children’s book review

55 Classics Review #10 – Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers


Up to this point, I’ve been delighted by the books I’ve read for the 55 List. I mostly chose books for the list which I already hoped to love. This will be the first to break that streak of satisfaction. There are few books I expected to enjoy more than Mary Poppins, and not many have so greatly disappointed me.

I was disappointed on multiple levels by Mary Poppins. I grew up delighting in the Disney film and, like the multitudes, saw the recently released film Saving Mr. Banks which proposes a version of the history surrounding the author’s tumultuous relationship with Walt Disney. I found the Disney version of the history suspect from the start, but I was all the more eager to read the original text for myself. Reading with all this in mind further complicated the experience.

Mary Poppins is written as a series of short adventures in the world of Mary Poppins, the conceited, magical, aloof nursemaid who shows up and continually mesmerizes and criticizes the Banks’ children. Each chapter stands alone and some were really very wonderful. I especially loved a certain chapter concerning the language baby’s speak before they get their teeth. Travers alludes to a few mythological themes and lullaby-type fancies that were very original and which I really enjoyed.

Overall, if I had no previous knowledge of the concept, I would have thought the book was decent. If there was no movie and you asked for a quick thought, I would tell you that everything about the book was enjoyable except Mary Poppins herself. She is the wet blanket in every magical theme. She is aloof and self-obsessive at best and rude and condescending at worst. She steals from the children, does what she wants regardless of their petitions, and constantly tries to leave them out.

All of this wouldn’t be felt so harshly if Disney hadn’t made a film which constantly emphasizes whimsy that Mary Poppins is constantly attempting to stay stern against. In the film, she begrudgingly participates in the whimsy which constantly springs up at her magical heels. She is the exact hope a child might have for a magical adult who doesn’t prefer non-sense but accepts and appreciates joyful magical experiences. The movie sells a version of the unhappy and disconnected Banks’ family, relatively wealthy but without emotional ties until Mary Poppins tricks them and unites them. In the book, the Banks’ home is the poorest on their middle-class street and their father is a cheerful, optimistic sort who seems to take hardship in stride. I haven’t read the other books in the series yet, but the idea of Mr. Banks being saved by Mary Poppins seems to come completely from the Disney rewrite, which makes the entire theme of Saving Mr. Banks, even its very name, a complete fabrication of the Disney brand.

So Mary Poppins is originally a less agreeable figure and Mr. Banks seems like a pretty ideal father figure. Then Disney turns the entire story on its head and douses it in heavy quantities of whimsy.

The most frustrating aspect of the entire debacle is that I can’t help but prefer the film version to the book. I actually think that Disney’s rewrite made the story more engaging and agreeable. I liked the book, but I love the movie. I’m sure that some of that is due to sentimentality, but I so strongly identify with a parenting and mentoring style that emphasizes respect of the minds and emotions of children that I found everything about Mary Poppins off-putting. She represents a harshness and stupidity toward children that you wouldn’t expect from someone who knows the stars as personal friends and receives birthday parties from zoos full of talking animals.

The book ends with Mary Poppins disappearing and every adult in the house complaining about her vanity and egotism and how much damage control they have to do. The children ignore these complains, more eagerly wondering if she will ever come back to grace them with her wonderful presence again. I couldn’t help closing the book agreeing with the adults, feeling that the fun times didn’t quite pay for the constant snubbing and threats.

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Further Reading

Norton Juster On The Perils of Writing

The Railway Children by E. Nesbit

C.S. Lewis On Writing For Children

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55 Classics Review #4 – “The Railway Children” by Edith Nesbit


I am especially eager that anyone who wanders into this review should become eager to read The Railway Children, so I will endeavor to give nothing away and also to refrain from over-selling it. But I found it quite rivals any other children’s book I have loved.

I’ve been meaning to start reading E. Nesbit for a couple of years now. I’m also really glad to have started among them with The Railway Children. Most of her popular works are fantasy stories of children discovering mythical creatures and magical objects. While I’m quite a proponent of these forms, this book somehow manages to propose nothing supernatural any still impress the reader with a fairie euphoria.

Put broadly, The Railway Children is a serial tale following three young siblings who suddenly find their father taken away from their family and their easy, middle-class city life mysteriously replaced by a poor country existence. The children bounce back and the story is a serialization if the extraordinary events of their new life near the railroad.

I don’t want to tell you too much more but I’m bursting with praises for this book. It is the story of brave, intimate parenting and young children who have been inspired to do good anywhere they go. Regardless of their own hardships, the children are constantly aware of and actively intervening in the midst of the sorrows or dangers present to their mother and literally every other person they meet. The unnamed narrator speaks with a smooth, whimsical style reminiscent of A.A. Milne and C.S. Lewis, as a rare adult who is completely understanding and taking seriously the thoughts and opinions of children. If you have a desire to influence children to act out of brave love toward others, this book will probably bring you close to crying many times over. (Warning – I had to fight back tears multiple times in public reading spaces. You might want to read this one at home.)

The book is not without its debatable flaws. One necessary and even relieving flaw is that the children still manage to fight amongst themselves often, although they usually end up forgiving one another well. I call this necessary because they wouldn’t be conceivable otherwise and it gives me hope for myself and my own kids to become more loving.

Another feasible flaw in the book is the extraordinary number of unique circumstances they find themselves in. Some of these are initiated by the children’s mischief and are easily plausible, but many are just events in which they are in the right place at the right time to save the day. The book was apparently originally written as a magazine serial, which makes more sense of its chapter-by-chapter, mini-adventure episodes. I personally don’t fault the book for the questionable number of unique scenarios, as their volume is really the only unnatural aspect of the entire book.

Ultimately, the book is tour de force train ride to see how much “loving-kindness” (as one character describes their activities) mischief a group of kids can pull off when their life is tragically upturned and they are left to explore a new countryside. An absolute must read for every parent, aspiring parent, and child. It truly inspires charity and excessive good-will.