Christmas Shopping with Mary Poppins

Christmas Shopping Mary Poppins

(illustration by Júlia Sardà)

Would you like to go Christmas shopping with Mary Poppins? I know I would, for the obvious reason, the outing would most certainly entail some kind of unexpected magical experience. And who wouldn’t enjoy a little magic? Although, Mary Poppins’s magic is never meant to entertain.

No, despite all appearances, Mary Poppins’s magic has a much more serious purpose. And, it is not the one conveyed by Disney’s movie “Mary Poppins” (and even less so by the sequel “Mary Poppins Returns” ). Mary Poppins does not visit the Banks family to save them or Mr. Banks, as another Disney movie “Saving Mr. Banks” suggests.

Mary Poppins comes to teach the Banks children, and all those who read the original stories, about life and its mysteries. The essence of these stories is mystical and with each subsequent book* (as the spiritual journey of P.L. Travers evolved) they become more and more spiritually infused.

I thought that a blog post about the story Christmas Shopping from the first Mary Poppins book published in 1934 would be an appropriate theme for this time of the year.  

Christmas Shopping Mary Poppins 2

(illustration by Júlia Sardà)

It is almost Christmas, and Mary Poppins, Jane and Michael Banks are riding the bus on the way to the Largest Shop in the World. Jane and Michael are excited:

                                    ‘I smell snow’, said Jane, as they got out of the Bus.

                                    ‘I smell Christmas trees’, said Michael.

And what does Mary Poppins reply?

                                    ‘I smell fried fish?’ said Mary Poppins.

Now, this is Mary Poppins! She never gets overly excited and she never gives away any sign that something magical is about to happen. And why would she? There would be no magic without an element of surprise!

Of course, Mary Poppins’s attitude does not stop Jane and Michael from being excited about Christmas and from marveling at the toys displayed in the windows of the Largest Shop in the World. The children take their time because, by now, they know Mary Poppins, and they know that there is nothing she likes more than to look at her own reflection in shop windows.

Christmas Shopping Mary Poppins 4

(original illustration by Mary Shepard)

Jane and Michael are looking for presents for their family. The Toy Department is definitely the designated place for such a purpose; a clockwork train with special signals for Daddy, a small doll’s perambulator for Mommy, a mechanical beetle for Robertson Ay, a pair of spectacles for Ellen who, by the way, doesn’t have any eyesight problems, and Robinson Cruose for the twins to read when they grow up. You get the gist. The children are choosing for themselves. And what does Mary Poppins do? Nothing. She lets them do as they wish, for she does not interfere with their choices, at least not in an obvious way. And anyhow, she it too busy having an argument with Father Christmas over a cake of soap. Now, it is time for tea, and they have to leave the store. Understandably, Jane and Michael are not ready to tear themselves away from the toys.

But Mary Poppins hurried on and they had to go with her. Behind them Father Christmas was waving his hand, and the Fairy Queen on the Christmas Tree and all the other dolls were smiling sadly and saying. “Take me home, somebody!” and the aeroplanes were all beating their wings and saying in bird-like voices “Let me fly! Ah, do let me fly!” Jane and Michael hurried away, closing their ears to those enchanting voices, and feeling that the time in the Toy Department had been unreasonably short.

Just at that very moment, when the children are about to walk out of the shop, a flickering figure of a child pops out of the spinning door at the shop entrance. The adventure begins.

… the child had practically no clothes on, only a light wispy strip of blue stuff that looked as though she had torn it from the sky to wrap round her naked body.

This is Maia, she is the second star of the seven Pleiades; those are the stars that Mr. Banks showed one night to Jane and Michael.

Christmas Shopping Mary Poppins 3

(illustration by Júlia Sardà)

Maia has come down to earth to do a little Christmas shopping and buy toys for her sisters who can’t get away very often because they are “so busy making and storing up the Spring Rains.”

So, Michael and Jane are now following Maia in the store as she choses the gifts she wants to bring back home. Maia selects a little stove with silver saucepans and a stripped broom for her eldest sister because she is domestic, and because, of course, up there where they live there is a lot of star dust.

Then Maia choses a skipping rope for another one of her sisters because she likes to dance and a book for another who is quiet and never wants anything. As for the youngest one of Maia’s sisters, Maia asks advice from Jane and Michael. A humming-top and rubber ducks will do the job.

