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What is Mary Poppins?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 05 October 2014
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Mary Poppins started off as a character in a set of children’s books by P.L. Travers. The name has since been used for a film adaptation of the book, a book of the film, and a musical that draws on both the original books and the film version.

The first Mary Poppins book, Mary Poppins, by Australian writer Pamela Lyndon Travers, who used the pen name P.L. Travers, was published in 1934 in England with illustrations by Mary Shepard, the daughter of the original illustrator of the A.A. Milne Pooh books. In it, the family of Mr. and Mrs. Banks and their four children—Jane and Michael and the infant twins John and Barbara—have just lost their nanny, who has quit. The East wind blows them a new nanny, Mary Poppins, who is self-satisfied and strict, but also magical, though she grows extremely angry if her powers are ever alluded to. She takes the children on wonderful adventures, but leaves the family at the end of the book.

The first book is of particular interest both for originating the character, but also for the revision of one of its chapters. “Bad Tuesday” was revised by both the author and the illustrator 48 years after the original publication in order to make it fit the sensibilities of the times. This was on account of the stereotypes this particular chapter presented of a variety of races and cultures.

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In the second book, Mary Poppins Comes Back, published in 1935, Mary Poppins returns to help the Banks family deal with everything that has gone wrong since she left. There is a new, fifth Banks child in this story: Annabel, and again, the children experience magical adventures. Mary Poppins leaves again at the end of this book, but returns in the third book, Mary Poppins Opens the Door, published in 1943, and the magical adventures continue, but she leaves again at the end.

The remaining books contain adventures from the three terms that Mary Poppins spent with the Banks family, and include an alphabet book, Mary Poppins from A to Z, and a cookbook embedded in a story, Mary Poppins in the Kitchen. Other books are Mary Poppins in the Park, Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane,. and Mary Poppins and the House Next Door.

Although P.L. Travers was never sanguine about having her books turned into a movie, after a number of attempts by Walt Disney to purchase the film rights, she finally relented. This led to the 1964 film Mary Poppins and the accompanying Disney version book. The film won five Academy Awards and in 2006 was rated number six in the American Film Institute’s list of musicals. Nevertheless, P.L. Travers was not happy with it and refused continued requests for rights to make more movies. In fact, when the musical version, which opened in London in 2004 and on Broadway in 2006 was in the works, Travers forbade the hiring of anyone involved in the Disney film. Both productions won awards.

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