Mary Poppins From A to Z

Mary Poppins From A to Z Second edition

The Mary Poppins magnum opus is composed of eight books written over a period of fifty years. The first four adventure books, Mary Poppins (1934), Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935), Mary Poppins Opens the Door (1943) and Mary Poppins in the Park (1952) are the most popular.

The next two books, Mary Poppins From A to Z, (1962) and Mary Poppins in the Kitchen (1975) are companions to the adventure books and are the least known by the public. Nevertheless, they still deserve attention.

As for the last two Mary Poppins adventure books, Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane (1982) and Mary Poppins in the House Next Door (1988), P. L. Travers wrote them when she was well into her eighties. Their lack of popularity could easily be explained by the eerie mood of the themes explored in the stories and the evermore shadowy character of Mary Poppins. Understandably, mending broken things and finding lost possessions are not exactly themes appealing to young readers at the beginning stages of life.  However, a fact, even when forgotten or disregarded, still remains a fact; none of the Mary Poppins adventures books were written especially for children, strange as this may sound.

In this post I want to explore one of the lesser known Mary Poppins books, Mary Poppins From A to Z and its new adaptation for the very small, the board book Mary Poppins ABC (2018).

Mary Poppins From A to Z, as the title suggests, is an alphabet book and was first published in the early 1960’s. It was illustrated by Mary Shepard, the illustrator of all the Mary Poppins books.  It contains twenty-six illustrated short tales, one for each letter of the alphabet. Each story is a snapshot of the daily life of the Banks family, outlined in black ink on a colored background.

Vintage Illustration Mary Poppins From A to Z

(I found this picture on the Internet but I couldn’t identify its origin, so I am not able to give the owner any credits.)

After its first publication the book remained out of print in North America until 2006, when Houghton Mifflin Harcourt released a new edition. In this second edition, colors light up the original vintage illustrations and energize the activities depicted on its pages, undoubtedly making the book more appealing to today’s young readers.

Mary Poppins From A to Z Letter A colors.jpg

The tales although rather short keep pace with the eccentric aspects of the adventure books, the magic is palpable. However, the beginning reader will require some assistance from a more experienced one because P.L. Travers generously sprinkles her stories with unusual words.  

In Mary Poppins From A to Z, P.L. Travers definitely displays her love for words and her talent for weaving them into whimsical patterns of her choosing. And anyhow, how is a child to develop a rich vocabulary if not through reading?

My favourite vignette is the one for the letter G. Jane and Michael, chaperoned by Mary Poppins, are feeding the geese on the green by a lake. Mr. Banks happens to pass by and observing the children’s activity remarks that he is glad not to be a goose. To which Jane replies that the geese are not really geese but gallant swans in disguise, that she herself is Goldilocks and Michael a killer of giants. Then Mr. Banks jokingly tells the children he is a grand Duke and that he never needs to pay the grocer.  

Mary Shepard’s illustration of this vignette strikingly reveals the meaning of the story. Behind each character there is a second, astral depiction of the imagined self. Only Mary Poppins’s reflection into the field of potentialities is simply Mary Poppins.

Mary Poppins From A to Z Letter G colors

The children are in a state of becoming, with imaginations still unburdened by everyday responsibilities and limitations. There is nothing surprising about them imagining their future selves. The story’s message is lodged in the contrasting projections of the grown-up characters, Mr. Banks and Mary Poppins.

Mr. Banks, appears to use his imagination for a fleeting escape from his unsatisfying state of being, while Mary Poppins appears to be genuinely happy with herself. And that is a nice ideal for children to live up to, to grow up into themselves and be happy with who they become.

Since we are on the subject of Mary Poppins From A to Z, it must be mentioned here that P.L. Travers made special efforts to get the book translated in Latin. Unusual as this may appear at first, there is logic to it. In the 1960’s Mary Poppins was already a children’s classic of the stature of Alice in Wonderland and Winnie-the-Pooh and these two were at that time published in Latin. Not only that, the Latin translation of Winnie-the-Pooh became a favourite with students of Latin and thus an instant bestseller, remaining on Times list for 20 weeks selling 125,000 copies in 21 printings.  No wonder P.L. Travers went out of her way to find a translator during her writers’ residency at Smith College in 1966. Finally, it was Peter Marshal, Professor of Latin and Clas­sics at Amherst College who agreed to work on the Latin translation. 

Maria Poppina

(I found this picture on the Internet but I couldn’t identify its origin, so I am not able to give the owner any credits.)

Now, a word about the new adaptation of Mary Poppins Form A to Z into a board book. In 2018 in anticipation of the new movie, Mary Poppins Returns, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt released the board book Mary Poppins ABC in which each tale of the original book is shortened to one sentence.  Again, the original Mary Shepard drawings are animated with bright colors and the overall impression of the book is one of vibrant joy. There is just one small glitch in this new adaptation.

Mary Poppins ABC cover

Some of the original illustrations were altered, in my view quite unsuccessfully, in order to fit the brevity of their corresponding tales. For example, in the illustration for the letter M the bodies of the  Park Keeper and the Lord Mayor are cut in half, and on the illustration for the letter I, one can see the bottom of a window on the second floor of the house but Mary Poppins, who is in the room on the second floor happily ironing her apron, is completely removed from the picture.

Of course, when the original vignette is reduced to a sentence the remaining images contain more elements than the written story, but that allows for animate discussions with the young reader.

Mary Poppins Letter I.jpg

Mary Poppins Letter M

Regardless of this imperfection the book is a nice way of introducing young children to the Mary Poppins books.

P.L. Travers’s note at the end of Mary Poppins Form A to Z is one of the loveliest descriptions of the Banks’s nursery and the perfect conclusion to this blog post. I simply can’t resist the temptation to share it here with the readers:

Mary Poppins From A to Z nursery description

I believe that this is the only book in which Mary Poppins is said to fall asleep. I would have loved to discuss this particularity with P.L. Travers. So many questions remain unanswered.

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.

Arts Cafe 1

Art Cafe 2

Art Cafe 3

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!