Now it is time for Maia to go back home. Jane remarks that Maia has no Christmas gift for herself and she starts searching through her parcels to see what she could spare for Maia.  It is then that Mary Poppins whips off her new gloves with the fur tops; the first gloves she ever had and the ones she thought she would never grow tired of looking at in the shop windows, and she gives them to Maia, because it is cold outside. Maia kisses Mary Poppins and steps on an invisible ladder carved into the sky and begins to climb up in the air.

Christmas Shopping Mary Poppins 5

(original illustration by Mary Shepard)

Clearly, Mary Poppins teaches Jane and Michael about generosity and the nature of gift giving. A lesson taught without preaching, in the most effective way, by example. She shows them that a gift is an act of love and that one must choose a gift to match the desires and needs of the receiver and not the giver.  And, if we push the interpretation further, we can say that there is an element of sacrifice in the ritual of gift giving, at least in P.L. Travers’s mind. The lesson here is similar to another Christmas story written by P. L. Travers The Fox at the Manger.

Another interesting theme in the story is the question of money. After Maia has chosen all her gifts, a practical question is raised by Michael:

                                    “But she has no purse. Who will pay for the toys?”

And Maia answers:

What did you say?” demanded Maia with round, surprised eyes. “Pay? Nobody will pay. There is nothing to pay – is there?” She turned her shining gaze to the Assistant.

“Nothing at all, madam,” he assured her as he put the parcels into her arms and bowed again.

“I thought no. You see,” she said, turning to Michael “the whole point of Christmas is that things should be given away, isn’t it? Besides what could I pay with? We have no money up there.” And she laughed at the mere suggestion of such a thing.

After all, the spirit of Christmas is about love, generosity and compassion and not so much about shopping. Mary Poppins might have been written in 1934 long before the invention of the internet and smart phones, but she is just as relevant today as she was back then. If we could only remember her!

Maia’s comment about money hints at something we lose out of sight in our everyday life. Money outside of our human social structures has no importance whatsoever. The Universe in which we spin couldn’t care less about money.

We might be living in a material world of our own creation, but we must remember that we are a part of a much vaster macrocosm that obeys different laws. How are we to strike a balance between our material and spiritual needs? And, does one exclude the other? Don’t we need both perspectives even if they appear to be at odds with each other?

And did P.L. Travers succeed in finding that balance? I am not certain, but spirituality was a major part of her life experience, and the spiritual teacher who influenced her outlook on life was G. I. Gurdjieff.

I have written a few posts on this blog about Gurdjieff and I believe that it is relevant here in this Christmas post to talk about Gurdjieff’s inverted Christmas tree and P.L. Travers’s own thoughts about the meaning of this symbol.

There is an ancient tradition originating in Eastern Europe of suspending Christmas trees by their roots and it appears that this tradition was also adopted by G.I. Gurdjieff.

Gurdjieff inverted Christams tree

(picture from Gurdjieff and the Women of the Rope)

Rene Zuber a pupil of Gurdjieff experienced Gurdjieff’s inverted Christmas tree firsthand and wrote about it in his book Who Are You Monsieur Gurdjieff?:

(…) I will describe what happened to me on Christmas Eve (the Russian Christmas which is thirteen days later that ours). I had been asked to go to his flat where I found another of his pupils. The master of the house showed us into the empty drawing-room, and there in the middle of the floor lay piles of toys, sweetmeats and oranges. We had to divide them up and put them into little paper bags, so that each child could have his share.

A lovely pine tree, fresh from the flower market, confirmed that everything would be done to custom. I took upon myself to transform it into a Christmas tree with the necessary tinsel, candles and stars. For someone from Alsace, like myself, this was a deeply satisfying task.

I had almost finished when Mr. Gurdjieff came in, glanced at our work, and going up to the tree signalled to me to hang it from the ceiling. I could not believe my eyes. ‘But….Monsieur….from that hook up there? Upside down, with the roots in the air?’ That was exactly what he wanted. So I was left to strip the tree, climb on a stool and attach the roots to the ceiling as best as I could. (…) The story is perplexing. (…)

Maybe Gurdjieff wanted to encourage Zuber to change his perspective on life, to look at things from different angles, to question customs and habits. Zuber writes of Gurdjieff’s teaching as being “invigorating” with “provoking quality” that is “inexhaustible”. These are some of the traits of Gurdjieff’s teaching that must have appealed to his pupils. Or, maybe Gurdjieff was pointing in the direction of P.L. Travers’s interpretation.

