Retro Reads: Mary Poppins

Mary PoppinsTravers, P.L. Mary Poppins.  Illus. by Mary Shepard. 143p. Harcourt, 1934 (2007 reissue).

With the plethora of TV commercials touting the new film “Saving Mr. Banks,” about Walt Disney’s efforts to obtain the film rights to Mary Poppins from the author, some children and even a few adults may come into your library seeking a copy of the original book.  Although the film is rated PG13 and seems aimed more at adults than children, it should promote interest in the book. Emma Thompson’s portrayal of the prickly author P.L. Travers is already gaining Oscar buzz.
How does the book hold up for the 21st century reader?  There are just two terms that seem culturally insensitive: the use of the phrase “street arab” on page 38, and “You will not behave like a Red Indian, Michael,” spoken by his mother on page 141.  Hopefully, teachers reading the book aloud can just skip over those phrases, and older tweens and adults are likely to understand that these out of date, racially insensitive references are due to the book’s age.
The rest of the book is quite engaging; it is relatively short compared to the doorstop-weight books currently published for 9-12 year olds, and the episodic chapters make it easy for a reader to take breaks. In fact, many of the books popular with 4th and 5th graders are episodic, similar to the Beverly Cleary books for an example.
Some of the chapters stand out as memorable, in part because they were adapted for the 1964 film version of “Mary Poppins” starring Julie Andrews. The first chapter, when Poppins arrives at the Banks home, the second where she and the children have tea with Bert, and the third where they visit Mary’s uncle and levitate are all similar to events in the film. The brief chapter on the bird woman is also memorable.
Two chapters stand out as being more for the adult audience: the chapter where babies John and  Barbara talk to Mary about losing their memories, and the late night zoo visit, which is a satire on the rich and important upper class and how they treat others. Some tweens are likely to grasp the messages, but the satire seems a little heavy handed.
Longtime librarians may be aware of the chapter entitled “Bad Tuesday,” concerning a found compass and their trip around the world in one day. Travers revised that chapter when a teacher friend pointed out the original negative ethnic stereotypes; plus, Travers heard the book had been removed from the San Francisco Public Library (according to Publishers’ Weekly, Oct. 30, 1981, p. 48). She had written a brief revision for the 1971 paperback version, but did a more substantial revision of the “Bad Tuesday” chapter in 1981, and that is the version in current editions of the book. The new version still features the trip, but this time the children meet various animals, including a polar bear and a panda, not people from around the world.
Many children have seen the 1964 film version, which is getting a Blue Ray DVD release this month. Some families have also seen the Broadway musical version (featuring many of the same songs as the film), which could also inspire requests for the book. So you might want to dust off those old copies, as Mary Poppins is back in style.

Penny Peck,
San Jose State Univ. SLIS

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One Response to Retro Reads: Mary Poppins

  1. Ruth I. Gordon says:

    Thanks for this, Penny.–Big G

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