It’s a jolly ‘oliday with Mary. No wonder that it’s Mary that we love! I had never read the book but I did see the movie and this is one instance where I would say that the movie was better. It’s hard to compete with those wonderful songs that were playing in my head while I was reading. The edition that I read did have wonderful illustrations and I was pleased to spend an evening with this story. Now I’m ready for the new movie and Lin Manuel Miranda is just too adorable.
I decided to read Mary Poppins after watching a video essay that was discussing Disney's Saving Mr. Banks which mentioned that while we associate many Book classics that became movies with their books, our cultural consciousness seems to have entirely forgotten that Mary Poppins was first (and foremost) a book. It was, in fact, a classic book for 20-30 years before it ever became a movie. I figured I owed it to PL Travers to finally sit down and read that book.
I'm glad I did, it was interesting to see the s
ource material for the movie and to really be able to see how much they changed and how many liberties they took. (Heads up, in case you didn't know this book is nothing like the movie, and that's not the book's fault.) But I'm not really sure how I feel about it. I really couldn't decide what to rate it... 2 stars seemed harsh. 3 stars generous. 2.5? I honestly don't know.
My problem with the book isn't really anything wrong with the book itself, it's really the time the book was written in. I've noticed that in middle-grade readers written in this old-timey time (the 30s-ish) it's pretty common to not have a connected narrative. Mary Poppins should more correctly be called a collection of short stories as the only common thread amongst the chapters is that Mary Poppins has come, and we are reminded at the end, that she will eventually leave. The book offers no clues as to why she came to them, and equally gives no reason or purpose for why she leaves. (In fact, she leaves in exactly the same way as the nanny at the beginning of the book - with no explanation, no goodbye, and lying to the kids before she goes) whom we're supposed to dislike for being so impolite.
So Mary Poppins is here and we don't know why. She seems to be good with children primarily because she is strict and unbending and in the end, the children are surprised because she did something nice for Michael which she has never done before - so she's not particularly kind or lovable. Michael and Jane seem to adore her most for the wild and magical experiences they get to have with her rather than for who she is. Oh, and while I believe characters need failings to feel well rounded, I'm not sure the strict, snappish, unattractive nanny actually needed extreme vanity added to her character to round her out. Honestly, Mary is really quite unlikable and I spent the whole book reading waiting for that one secret eye wink (or whatever) that would make me love her despite it all. As it stands I guess she's fine. I mean, she's fine.
I can see why Mary Poppins became a classic in the time it was written. The character is just the kind of person parents of that day and age thought should be raising children, and children, of course, will love the magical world where each chapter is really a story of new and unthought of possibilities: What if falling stars made you dance? What if animals talked? What if you could fall into paintings?
But I can see why the movie has endured (the movie which gave an over-arching narrative and made Mary Poppins likable) and the books have not. Did Disney kill off Travers' books? I'm not sure. History says she finally sold out to him because she needed the money, and having read the books I honestly believe that our culture would have aged out of them eventually and reduced sales 20-30 years after the books first came out supports my theory. I don't think Disney killed them, I think that unlike Winnie the Pooh, her books just couldn't continue to speak to generations as much as the Disnified version could. They are apples and oranges.
So should you read the book? I mean... Probably yes. It's a classic and we can all use a reminder of just how much Disney takes for the sake of making money (like read the reviews where people complain about why this book isn't the movie to see how much they changed). But also it has its own charms. Not to mention it is not a dense read, it won't take you long at all. Now I think I'll go find some other books originally written for this same generation and see how they hold up to the modern age reader.