P.L. Travers examined the symbol of the tree in a talk she gave for The Far West Institute in the summer of 1973. In that talk she informed her listeners that the tree appears as a major mythological symbol throughout different cultures at different times in the history of humanity, and almost always in the same vein: as a cosmic pillar connecting the underworld, the earth and the Heaven.

She gave examples from the Bible, the Kabbalah, the Norse and Teutonic myths, the Avestan tradition, the ancient writings of the Parsees. And then she introduced her audience to a lesser known mythology, that of the inverted tree:

But it is in the earliest writings of Hinduism that one finds it most vividly portrayed, the mysterious Asvattha Tree of the Rig Veda, with its roots in Heaven and its branches spreading downward. Clearly this tree has a solar aspect, not so much of a physical as of a supernal sun whose rays strike downward bringing life.

 And thus, she links the symbol of the inverted tree to G.I. Gurdjieff’s cosmogony:

And all this can be assimilated to Gurdjieff’s system, whose great symbol, the Ray of Creation, is also an inverted tree, rooted above in the Absolute and descending as an octave through ever denser stages of being from one Do to another. Clearly the message of this many faceted symbol is that the roots of man are not on earth but in the Heaven….

In that talk she alos mentiones, although rather briefly, the Tarot card of the Hanged Man. This gives me an idea for another blog post. And on and on it goes… I hope you enjoyed reading this post and that you will come back to read more about Mary Poppins and P.L. Travers.

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* There are eight Mary Poppins books.

In the Kitchen with Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins in the Kitchen colour cover

This blogpost is about P.L. Travers’s book “Mary Poppins in the Kitchen” first published in 1975.

Mary Poppins in the Kitchen” is composed of two parts: the story of Mary Poppins in the Kitchen

MAry Poppins in the Kitchen bright

and the recipes from Mary Poppins’s Cookery Book from A to Z.

MAry Poppins Cookery Book 2

Mr. and Mrs. Banks are on their way to a weeklong planned trip to Brighton. But then Mrs. Brill, the cook, announces that she needs to leave the household to give a helping hand to her niece, whose four children have measles. And, of course, that happens just when Ellen, the maid, is nursing a cold. The question then arises: Can Mary Poppins cook and is she willing to?

‘I have only one pair of hands,’ she said, ‘And those are occupied’. She had lifted Annabel from the floor, and John and Barbara, one on either side of her, were each hugging a leg.

Mary Poppins in the Kitchen, P.L. Travers

Jane and Michael rise to the occasion and offer to help Mary Poppins in the kitchen. The matter is settled, and the parents leave for the week.

Each day during that week a special visitor from the gallery of mythical characters from the Mary Poppins books shows up in the Banks’s kitchen to help Mary Poppins and her charges to prepare the meal of the day.

On Monday, Mrs. Corry comes to help with the cooking of a roast beef, a suspicion of cabbage and a Yorkshire pudding. On Tuesday, it is Admiral Boom’s turn to come and cook a shepherd’s pie, carrots and apple charlotte. On Wednesday, Mr. and Mrs. Turvey come to mix the ingredients for an Irish stew and a honey and bananas dessert. Then on Thursday, Mary Poppins’s cousin, Mr. Twigley, shows up to play music with the kitchen utensils while Mary Poppins and the children prepare the beef patties, the green peas and the bread-and-butter pudding. Comes Friday, the Bird Woman appears in the garden outside of the kitchen, carrying herbs for the planned roasted chicken with bread sauce and green beans. And on Saturday, Andrew and Willoughby, Miss Lark’s dogs bring the Park Keeper and Mrs. Lark into the Banks’s kitchen. The dogs are of course intrigued by the smell of the Lancashire hot pot and the cherry pie, but the Park Keeper and Mrs. Lark are of no use in the kitchen. On Sunday, the day on which Mr. and Mrs. Banks come back home, the children are so busy cooking for their parents that even the sound of the bell on the Ice Cream Man’s tricycle outside in the lane can’t distract them from their occupation. No, they are cooking chicken with potatoes and making a salad, and a lemon soufflé for dessert.

Each of these weekday stories has its own illustration depicting the cooking adventures of Mary Poppins and the children. The original Mary Shepard’s illustrations in the first edition of “Mary Poppins in the Kitchen” were not colored.

