by P.L. Travers
210 pp. Harcourt Children’s Books. $16.99.
There are children’s authors who are startling in their ability to remember what it’s like to be a child. After watching the film Saving Mr. Banks, I could see why P.L. Travers had this particular talent. But as a nine-year-old reading Mary Poppins years ago, all I knew was delight that someone actually understood what it felt like to be a child.
P.L. Travers understood that “hot, heavy feeling” inside Michael Banks that made him do dreadful things like upsetting his father’s inkpot. I knew that feeling, too–and I’d already had my own ill-considered encounter with an inkbottle. (By the way, hiding an ink-stain on the carpet with a floor lamp is not a good strategy.)
But the era of writing with a pen dipped in ink is long past. I wondered if today’s nine-year-old would feel the same way about these books as I had. Last summer, with an admittedly small sample size of one child, I was able to research this question. I heard Chapter 8 read aloud to a grandson, and I’m happy to report that Mary Poppins has stood the test of time.
And I’m happy not just because I had once loved that particular adventure myself–the one that concludes with a ladder being braced against the night sky and gold paper stars being firmly glued to the heavens by Mary Poppins and a certain Mrs. Corry. It’s because the next night, while looking at the sky, my grandson wished it were true. He could picture being at the top of a ladder with a bucket of glue and a basket of stars. A grade-school child is, after all, not all that far from early childhood where the line between fantasy and reality wavers temptingly. At nine, although the line has hardened, grade-schoolers can still remember what it felt like to believe the impossible. And wonder about it. And savor it.
However, there’s more to the Mary Poppins than one whirlwind adventure after another, and there are certainly no dancing penguins. There are, instead, moments of peace—“All the afternoon the house was very quiet and still, as though it were thinking its own thoughts, or dreaming perhaps…Upstairs in the nursery Mary Poppins was airing the clothes by the fire, and the sunlight poured in at the window, flickering on the white walls, dancing over the cots where the babies were lying.” There are moments of reflection—“What I want to know,” Jane said, “is this: Are the stars gold paper or is the gold paper stars”
And there are, of course, strong feelings, real feelings of childhood. When the babies are informed (by a Starling, no less) that they will grow up to forget the language of the trees and the wind and the stars, John protests, “I won’t be like the others. I tell you I won’t…I’ll never forget, never.”
Most people do forget what childhood is like, which is why–whether you’re an adult or a child–Mary Poppins is worth reading. P.L. Travers didn’t forget.