The Laughing Gas was my favorite Mary Poppins story as a kid. The scene where Mr. Wigg bounces and bobs about in the air like a balloon was the funniest thing that I had ever read. Imagining a round, fat, bald man wiggle in the air with his glasses half on and half off his nose, while holding a newspaper, was a vision I was not willing to let go of. I read and reread the passage until I had exhausted its last drop of funniness. Today, sadly, the same description no longer makes me burst into laughter, but I still enjoy the story, only for different reasons.
Recently, I saw a junk journal made from A Little Golden Book, Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins on social media. It was for sale, and I almost bought it, but then I changed my mind. I decided to make my own junk journal since I have the three Little Golden Books based on stories from the original Mary Poppins book (the first one in the series).
Mr. Wigg’s Birthday Party is an abridged version of The Laughing Gas. It was published in 1952 along with The Gingerbread Shop, an abridged version of Mrs. Corry. Then, in 1953 a third Little Golden Book based on Bad Tuesday was published under the title The Magic Compass.
I know, some of you will think this to be a sacrilegious act, cutting up a book and then inserting all kinds of bits and pieces in it, but I cannot help it. I feel compelled to play and interact with these stories in a different way. I promise to post pictures of my junk journals here, but only if they turn out nice.
I spent my early childhood years in Bulgaria in the 1980’s, and obviously, the Little Golden Books were not part of my early life. In line with my usual habit when something sparks my curiosity, I did some digging and learned a few interesting facts about the Little Golden Books Collection. Here they are.
Twelve Little Golden Book titles were first published in October of 1942 and were at once a tremendous success with 1.5 million copies sold during the first five months of their existence. Today, there are some 1400 Little Golden Book titles available, and the collection continues to expand.
Before the existence of the Little Golden Books, books for children in the United States were expensive and not vastly available to children in small towns and remote rural areas. In the 1930’s the average children’s book cost $2.00 (which today corresponds to $40.00) and in comparison, a loaf of bread cost 10 cents.
The Little Golden Books came into existence because of the collaboration of three groups: The Artist and Writers Guild, Simon & Schuster (the new kid on the publishing block back then) and Western Printing and Lithographing Publishing Company, Racine Wisconsin. Their goal was to publish affordable children’s picture books for 25 cents, an idea unheard of at the time.
Simon & Schuster were up for the challenge and their partnership with Western Printing allowed for mass production of colorful picture books because Western had big printing presses unlike the other publishing houses of that period. They were also printing maps for the US Army and had a large allotment of paper and were not much bothered by all the rationing during the war.
The first twelve Little Golden Books published in 1942 had forty-two pages in total, twenty-eight of which had colored illustrations, and the remaining fourteen pages were illustrated in black and white. However, in 1943 because of the war, The Little Golden Books were reduced to twenty-eight pages.
In 1944 Little Golden Books signed a licensing agreement with Disney which continues to this day. According to this licensing agreement, each release of a new Disney movie coincides with the publication of a Little Golden Book with the characters from the movie. This is how in 1964 the Little Golden Book Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins came to be.
The letters of the alphabet, printed on the bottom right corner of the last page of each Little Golden Book, identify its edition. I have the first edition of Mr. Wigg’s Birthday Party and that suggests the book did not sell as many copies as other Little Golden Book titles since there are no further reprints.
The covers of my used copy are worn, but that just adds to the charm, and as for the rest of the pages, they are in good condition.
All three Little Golden Books based on the Mary Poppins stories were illustrated by Gertrude Elliott, one of the illustrators of the Little Golden Books Collection. The pictures in Mr. Wigg’s Birthday Party show a plain and stern Mary Poppins, and I think that P.L. Travers must have been pleased by Elliott’s execution.
Now, for those who are unfamiliar with the story The Laughing Gas (and Mr. Wigg’s Birthday Party) here is a short summary of the plot. Mary Poppins takes Jane and Michael Banks to her uncle’s house for an afternoon tea. As it happens, their visit coincides with Mr. Wigg’s birthday, only when his birthday falls on a Friday, well, it is all up with him; the first funny thought that pops into his head fills him with laughing gas and he is up in the air, just like a balloon.
Jane and Michael find the situation so irresistibly funny that they too fill up with laughing gas and float up to the ceiling. At this point in the story, the characters are faced with a fantastic problem; the table set for their tea party is down and they are all up. How on earth are they going to have tea? Of course, Mary Poppins’s magic solves the problem, the table rises up to the ceiling and they all end up sitting comfortably in the air eating bread and butter, and sipping tea.
As a kid I enjoyed the story for its whimsicality alone, and it goes without saying that I too wished to be filled up with laughing gas. Yet no matter how hard I laughed reading the story, I stayed firmly put on the couch in the living room of my grandparent’s apartment. (That is where I read Mary Poppins for the first time.) The deeper meanings of the Mary Poppins stories became apparent only when I reread them as an adult.
The Laughing Gas is a beautiful allegory of the uplifting powers of joy and the price we pay when we take ourselves and life too seriously. However, this valuable lesson is missing from Mr. Wigg’s Birthday Party, because an important character had to be cut out in order to allow the story to fit into the preestablished length of a Little Golden Book.
That character is the housekeeper Miss Persimmon. The reader of Mr. Wigg’s Birthday Party meets her briefly at the beginning of the story as she is the one who opens the door for the guests, but we don’t learn anything about her, except that she is not too fond of Mr. Wigg.
In The Laughing Gas Miss Persimmon comes into Mr. Wigg’s room with a jug of hot water for the guests and is stunned by the sight of them all sitting on the air around the table. She is disturbed by Mr. Wigg’s undignified behavior and when Michael Banks suggests to her that she too might catch the laughing gas she exclaims haughtily “I have more respect for myself than to go bouncing about in the air like a rubber ball on the end of a bat. I’ll stay on my own two feet, thank you, or my name’s not Amy Persimmon (…)”
As soon as the words come out of her mouth, Miss Persimmon, against her will, is propelled up in the air. After all, the guests need the hot water for their tea. The poor woman stumbles through the air and weeps in distress as she puts the jug of water on the table. On her way down to the floor she mutters to herself that she needs to see a doctor because she is a well-behaved, steady going woman, and the experience that she just had is beyond her understanding.
Mary Poppins gives an opportunity to Miss Persimmon to loosen up a bit, to let go of her judgmental ways, yet Miss. Persimmon resists. Why? Because tells us P.L. Travers, our social conditioning, if never questioned, will overpower us and cause us to experience nervous breakdowns whenever we are presented with a situation that conflicts with our narrow views. Miss Persimmon has lost her playfulness and her social conditioning has suppressed her ability to experience spontaneous joy.
As for the children, well, they learn that joy and sadness go hand in hand; you can’t have one without the other. That lesson too is missing form Mr. Wiggs’s Birthday Party, but I will write a separate blogpost about it.