Mrs. Corry Origianl cooking illustration.jpg

(Picture taken from The Left Chapter Blog)

I have the 2006 redesigned edition of “Mary Poppins in the Kitchen” published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which reproduces the original vintage illustrations but in colour, certainly making the book more appealing to today’s young readers.

Mary Poppins Monday colour story

Mary Poppins in the Kitchen” is the least magical of all the Mary Poppins books and it also, in my opinion, lacks the whimsical feel of “Mary Poppins From A to Z. The episodes with Mr. Twigley and Mr. and Mrs. Turvy are probably the most playful stories in the book.

I can easily imagine young children laughing at the desperate attempts of the Turvies to participate in the cooking activities taking place in the kitchen on Wednesday.

So everybody set to work. And though the guests behaved in a topsy-turvy manner – Mrs. Turvey repeatedly stood on her head and Mr. Turvy insisted on looking for the lamb chops in the broom cupboard – the cooking went under way.

Mary Poppins in the Kitchen, P.L. Travers

Topsy Turvey cooking adventure.jpg

It is worth noting here that P.L. Travers chose the Bird Woman as the helper for the seasoning of the chicken on Friday. I would’ve definitely asked P.L. Travers what motivated her choice. Did she want to hint to the young readers that everything that lives eats, and is eaten in its own turn? There is definitely something sacrificial in the Friday cooking story. I never gave any thought about the Bird Woman’s diet until I read “Mary Poppins in the Kitchen”. But now that I have, I kind of doubt that the Bird Woman would eat birds or participate in their cooking. This is really not how I feel the character. Anyway, that would have been an interesting discussion to have with P.L. Travers.

There are other discrepancies of similar nature in “Mary Poppins in the Kitchen” that make this book stand apart form the other books in the series, starting with the first scene where Mr. and Mrs. Banks are having tea with the children.

 Mr. Banks, down on all fours, pretending to be an elephant with John and  Barbara on his back, rose, panting, to his feet.

                                                              Mary Poppins in the Kitchen, P.L. Travers

Mr. Banks on all four.jpg

Now, this is uncharacteristic. Mr. Banks is usually rather busy and has no time for frivolities.

Another strange detail in this book is the apparent emotional connection between Mary Poppins, Jane and Michael in the final scene. “Mary Poppins and Jane and Michael exchanged a glance full of meaning.” This is not something a reader encounters in the other Mary Poppins stories. Mary Poppins, always and in all circumstances, keeps her position of authority and of superiority. There is never ever an emotional connection between her and her charges; they are always kept at a distance. Again, this would have been an interesting subject to discuss with P.L. Travers.  

And now about Mary Poppins’s Cookery Book. All the recipes are British Edwardian recipes from P.L. Travers’s own childhood stomach memories*. And, inferring from her testimony that she never used recipes and cooked out of her head, she apparently needed the help of a culinary consultant to give the recipes precision and structure. That consultant was Maurice Moore-Betty, an Irish cook living in Manhattan.  

However, I must say I do have some doubts about P.L. Travers in the kitchen. Somehow, I can’t picture her in front of a stove… But then, she must have fried an occasional egg.

Why did P.L. Travers write a cookery book? This is the official answer she gave:

I think it’s desirable that children should have every opportunity to express their imagination. A child that can help to make a soufflé may be able to make a poem the next day.

Mary Poppins Has Her Own Way Even in the Kitchen, by Lisa Hammel, November 12, 1975, The New York Times

The answer that I believe is closer to the truth is that she wanted to sell more books before the effect from the Dinsey Mary Poppins movie wore off completely.

I decided to try a few recipes from the Mary Poppins’s cookery book, but since I am not an experienced pastry baker (and I got no help from magical friends) even easy child appropriate recipes proved somewhat difficult. 

I can’t really say if the gingerbread stars were a little dry because something is missing in the recipe or because I overbaked them.

My version of the cherry pie was good but not fantastic.  I didn’t have enough dough to cover it nicely.  Again, not sure if the problem was in the recipe or in the cook. I guess I could have played it safe with a store-bought dough but then I wanted to have the full Mary Poppins in the kitchen experience.

Mary Poppins Cherry Pie Montage.jpg

I enjoyed making and eating the bread and butter pudding, even if I only had raisins to put in and no currants. And, I didn’t remove the crusts from the bread either. I just love bread crusts.

