Children’s Book Review: Mary Poppins

Children’s Book Review: Mary Poppins

It’s a shame that most people are more familiar with the big-screen, Disney version of Mary Poppins than we are with the children’s book on which is was based. And while there is a definite charm and attractive quality to the characters played by Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke and the like, there is something special and very different about the original characters found in P.L. Travers’ 1934 book.

Mary Poppins is the story of a nanny who comes under the employment of a London family. In the book, Mary is much more direct and stern than the way she appears in the Disney film. She is also described as looking very different. Julie Andrews’ Mary is simply gorgeous, while the nanny described in the book is rather plain looking.

Mary magically shows up, blown in by the wind, at the Banks home. The Banks family have four children (not two, like in the movie): Michael and Jane, the two older children that accompany Mary on her adventures, and twin babies Barbara and John. Mary serves as a fantastical replacement to the previous nanny, who storms out after losing patience with the children and their undisciplined behavior.

While Mary is quite harsh or cross at times, the children can’t help but find her wonderful because of her magic. They do all sorts of fun thing together, like travel the world with the aid of a compass, go Christmas shopping with a star, attend a ceiling birthday party, and much more. All along the way, Mary maintains a seriousness that is softened by her ability to do magical things. After a spell, Mary decides that her work has been sufficient in the Banks home and she leaves the way she arrived—carried by the wind.

The book is absolutely wonderful. There’s a reason Walt Disney worked so hard to obtain the rights to make it a movie. It was the favorite book of his two daughters when they were children.

However, anyone considering reading Mary Poppins for the first time—and they truly should do so—who has seen the movie should be prepared for a different world. The above-mentioned character traits of Mary are first and foremost. Mr. Banks is much less a part of the story in the book than he is in the movie, and Bert in the movies is an amalgam of several book characters who play less of a role in the children’s adventures.

Overall, it is one of the finest pieces of children’s literature ever written, and the first in a wonderful series.

— Fred Williams