‘If you want to find Cherry Tree Lane all you have to do is ask the policeman at the crossroads.’
P.L. Travers was born in Australia and was a keen reader, especially when it came to myths and legends. During her lifetime she worked as a secretary, dancer and actress, but her real love was writing. Travers was a journalist for some years, but it was whilst recovering from a serious illness that she wrote Mary Poppins, saying that the idea had been in her mind for a long time. She also received an OBE in 1977.
I have loved the Disney film of Mary Poppins, starring Julie Andrews, since I can remember. I have always felt there is something so brilliant and interesting about Mary Poppins and the magical element really gets your imagination going. During my gap year I have been keen to read the original books of stories that I love and when I saw this beautiful edition in Waterstones I could not resist buying it for my shelf. Also, I remember watching something on TV about P.L. Travers, her books and about how she was not happy with the film. This was what got me thinking that I should read at least the first book to see how she had originally intended the story. There is also a film called Saving Mr. Banks which I am very interested to watch as that explores Travers’ relationship with Disney.
‘I’ll stay till the wind changes’
I think most people probably know the basic plot of Mary Poppins, but I’m going to explain it anyway. Jane and Michael Banks can be slightly troublesome children, and when their latest nanny leaves, Mr and Mrs Banks need to find someone new. Then, a gust of East wind blows Mary Poppins in their direction. Now, Mary Poppins is no normal nanny, she is slightly unusual and rather magical. She and the children, along with the twins John and Barbara (who are only babies), have many interesting adventures in the book with each chapter being a different story.
The edition that I have has an introduction written by Cameron Mackintosh, who adapted Mary Poppins into a musical for stage. For those who do not know, Mackintosh is a big name in the musical theatre business having worked on productions of Cats, Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables to name a few. In this introduction, he explains a bit about why he loves the story, his meetings with Travers and how it was that he came to get the stage rights for Mary Poppins. Personally, I found this short introduction to be an interesting read as I love the film and am a big fan of musical theatre, although have never seen Mary Poppins. If your edition does include this introduction, it is not a necessary read, but is there for those who are interested.
As well as the introduction I just talked about, my edition also includes some extras at the end. There is an interesting postscript by Brian Selby which explains more about Travers and her creation, quizzes to see how much you took in from the book, more information about things mentioned in the book and a recipe for gingerbread men. I think these are nice extras to include, they are not vital to the book, but I especially liked learning more about Travers and Mary Poppins.
‘Their wonderful new nanny is strict but fair, and full of surprises.’
The book is narrated in the third person, as is probably to be expected. However, sometimes the first person is used by a kind of narrator, Travers herself perhaps. ‘But before we go any further I must tell you what Next Door looked like.’ This creates the feeling that there is someone, who is not involved in the plot, who is telling you the story. I quite like this feeling and think that it works really well for this novel.
I have talked a lot about the features of the particular edition that I have, and another reason that I bought it is that it has the original illustrations by Mary Shepard. If this name sounds familiar, then that would be because her father was E H Shepard who illustrated The Wind in the Willows and possibly most famously Winnie the Pooh. Shepard actually worked with Travers for over fifty years and managed to include an illustration of the two of them in Mary Poppins Comes Back. I think that there are less illustrations in my edition than there would have been originally, but my copy has them on the cover and at the beginning of each chapter. For a children’s book, I think it is nice to have a picture for each chapter to show the characters and give a little idea of what that scene may look like.
‘She knows everything, but she never tells’.
I do not think I can talk about this book without talking about Mary Poppins herself. In the book, we see more of Mary Poppins as a nanny than I think you do in the film. This is especially due to the twins, who are not in the film. Although we know what she does in her job, her character is rather a mystery. The quote I have inserted above is said by Jane and she is quite right, Mary Poppins does not often explain the strange events that go on, but it is always clear that she knows a lot more than she says. This mystery is very intriguing and I would really love to know more about the character, especially her early life. In the film there is a scene with Mary looking into her mirror and her reflection appears to have a life of its own and sings back to her. I think this scene hits upon Mary’s vain nature which is definitely apparent in the novel. Although she does not have many clothes or possessions, when she does get a new item of clothing, Mary rather likes to admire herself in shop windows or mirrors as she passes. The film depicts Mary as wholly lovely, warm, friendly and of course ‘practically perfect in every way’, but I think the book gives a slightly different impression. The blurb describes Mary as ‘strict, but fair’ and I would say that is a good summarisation. Compared to the film, she can be strict and is not as chummy with the children, but I think that better represents her as a nanny, which is above all what she is there to do.
I know that the scene a lot of people like in the film is the ‘bird woman’ and I think that was my favourite part of the book. I am not too sure what it is about this scene that drew me in, but I liked that it was Jane telling the story of the woman to Michael and that it showed their bond. I think I also like how excited the children are about seeing the woman and that they always buy one of her bags to feed the birds. Of course, as a fan of the film the song Mary sings was going around my head as I read this chapter. ‘Feed the birds…’
I have to admit that I felt quite sad at the end of the book. Mary made her promise early on to stay until the wind changed and she did exactly that, but like the children, I did not want her to leave. Perhaps that is why I have recently bought the second book in the series.
The back of the book says it is for children ages 9+ and I would say that is perfectly suitable. I would recommend this book, but I would bear in mind that the film was adapted into something a lot more happy, friendly and lovely, as I have said in the paragraph about Mary. The story of Mary Poppins is a classic and I think her character draws you into the magic of the story.
Mary Poppins – P.L. Travers, illustrated by Mary Shephard, first published by Peter Davis Ltd 1934, first published by Harper Collins 1958, this edition published by Harper Collins Children’s Books 2016, RRP £6.99, ISBN 978-0-00-728641-6