Mary Poppins Bread and Butter Pudding

Finally, I can report with confidence that the honey and bananas recipe works without fail (and is the easiest one along with the fruit salad), but I would suggest cutting the bananas in round slices so you can serve them with ice cream. At least this is what I will do next time.

In total in this new redesigned edition there are 30 recipes and wisely, twenty-one of them are for desserts! However, some of the recipes from the original edition are missing. I will have to get a copy of the original first edition.

I hope that you enjoyed this post and that you will come back to read more about P.L. Travers and her Mary Poppins.

Mary Poppins in the Kitchen back cover.jpg

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* Mary Poppins Has Her Own Way Even in the Kitchen, by Lisa Hammel, November 12, 1975, The New York Times

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.

Mary Poppins in the Publishing World

In the early 1930s, a magical nanny popped into the mind of a writer who had just taken up residence in Pound Cottage outside of Mayfield, East Sussex. That writer was Pamela L. Travers and the nanny, Mary Poppins. In her mid-thirties at the time, Pamela was struggling with a respiratory illness coupled with severe anxiety. She had chosen the secluded life in the countryside, following her doctor’s prescription, to avoid London’s smoggy air.

Pound Cottage was not just any cottage. It was a small, medieval, timber-framed construction, thickly glazed with mortar, and lidded with a large, sloping thatched roof. The tiny windows and narrow front door accentuating the whimsical aspect of the cottage. In other words, it was the perfect birthplace for a fairy tale. 

Pound Cottage, just out of Mayfield, might have been the home of the wicked fairy in “Hansel and Gretel,” or Farmer Hoggett and his sweet pig, Babe. …. the cottage looked as though a romantic heroine like Giselle might step through its rustic door to dance among the roses in the garden…..

Mary Poppins She Wrote, Valerie Lawson

Poud Cottage

Picture from the Archive of P.L. Travers and Mary Shepard at Cotsen Children’s Library.

Here is a description of Pound Cottage given by Pamela herself when she was asked where she had written Mary Poppins:

In the country, in a very old house, that was older than William the Conqueror. It was built before 1066, and we know that because William the Conqueror made lists of all the houses that were in England when he arrived, and this house was on that list. It’s called the Doomsday Book.  It’s still there. (…) It was bought by an anthropologist who was very interested in very old things. Maybe he will preserve it and give it to the nation one day. I don’t know.

Pamela L. Travers, Library of Congress Performance. Interview. 1966-11-01. Visit with P.L. Travers, Author of the Mary Poppins stories

One wonders, could the bucolic backdrop and the history infused cottage have been part of the necessary ingredients for Pamela to conjure a character such as Mary Poppins into our world? Or, was it Mary Poppins who summoned Pamela instead? Who can tell? Although, according to Pamela, the latter hypothesis is the correct answer to these questions:

I didn’t even think her up. She just brushed past me and said, ‘You take it down.’ The late Hendrik van Loon, who used to take me out to lunch and draw elephants for me, had the right idea. ‘How you happened to think of Mary Poppins doesn’t interest me,’ he said. ‘What interests me is how Mary Poppins happened to think of you.’  

Mary Poppins by Geoffrey T. Hellman, The New Yorker, October 12, 1962

Be it one way or the other, magic did happen in that small medieval cottage. The proof is that since Mary Poppins was first published in 1934, the stories have never been out of print. By 1965, Mary Poppins was translated into seventeen languages, and in 1968, even a Latin translation of Mary Poppins from A to Z was added to the list of translations. Since then, many more editions were published all over the world demonstrating the everlasting interest of the pubic in this fictional character.

Obviously, I was curious to learn about today’s publishing process of a children’s classic like Mary Poppins. Luck was on my side and I am excited to share with the readers of this blog that Ms. Bethany Vinhateiro, the Mary Poppins editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), kindly accepted to answer a few questions about HMH’s publishing program of the Mary Poppins books in North America. So, without further ado, I lift the curtain and offer you a glimpse of Mary Poppins in the publishing world:

LS: What motivated HMH’s decision to publish a new edition of the Mary Poppins books?

BV: The Mary Poppins series is one of our most prized backlist properties and we tend to it regularly, republishing around major anniversaries and other events, like the debut of the stage show and film adaptations. Our most recent crop of books, new editions of the original by P. L. Travers and movie tie-in editions from Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns, were timed for the excitement around the 2018 film.

mary poppins box set

LS: Was the Estate of P.L. Travers involved in the decision?

