June 22, 2006


Mary Poppins; Mary Poppins Comes Back; Mary Poppins Opens the Door; Mary Poppins in the Park. By P.L. Travers. Illustrated by Mary Shepard. Harcourt. $12.95 each.

     These lovely new editions of P.L. Travers’ classic stories of the world’s greatest nanny confirm what generation after generation has discovered for itself: there is nothing and no one quite like Mary Poppins.  Floating (literally) into the lives of the Banks family – and later appearing at the end of a kite string, and still later as a shooting star – Mary Poppins turns the family’s world upside down while remaining very much the prim and proper ideal child-care worker.  Or at least she seems perfectly prim and proper – but in Travers’ marvelous books, nothing is ever quite what it seems….

     The first Mary Poppins book was written in 1934, the second in 1935, the third in the fear-filled days of 1943 – which Travers acknowledges in a serious introduction: “This darkness will not last forever. ...The children will dance and leap about them as they did in the times before.”  And if England and the world after World War II never did quite return to the idyllic times that Travers partly recounted, partly imagined in these books, we can still revisit those times – now firmly ensconced in the lexicon of fantasy – through the Mary Poppins tales.  Travers herself acknowledged the passing of the Poppins era in the fourth book of the series, Mary Poppins in the Park (1952), which consists of six stories that Travers says could have occurred during any of the Poppins visits in the earlier books.  Travers knew that the time for Poppins tales had passed, offering readers “a word of warning to anybody who may be expecting they are in for a fourth visit.  [Mary Poppins] cannot forever arrive and depart.”

     Yet in a very real sense, Mary Poppins never leaves anyone who has delighted in her acquaintance.  Some – a very few – of her adventures were turned into a successful Disney movie with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.  But how much richer the books are!  Travers interweaves reality and fantasy so seamlessly that readers must sometimes think for a moment to find the exact point at which an everyday scene has changed into something quite marvelous.  Travers’ world is one in which magic is all around us, have we but eyes to see it.  Mary Poppins provides those eyes, which are, in the most profound sense, the eyes with which all children see the world.

     Yet there is no need to over-analyze Travers’ books – and no way to overstate her accomplishments.  The Banks family, although it contains some elements of what we would now call situation comedy, mostly seems quite down-to-earth, led by a generally serious and sober father and somewhat flighty and confused, but well-meaning, mother.  When Mary Poppins takes Jane, Michael and the twins through everyday events – such as shopping and park visits – the magic that somehow inheres in the errands erupts, to the utter delight of the children and, often, of befuddled bystanders.  Mary Shepard (aided by Agnes Sims in Mary Poppins Opens the Door) provides illustrations that perfectly capture what could be called the matter-of-fact magic of the series.  The writing and illustrations make an irresistible combination.  For the sake of the magic that lies within them, one can only hope that today’s super-sophisticated children will, thanks to these excellent new editions, become the latest generation to discover the practically perfect Poppins.

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