Meeting Geneviève Godbout, the Illustrator of the New Mary Poppins Picture Book

Chapter 1

Jane and Michael could see that the newcomer had shiny black hair – “Rather like a wooden Dutch doll” whispered Jane. And that she was thin, with large feet and hands, and small, rather peering blue eyes.

Pamela L. Travers, Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins’s magic bends and spins reality as a pastry chef twists dough into pretzels. The delicious adventures on which Mary Poppins embarks the Banks children are marvelous treats for the imagination of young readers not yet familiar with the laws of gravity and conventional social norms. Since Pamela L. Travers first channelled Mary on the pages of her book in 1934, Mary continues to come and go through the gates of time and space and into our world in an attempt to expand our minds and connect us to our most potent human feature, our imagination.

In 2015, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) published a new edition of the first four Mary Poppins books.

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Then in October 2018, in the anticipation of the release of the movie Mary Poppins Returns, HMH published the first ever Mary Poppins picture book destined for the very young readers. A cheerful Mary Poppins with big, almond shaped eyes, red cheeks, and an explicitly playful attitude appears on the pages of the picture book. The illustrator of this fresh vision of Mary Poppins is Genevieve Godbout, who is also an author of children’s picture books.

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I met Godbout for the first time in October 2018 at a Mary Poppins tea party, an organised promotional event for the launch of the Mary Poppins picture book. The invitation came unexpectedly from a friend who knew about my fascination with Mary Poppins and Pamela L. Travers.  

The tea party took place in a charming little bookstore in the style of the Shop Around the Corner in the movie You’ve Got Mail.  I don’t know if you have seen this romantic comedy with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, but there is a scene where Kate (Meg Ryan), with a princess hat on her head, reads a picture book in her bookstore to a crowd of small kids gathered at her feet (by the way, this is one of my favorite scenes in the movie).  So, there I was in real life, standing amongst small children, magic wands and sparkling tiaras, the tallest kid in the crowd waiting for the reading of the Mary Poppins picture book to begin. A door in the back of the room opened and Mary Poppins walked in followed by a friend who she introduced to the audience as being the illustrator of the Mary Poppins picture book, Godbout.

Mary Poppins Tea Party

A few months later I met Godbout in a small coffeeshop where green plants and various lightbulbs were swaying from the ceiling, sharing the available window space and demonstrating the bohemian allegiance of the establishment. In this artsy atmosphere we talked for more than an hour, between bites of the most delicious blueberry scones, about Godbout’s creative process of illustrating the famous character of Mary Poppins.

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Godbout explained that before illustrating the Mary Poppins picture book she worked on the illustrations of the covers of the first four Mary Poppins books published by HMH in 2015. For this project HMH provided precise guidelines for the elements that needed to be incorporated into the images on the book covers. The choice of colors and style of drawings were left to the illustrator. However, the publisher’s instructions were clear, the goal was to modernise the look of Mary Poppins and make her visually attractive for today’s young readership. Godbout submitted her sketches along with other illustrators and was chosen by HMH to complete the project.

Interestingly, the 2015 edition of the first four Mary Poppins books still contains the original illustrations by Mary Shepard; a fact that rendered Godbout slightly anxious at the beginning of the project. She candidly confided in being intimidated by the task of illustrating the book covers of a classic children’s book that came with its original illustrations. In contrast, at that same time, she was working on another picture book about another famous character, Anne of Green Gables. The difference between these two projects was that the original novel of Anne of Green Gables had no illustrations. There was nothing to compete and compare with. But once the initial self-doubt so familiar to artists was overcome, Godbout materialized a beautiful pastel colored vision of Mary Poppins.

Her successful illustrations of the book covers in 2015 led HMH to contact her in 2017 and ask her to retell in images the Mary Poppins story in a picture book destined to initiate small kids to the fantastic adventures of Mary Poppins.  

The pastel and colored pencil drawings of Godbout’s Mary Poppins are largely inspired by Julie Andrew’s interpretation of Mary Poppins because as it happened, Godbout fell under the spell of Disney’s Mary Poppins when she was a child.

Mary Poppins Laughing Gas

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Because Godbout didn’t want to immerse herself in the original illustrations by Mary Shepard to avoid any influence on her own work, she didn’t read the original stories at the time she illustrated the book covers in 2015. She only recently started reading the books, and as many who are not familiar with the original artwork, she admitted being flabbergasted by the immense gap between the movie and the books. Godbout accurately assesses the situation: “Mary Poppins has a double personality.”  

Serendipitously enough, Godbout, without knowing it, already had connections to the Mary Poppins world even before she became a full-time freelance illustrator and author of picture books.

At the beginning of her career, Godbout made illustrations for Disney commercial products and a big part of her work involved the character of Winnie-the-Pooh. Godbout was pleasantly surprised to learn that Mary Shepard, the illustrator of Mary Poppins chosen by P.L. Travers, was the daughter of Ernest Howard Shepard, the illustrator of Winnie-the-Pooh. And what was Godbout’s last assignment before making the leap towards an independent artistic career? Mary Poppins of course!

Mary Poppins has undoubtedly kept Godbout busy with book readings and signing events in bookstores in Montreal and recently at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, where she talked about her illustrations and answered kid-friendly questions from the audience. However, Godbout has also other projects on the go. She recently published, here in Quebec, her first authored picture book titled Malou, which tells the story of a little kangaroo who loses its hop. The picture book will soon be published in France, and in the spring of 2020, it will also be published in the rest of Canada and in the United States under the title What’s Up, Maloo? And, that is not all! Godbout is currently in the process of completing a picture book illustrating a poem about gratitude titled Apple Cake. As for me, I am grateful to Ms. Godbout for taking the time to discuss her illustrations of Mary Poppins, and I sincerely hope that her drawings will bring new readers to the original books of P.L. Travers!

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