BV: We work closely with the Travers estate on all of our Poppins publishing. HMH, along with the Estate, feel a responsibility to try to do for her character and work as Travers would have done herself.

LS: Has HMH noticed an increase of interest from the readers in the original Mary Poppins stories?

BV: As with any cultural event like a film adaptation, the source material sees renewed interest from readers. Though Mary Poppins was already a classic and one that sells perennially, our previously published editions of Mary Poppins saw an increase in sales around the film. The increased awareness was an exciting opportunity to get the original story into the hands of new readers, and to bring out a beautiful collector’s edition and a first-ever picture book edition which could be enjoyed by people who may have already loved the story in another format. It’s been wonderful to see the enthusiasm for the original books that inspired the films.

mary popins collector edition

LS:  Do you know how many editions of the Mary Poppins books have been published since the first book came out in 1934?

BV: There have been many editions of the original novels published over the years. We currently offer them in hardcover and paperback, a paperback boxed set, and a hardcover collection. Travers’ novellas Mary Poppins in the Kitchen and Mary Poppins from A-Z are also in print. New in 2018 are the Mary Poppins ABC board book adapted from the A-Z book, the Illustrated Gift Edition of Mary Poppins and the Mary Poppins Picture Book. 

mary poppins abc

LS: Is Houghton Mifflin Harcourt the only authorised publisher of the Mary Poppins books? 

BV: HMH holds publishing rights to Mary Poppins in North America, with other publishers publishing the books around the world.

Now, I hope you enjoyed this post and come back to read more about the original book Mary Poppins From A to Z and the new adaptation for the very young readers, Mary Poppins ABC which will be the subject of the next post on this blog. If you liked this blog post, I invite you to read about my meeting with the illustrator of the very first Mary Poppins Picture Book:  Meeting Geneviève Godbout, the Illustrator of the New Mary Poppins Picture Book.

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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MPoppins_Park

 

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.

MP_cover-template-01-FINAL-color

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!

Mary Poppins Meets the Little Prince

The Little Prince Mary Poppins

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry masterfully shaped his story The Little Prince into a fairy tale, illustrated with his naïve, childlike drawings. However, despite the child-friendly appearances of the story, Saint-Exupéry did not, just as Pamela L. Travers, intend to write a children’s book. And, even if The Little Prince and Mary Poppins are enjoyed by children, both characters communicate the life experiences of their authors, and their hard-learned life lessons; they speak to the child within the grown-up reader, they talk about what these authors believed to be true in life.   

Nonetheless, The Little Prince and Mary Poppins are still, more often than not, perceived by many as whimsical stories unrelated to life as we know it, only meant to amuse children. And that is unfortunate. It is unfortunate that today we have no time to ponder on the real meaning of the fairy tales; as the fox in the The Little Prince remarks:

People never have the time to understand anything that is worthwhile. They buy everything ready made in the shops. That’s why people don’t have friends, because they can’t buy friends in the shops.

Saint-Exupéry wrote The Little Prince during his exile in the United States in 1943. The story contains some biographical elements and we can interpret The Little Prince as the expression of the author’s feelings of loneliness and isolation in a world torn by war, a world populated by:

one hundred and eleven kings (including the African kings), seven thousand geographers, nine-hundred thousand businessmen, seven-and-a-half million drunkards, three-hundred-eleven million egoists; in other words, about two billion grown-ups.

And of course, needless to say, these numbers have largely increased since 1943.

But beyond the personal, the journey of the Little Prince can be viewed as an allegory of the death of the inner child; the loss of connection with one’s own heart and with that, the loss of the ability to truly connect with other human beings. All the grown-up characters in the story live alone on their separate planets, unconscious of their pathetic predicament, unconscious of their inability to fully embrace their aliveness and the vastness of the world beyond their limited conceptions.

The Little Prince had to leave the Earth because it was a strange place to live, “It’s dry and sharp and hard. And people have no imagination. They repeat whatever you say to them.

And that is a sad moral, unless of course one succeeds in transcending the death of innocence by keeping an eye on the stars…

Pamela L. Travers was also in the United States at the time when The Little Prince was published in April 1943, and it happened so that she reviewed it in an article that was published in The New York Herald.

