one of three books that I used to take out repeatedly from Askern Library in my formative years. I had this book out on loan so often that I doubt any other child in the vicinity had chance to read it. The book is the marvellous Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers.

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When the Banks family advertise for a nanny, Mary Poppins and her talking umbrella appear out of the sky, ready to take the children on extraordinary adventures.

Mary Poppins is strict but fair, and soon Michael and Jane are whisked off to a funfair inside a pavement picture and on many more outings with their wonderful new nanny!

Needless to say, when at last ‘the wind changes’ and she flies away, the children are devastated. But the magic of Mary Poppins will stay with the Banks family forever.

I’m guessing many of you will only know Mary Poppins from the Disney movie and will not have read the original book by P. L. Travers. Whilst I do love the Disney version, Walt’s version of Mary Poppins is a lot more saccharine than the character originally written by Travers. Travers’ literary Mary Poppins is much sterner, much more acerbic and much more vain than the character portrayed by Julie Andrews on screen. One look from the paper version of Poppins and any child, or adult, would be quaking in their boots, and she was extremely quick to take offence. For some reason, this stronger, prickly, complicated character was much more appealing to me as a child, and now still as an adult, than the watered down version we see in the movie.

In addition, Disney appears to have picked out the less exciting escapades the children have than the other ones featured in the book, and taken poetic licence with them too. In the movie – and the blurb above – the children take a trip into a chalk picture and ride the carousel. In the movie, the horses then jump off the carousel and enter a horse race. In the book, only Mary Poppins and Bert jump into the picture, the horses stay firmly attached to the carousel and there are no penguins to be seen in this scene! When the children go to ‘Feed The Birds,’ they don’t bring down their father’s bank, and there is no dancing with sweeps across the London rooftops. I can understand why Disney picked the scenes he did to include, the story in the book is much less linear and does not really form a complete story arc for a movie, but for me, the encounter with Mrs Corry and her giant daughters, and the finale escapade in the nighttime zoo are much more interesting to read. I think my point is, if you think you know Mary Poppins from the movie, you don’t. The literary Mary Poppins is a horse of a different, and much more interesting, colour altogether.

What people also may not be aware of is that Mary Poppins is only the first book in a series. After her initial visit, Mary Poppins returns to the Banks household several times, always arriving by a different method, always taking the children on exciting adventures, before disappearing unexpectedly. I devoured all of the books in the series, and was fascinated by the way the author’s mind worked in coming up with the different stories. Want to take a romp through the constellations? Chat to statues? Find out what Noah’s descendants are up to now? All of these things are described by Travers in the subsequent Mary Poppins books and they are stories that have stayed with me through the years. Although I have not had time yet, I fully intend to revisit the remaining books in the series this year. If you want to know the real Mary Poppins and not the Disney version, you might like to pick them up too.

Mary Poppins is available in a number of different editions but you can buy this one here.

About the Author

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Pamela Lyndon Travers OBE (born Helen Lyndon Goff; 9 August 1899 – 23 April 1996) was an Australian-British writer who spent most of her career in England.[1] She is best known for the Mary Poppins series of children’s books, which feature the magical nanny Mary Poppins.

Goff was born in Maryborough, Queensland, and grew up in the Australian bush before being sent to boarding school in Sydney. Her writing was first published when she was a teenager, and she also worked briefly as a professional Shakespearean actress. Upon immigrating to England at the age of 25, she took the name “Pamela Lyndon Travers” and adopted the pen name “P. L. Travers” in 1933 while writing the first of eight Mary Poppins books.

Travers travelled to New York City during World War II while working for the British Ministry of Information. At that time, Walt Disney contacted her about selling to Walt Disney Productions the rights for a film adaptation of Mary Poppins. After years of contact, which included visits to Travers at her home in London, Walt Disney did obtain the rights and the Mary Poppins film premiered in 1964.

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