Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Childhood Book Nostalgia Project: Mary Poppins

Julie Andrews is Disney's Mary Poppins. She's pretty and perky and dances with penguins. She sings about spoonsful of sugar in an angelic soprano voice. She's practically perfect in every way.

That's not my Mary Poppins. The Mary Poppins I grew up with - the character in P.L. Travers' magical books - was short-tempered, snappish, and gruff. She had no patience for frivolities like singing and dancing. She was plain, even dowdy, yet terribly vain about her appearance. And like her young charges Jane and Michael Banks, I loved her all the more for it.

Mary Poppins - the character from the 1934 book and its numerous sequels - possessed a quality that most children can identify with: She was a know-it-all who was both smugly pleased with her superior knowledge and perpetually exasperated by the ignorance of those around her. After all, how can one show off one's special talents when surrounded by beings who can't even properly appreciate them? And so, as Mary conversed with polar bears and glued stars to the sky, she always gave the impression that her superiority was a burden to be borne around the common people in her midst. What smarty-pants grade-schooler couldn't get behind that?

I surely could. The Mary Poppins books, and especially the original, were a mix of everything that appealed to me as a kid. They had magic and mystery. Talking animals. Precocious children and incomprehensible adults. And they took place in an earlier time and a foreign country - the peculiar customs of 1930s England alone were enough to elevate the books into the realm of fantasy fiction for a girl from the South Side of Milwaukee.

I just finished re-reading Mary Poppins as part of my quest to revisit the favorite books of my childhood. It was everything I remembered and more, and every bit as enjoyable today as it was when I was 10. Go find yourself a copy and read it. Then find yourself a 10-year-old or two and share it with them. Spit-spot.

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