Since Pamela L. Travers was a dweller of the fairy tales world, she knew that fairy tales are allegories of our human experiences and that their morals can be applied in our own existence. She wrote in her review:

The Little Prince certainly has the three essentials required by children’s books. It is true in the most inward sense, it offers no explanations and it has a moral. But this particular moral attaches the book to the grown-up world rather than the nursery. To be understood it needs a heart stretched to the utmost suffering and love, the kind of heart luckily is not often found in children.

Pamela L. Travers, The New York Herald on April 11, 1943

Pamela L. Travers also knew that precisely because of its allegorical style the story of The Little Prince had a chance to penetrate deeper into the inner world of the reader, beyond the confines of the mind, and reach the reader’s inner child homeland, the reader’s heart.

We can not go back to the world of childhood. We are too tall now and must stay with our own kind. But perhaps there is a way of going forward to it. Or better still, of bearing it along with us; carrying the lost child in our arms so that we may measure all things in terms of that innocence. Everything Saint-Exupéry writes has that sense of heightened life that can be achieved only when the child is still held by the hand.

Pamela L. Travers, The New York Herald on April 11, 1943

During the Second World War Pamela L. Travers was drawn into the national and international propaganda coordination effort between the Office of War Information Department of the Roosevelt administration and the British Ministry of Information. The network that formed between these two establishments reached out to contributors from the literary and journalist communities. And this is how Pamela L. Travers was asked to do some radio broad casting to all the occupied countries. Interestingly, she used in her radio programs the same communication tactics as the one employed by Saint-Exupéry in The Little Prince:

How could I speak to anyone except speaking to their child? And so to every country I did broadcast on their fairy tales, their legends, their folklore.

Mary Poppins She Wrote by Valery Lawson

The Little Prince never explained anything, nor did Mary Poppins, nor Pamela L. Travers for that matter. But truth does not need explaining, what it needs is a childlike-heart because as the fox in the story tells us “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.

Feathered Omens

 

Picture of the feather

At twenty-four Pamela L. Travers was determined to be the master of her own destiny. Strong headed, propelled by the need to escape the limited existence commanded by the needs of her family, Pamela decided to leave it all behind and search for that elusive “something else”.

And as I grew, amidst all the abundance, I began to feel a wanting. Lacking nothing, I came to now lack – a longing, even nostalgia for something I had never known. In all the completeness, I was incomplete, a cup only half full. This ache, this lonely weight of heart came upon me always at sunset, when the long rays lay across the earth like stripes on the back of a zebra. ‘There must be Something Else!’ I would say. Achingly, I would say it. But all, I knew, was Here and Now, and if all, then within the all that Something Else awaited me, infolded, implicate. Was it an answer to an unheard question? If a question, how would I know the answer?

Pamela L. Travers, Now, Farewell and Hail, 1985

The call to adventure, in Pamela’s case, the call to Ireland, was too compelling to be ignored. And according to her, it urged her from her early childhood:

Brian Sibley:       You said to me earlier that from the moment you were born you knew that you would be leaving Australia and you would be coming back to Ireland. What was it that put that idea into your head?

P.L.Travers:         How do you know the idea was put in my head. I am perfectly convinced that I was born saying “Get me out of here.”

Brian Sibley:       But you were happy there?

P.L.Travers:        Very.

Brian Sibley:       So, was it something about Ireland that was calling you as it were?

P.L.Travers:        Well, you like to make that assertion, I don’t. It was just in me, that I wouldn’t be staying there, the others would say we’ll do this and do that when we are grown up and I used to say calmly but I will not be here. And I was always laughed at.

P L Travers: The Woman behind Mary Poppins

At the time of the recording of this conversation, Pamela L. Travers’s biography was not yet written, and not much was known about the details of her life in Australia. And, Pamela disclosed only what she wanted to disclose which, it turned out, was often slightly misrepresented, especially when it came to her father. There are different possible interpretations for the reasons of these distortions, but what is now certain is that her father exerted great influence upon her young and impressionable mind.

By reciting Irish poetry and recounting Celtic myths, her father, quite unknowingly, planted a special seed in Pamela’s oversensitive imagination. The seed grew deep roots of fascination with Ireland and these roots, eventually, reached the Irish soil. As soon as Pamela arrived in Ireland, she contacted George William Russell (A.E.) who not only responded to the poem she sent him but also introduced her to his close friend, the legendary, W.B. Yeats. This is how Pamela, almost by magic, entered into the Irish literary establishment of that time. 

