September 17, 2015
Mary Poppins Boxed Set: Mary Poppins; Mary Poppins Comes Back; Mary Poppins Opens the Door; Mary Poppins in the Park. By P.L. Travers. Illustrated by Mary Shepard. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $27.99.
The real magic of Mary Poppins is that she keeps popping in, generation after generation, and never gets old. With no disrespect intended to the wonderful 1964 Disney movie based on P.L. Travers’ books, the works themselves – there are eight of them – are deeper, more insightful, and even more enjoyable than that widescreen romp with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke (although it cannot be said too often that Andrews and Van Dyke were absolutely marvelous in their roles, and the animated penguin waiters are as superb and as funny today as they were 50 years ago).
The first four Mary Poppins books – now available in fine new paperback editions, bundled in a cardboard slipcase – show from the start a conception of the magical British nanny that differs from the Disneyfied version. Mary is far from a sweetness-and-light character: in keeping with a long British tradition of tough-but-fair child-raising helpers, she is moody, irritable, can be short with the children, and is not to be crossed (characteristics that were hinted at in the movie but never brought to the fore). As for the children, there are four of them, which would have been unwieldy on film: the twins, John and Barbara, are integral to the activities of the books (although, being babies, not to the same extent as Jane and Michael), and Mary’s interactions with them show sides of her character different from the ones evidenced by her handling of her older charges.
In terms of time sequence, there are really only three Mary Poppins books: the first three (from 1934, 1935 and 1943) have her popping in at the start and popping out at the end; starting with the fourth (1952), Travers’ books recount adventures of the nanny and the children that actually occurred during the time frame of the first three volumes. None of this will really matter to 21st-century children first encountering the books – and discovering Mary Shepard’s excellent illustrations, which are as bound up with the words as are those of her father, E.H. Shepard, with A.A. Milne’s tales of Winnie-the-Pooh. What today’s young readers will find in these books are far more stories of gentle magic than will fit into any movie – and a sense of wonder that ages exceptionally well. Mary Poppins introduces the Banks family and has Poppins popping in for the first time after Katie Nana storms out (that is, she storms out and Mary is brought in by a strong, stormy wind, all of which shows the stormy character of life in the Banks household when the book begins). This book includes an on-the-ceiling tea party and meeting with the Bird Woman, both of which film viewers will recall, plus (among other things) a Christmas shopping trip with Maia – a star from the Pleiades cluster. In Mary Poppins Comes Back, kite flying is central, since that is how Mary returns: Michael’s high-flying kite comes back to earth with Mary aboard, and this time the kids get to visit a circus in the sky. This is the book in which Mary takes a return ticket so she can come back if needed again – and sure enough, she uses it in Mary Poppins Opens the Door, which includes a ride on peppermint horses (which will remind viewers of the film of the merry-go-round scene in which the horses gallop off) and a visit to a statue that has come to life.
Mary Poppins in the Park, the first “retrospective” book in the series, has half a dozen stories of adventures in the park along Cherry Tree Lane. These take place, chronologically, during the second or third book. But the timing does not much matter, since the whole point of these books is to be timeless. There is yet another party here – the Mary Poppins books are full of very British tea parties and parties of other sorts, such as the Halloween party here, featuring the kids’ shadows. There is also a visit to cats on a different planet – again, extraterrestrial (but scarcely science-fictional) visits are a mainstay of these books. What Travers does so well is to take similar ingredients from book to book, but vary them enough so that each work in the series feels both refreshingly new and comfortably familiar.
It is true that not everything in the Mary Poppins books wears well. The whole “British nanny” setup is certainly quaint, but no more so than other make-believe settings for kids’ books; the fact that it was originally grounded in reality will not matter much to today’s young readers. However, it was inevitable that some of what Travers wrote would encounter changing tastes during her long life (1899-1996). This most famously occurred in the first book, in which a compass helps Mary and the children visit various spots around the world in a chapter called “Bad Tuesday.” Because the original story included Chinese, Eskimo, sub-Saharan African, and Native American people, increasing sensitivity to stereotyping and an increasing fear of offending anyone in any way led to criticism of the chapter – to which Travers responded in 1981 by having animals rather than people appear in the story (with Shepard revising the illustrations accordingly). In truth, the earlier version – for anyone who cares to track it down – works better and has a kind of naïve charm that the later one lacks. But hypersensitivity has made the humans from the original “Bad Tuesday” personae non gratae for today’s readers.
Still, it is remarkable that so few elements of the Mary Poppins books have had, or required, emendation or excising over the years. The new edition of the first four will hopefully keep Mary very much alive and well and flitting about for a whole new generation of readers. There is one quibble here, though: the box art, by Genevieve Godbout, is very much overdone and oversimplified, and the solid black dots that are the eyes of the children make the kids look a little bit, well, creepy. Few modern artists can compare with Shepard, so the fact that the box illustrations do not measure up to the ones in the books is not the issue – it is just that the pictures on the box are not really in keeping with the spirit of the books themselves. Remove the books from the slipcase, though, and that spirit flowers and flourishes, and hopefully will continue to do so for many years to come.