Sunday, March 23, 2014

Reading: Mary Poppins

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After watching the movie Saving Mr. Banks out of a devotion to actor Tom Hanks, I was curious to know more about author P.L. Travers and the Mary Poppins books that she wrote.  The movie version of Mary Poppins sure was a delightful thing with dancing penguins (oh my gosh, yay!), but I was perplexed as to the content of the book after watching the film.  In a nutshell, Saving Mr. Banks is about Walt Disney's struggle to change the Mary Poppins novel into a film - a struggle because of the author's constant refusal to sign over the rights. The author was portrayed as being curt and straight-forward with little imagination, it seemed, and she actually said she would only agree to have her book transformed into a movie if there were no dancing penguins! (Obviously, she succumbed.)  After reading the original version of Mary Poppins, I realize that while the author may been particular about her works, she was actually filled with imagination and wrote a delightful story that is enjoyable for children across decades.

Mary Poppins blows into Number Seventeen Cherry Street as a new nanny for Jane, Michael, and the twins.  She is fashionable and well-known and takes the Banks children on many adventures, after which she always seems to pretend that they never happened and never talks about them.  I almost think that she has all of the ingredients for a great teacher: She makes life exciting for the Banks children by introducing them to her zanny friends, yet she remains strict and mysterious.  When the children visit her uncle at his birthday, they find him floating around in air after having a good laugh.  The children find the sight to be so comical that they, too, float up into the air.  Of course, it is only proper for Mary Poppins to float up there and join them!  But when the children must leave, Mary Poppins acts as if the whole ordeal did not happen and scolds the children for making fun of her uncle.  It is evident that the children adore Mary - falling asleep beside her on the bus is evidence of this - and are fascinated by her adventures, yet they also abide by her rules so as to stay in her good graces.

While all of the chapters contain interesting stories, from Andrew the dog who orders his master to let his ordinary dog friend take shelter in the same abode to the thousand-year old gingerbread makers, I feel that P.L. Travers has created Mary Poppins to be a wise speaker - and listener - to all.  She can speak the language of the wind and the birds, and her special gift is that this language was not taken from her when she was a baby, as it is for everyone else.  Because Mary Poppins can speak and understand the language of so many, she is friends with so many.  She can be an adult when stepping into the role of "nanny," but she can also take the children on unforgettable, unbelievable, super-imaginative adventures, including a trip around the world in sixty seconds.  She is friends with zoo animals (I'm jealous) and can hang stars in the sky.  She knows the people of the clouds and seems to have an abundance of friends and/or admirers, young and old.

In the movie Saving Mr. Banks, Mary Poppins is revered by young P.L. Travers, as she comes to save the Travers' family at a time when the father is not well.  The backstory of this film is that Travers' created Mary Poppins in the likeness of her own nanny, who was not a magical person by any means but had the ability to rescue her from a lost childhood. Perhaps Ms. Travers created Mary Poppins, the fictional character, in the same way that she imagined her own nanny: a fantastic, mysterious heroine capable of doing anything.

Whatever the reason, I connected many of the events in Mary Poppins to other events that I have read in other books or seen in children's movies.  For example, when Maia, a girl from the sky, encounters her first revolving door, she runs through it over and and over again, just like Will Ferrell's character from the North Pole in Elf does when seeing his first revolving door.  In the chapter titled "Bird Woman," the children encounter a mysterious, somewhat frightening lady in the park covered in pigeons. This reminded me of the mysterious lady that Kevin McAlister meets in the film Home Alone 2.  And after celebrating her birthday party at the zoo, the only way that the children can be assured it wasn't a dream was by the remnant that Mary Poppins has left: a belt given to her by the snake.  This reminded me of The Polar Express and how the only proof the child has that he actually went to the North Pole is a remnant of his trip: a belt given to him by Santa.  I couldn't help but notice these similarities and wonder if any of these other events were influenced by Mary Poppins.  

After reading Mary Poppins, I am perplexed as to why P.L. Travers did not want Walt Disney to include magical elements in the movie version of Mary Poppins, since the book itself is filled with magical happenings.  I am not sure how accurate Saving Mr. Banks really is, though it was an entertaining movie.  However, if I were to choose between watching the movie for a second time or reading the novel again, I would certainly choose the novel!  I hope to introduce it to my class as a read-aloud so that they can hear a fantastical novel that they otherwise would probably not read.  I also want to do more research about the author to find out her true story.  If you would like to read Mary Poppins for yourself, check it out at your local library


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