Author Spotlight: P. L. Travers

When I was little, Mary Poppins was one of my favorite movies. We didn't have it on VHS tape at my house, but my great-aunt did and therefore watching it was something of a rare treat. I don't recall particularly liking the songs or the overarching story, but I was absolutely fascinated by the sequence where Mary Poppins, Bert, Jane, and Michael are transported through chalk drawings to a magical land where everything was animated and penguins waited tables. During lengthy visits at Easter, watching Mary Poppins was far more interesting to me than the loud chatter from nearby grown-ups enjoying their holiday meal.

As I got older, the charm of Mary Poppins began to wear off as my fondness of animated penguins became more subdued. I had all but forgotten about it when, one day, my mother brought a copy of the original book by P. L. Travers home from the library. At the time, I hadn't been aware that the Disney musical was based on the book, and so was intrigued enough to give the story a try. I ended up enjoying it so much that I immediately sought out its three sequels: Mary Poppins Comes Back, Mary Poppins Opens the Door, and Mary Poppins In the Park.

What I discovered when I first read Mary Poppins was a world that was very little like the one depicted in the Disney film, but one that I liked so much better. In the first book, there are four Banks children in all--Jane, Michael, and twins John and Barbara. They are later joined by a baby sister, Annabelle, in the second book. Their mother is not a suffragette, as she is portrayed in the film, since the book was published in 1934 and therefore was set long past the days when women fought for the right to vote in England. Most importantly, the character Mary Poppins is not nearly so gentle and lenient as she is seems in the Disney adaptation--if the medicine wouldn't go down, she was more likely to give you a scowl than a spoonful of sugar.

The fantasy aspect of the Mary Poppins books was also very different from how it was shown the movie. In the movie, scenes containing magic come across as either silly or sweet. In the books, magic is portrayed as something mysterious and occasionally a little dark. For example, in one chapter of Mary Poppins Michael finds himself in a frightening situation after he disobeys Mary Poppins by using her magic compass unsupervised. In another story, the children visit a candy shop with Mary Poppins and meet a woman who can snap off her fingers into barley-sugar sticks. The children also visit a zoo where people are kept in cages and animals roam free. It's often not clear whether or not these situations are real, or merely dreams or games of pretend play, which makes them all the more strange.

For me, the bit of darkness contained in the world of Mary Poppins is part of what makes the series so unique and so intriguing. I really don't know of any fantasy books that can compare to the Mary Poppins series, except perhaps for the Hall Family Chronicles by Jane Langton. Like Langton's books, P. L. Travers' stories often contain elements of history and philosophy, and get you to think about things in a new light. That's why I still enjoy reading the Mary Poppins books today, over a decade after I first read them, even though I outgrew my fondness for the movie long ago.