Mary, Mary, quite contrary…

So I’m putting together this exhibition on the history of children’s literature, right? But it’s not just picking out cool books to put in the display cases. I have to write those snappy little text panels we put next to them that tell you why this particular book is important and how it ties into the theme and stuff. And to be able to do that, sometimes I actually need to have, you know, READ the book. So I’ve been reading a bunch of classic children’s books that I either haven’t read since I was the intended audience, or that I somehow missed altogether. First up: Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers.

I never read this as a child, and have only dim memories of the movie. (Like, did Dick Van Dyke do a penguin dance? In Hammer pants? Or did I dream that?) So I was surprised to discover that Mary Poppins is A TOTAL BITCH.

I mean, yes, she’s magical and mysterious and compelling. But she’s also openly vain and curt and bossy, and for someone who flies around on her umbrella she’s awfully touchy about propriety. And why did she have to steal the paper stars from the children to put in the sky? That was dirty pool. And Mrs. Corry was even meaner. The way she treated her daughters made me want to punch her in the neck.

Oh, also, I read the original version where they actually meet people instead of animals on that magic compass ride. It’s not unexpected in books from that era – or really any era before like the ’80s – but it is chock full of icky inaccuracies and stereotypes: the Chinese mandarin wears a kimono, and the African family (NOT African American, mind you) speak like Uncle Remus and offer Mary some watermelon.

Overall, though, I liked the book. It’s imaginative, and funny, and Mary is an awesome character. I’d expected her to be warmer, I guess from whatever impression I took from the movie, but once I got over that I kind of enjoyed her weirdness. Oh, and the chapter with John and Barbara and the bird is exquisite. But I wonder what it would have been like to encounter the real Mary as a child. Did you read it? As a child, or an adult, or both? What did you think?


9 Responses to “Mary, Mary, quite contrary…”

  1. September 3, 2012 at 11:45 pm

    I guess I will put this down on my (very small) “watch the movie, don’t read the book” list.

  2. September 4, 2012 at 6:14 am

    Well, now, I’m not trying to discourage anyone from the book. It’s good, it just took me by surprise.

    On a side note: “the movie’s better than the book” is a small list, rightly so, but I would add Shopgirl to it. I love Steve Martin with all my heart, but I think he’s a better screenwriter/playwright than novelist.

  3. September 4, 2012 at 6:28 am

    I read it as a child and remember it fondly. However, I do recall it being interesting to note the extreme differences between the book and how Mary P. was portrayed in the movie. Just another example of “Disneyafication” – see Pinocchio for another strong example of that. It seems that PL Travers was very unhappy with the Disney adaptation of the movie and the way Mary’s character was softened for public consumption. The New Yorker has a thoughtful article about Travers and her experience w/Disney. http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/12/19/051219fa_fact1?currentPage=all

    • September 4, 2012 at 6:52 am

      Fascinating! Thanks for the link – I didn’t know much about Travers personally, other than that she refused to sell Disney the movie rights for decades, and hated the result after she succumbed.

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A blog of random thoughts on libraries, books, music, movies, food, friends, and the human condition.

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