The prospect of her long trip across the ocean to the other side of the Earth must have been unsettling for young Pamela, even if the departure was desired. Fears and doubts must have been her companions, after all she was making a leap of faith towards the unknown. What made her answer the call to adventure? It is an arduous task, shun by most of us. How did she overcome these uneasy feelings? Was it the explosive combination of her inherent rebelliousness along with some youthful naiveté that allowed her to push through her doubts? One thing we do know is that she relied on the guidance from a feather.

A few days before Pamela sailed to England a bird’s feather drifted down to her feet as she was walking on the street. She stopped and scooped it up. Her biographer Valerie Lawson writes “Soft, but finely shaped, the tail feather might have come from a magpie. She tucked it into her handbag. This omen was to travel with her, those fifty days to London.”

The feather remained with Pamela for much longer than the trip to England. She kept it for the rest of her life.

The fact that Pamela saw in it a good omen, a sort of a sign of protection from above, confirms both that she needed reassurance and guidance at that moment in her life, and also that she was sensitive to the spirit world. Shamans believe that a feather from a bird can connect a person with the specific archetypal energies of that bird. Did the magpie have something to communicate to Pamela?

Interestingly enough a magpie is believed to indicate an encounter with the spirit realm and the metaphysical world but in a rather unusual way. Now this strikes me as a “funny” coincidence because Pamela did encounter the spirit world right from her arrival in Ireland. George W. Russell was a member of the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society founded by the controversial Madame Helena Blavatsky. And he also claimed to be able to see fairies and enjoyed painting his visions.

As for W.B. Yeats, well, he was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an organization devoted to the study of the occult, metaphysics and paranormal activities. Not surprisingy then, Pamela’s literary initiation was strongly influenced by the esoteric beliefs of George W. Russell and W.B. Yeats.

But that was only the prelude to her spiritual journey. The most unusual spiritual encounter, and the most influential one, was her meeting with the spiritual master and magi G.I. Gurdjieff.

Gurdjieff

The least that can be said about Gurdjieff’s esoteric system and his teaching methods is that they were unconventional. He himself presented his system as The Fourth Way by distinguishing it from the other three known spiritual paths, namely those of the fakir, the monk and the yogi which all require “the most difficult thing, (…) a complete change of life, with a renunciation of all worldly things.” Gurdjieff’s Forth Way, which he also qualified as esoteric Christianity, did not require such renunciation from his pupils, his followers remained in the usual conditions of their lives.

The teachings, known as The Work were transmitted orally during meetings, often times preceded by a meal and Toasts to the “Idiots”, a ritual remotely reminiscent of the Masonic Toasts. Gurdjieff believed that “Alcohol opens, it shows many aspects of your interior; it is very important for knowing someone”. The Work consisted of these meetings and individually crafted exercises of self-observation and the performance of sacred dances, which Gurdjieff choreographed to music he himself composed with the help of Thomas de Hartmann.

According to Gurdjieff’s theory the average man functions on automatic pilot mode pushed by external circumstances. In order to transcend this ordinary unconscious state of existence, one must first awake to one’s nothingness and the fact that one lacks unity from within. To get his pupils to come to that realisation he used some questionable techniques of humiliation and applied mental shocks. One of his techniques to encourage his pupils to pursue their journey on the path of the Fourth Way was to convince them that man was born without a soul, and unless they developed one they would die as dogs and become food for the moon. He taught that the prerequisite for the development of the individual soul is the achievement of a unified sense of self, which is acquired by practicing self-remembering and total detachment from outside influences. The self-remembering as taught by Gurdjieff consists essentially of the practice of entering into oneself and sensing simultaneously with the body, the emotions and the mind one’s existence. As for attaining detachment, Gurdjieff instructed his pupils to “Create an ideal for yourself. This will save you from automatic attachments. Thinks about this consciously and automatically this will grow and form a center of gravity.”

Did Gurdjieff’s teachings help Pamela find the answers to her existential questions? Nothing is less certain, but he did teach her to be a questioner. Her friend, author Brian Sibley, says that she was an endless questioner and someone who never gave any straight answers. She was an adept of knowledge acquired through experience.

It is doubtful that young Pamela interpreted the appearance of the feather as a sign of her upcoming spiritual journey. She needed hindsight to see the connection. But don’t we all? Doesn’t this seem to be our human predicament? Things often make sense only with hindsight.