Feeding the Birds

Mary Shepard's illustration of Mary Poppins, 1934

I volunteered at N’s school this morning, and we walked there together, along with her friend A, and somehow the conversation turned to Mary Poppins. I treated the girls to my warbling rendition of Feed the Birds, the scene where a “little old bird woman” sits on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, selling breadcrumbs for tuppence a bag. And as I crooned, I was thinking that it was the wind that made N and I watch Mary Poppins the first time.

Some years ago, when she was 3, we’d been standing at a busy corner, waiting for the light to change. It was raining a little, and very windy, and we had our umbrellas up. Suddenly a huge gust whipped around us, pulling, and it felt as though we might be lifted up into the sky. I laughed and squeezed N’s hand, shouting, “Hang on!” And I thought of Mary floating through the sky towards her charges, with only her will and her umbrella to keep her airborne. After that we marched spit-spot to the movie store, skipping our other errands, and at home we curled up with hot chocolate and watched the magic unfold.

Bert’s English accent is something quite atrocious, but Mary can make a chalk drawing open into the lush countryside, and inspire toys to put themselves away; she can win horse races wearing a flouncy hat and dress, and she can always think of something to say when she has nothing to say — supercalifragilisticexpialidocious  (which coincidentally is the very song N is learning in piano this week). Her carpetbag, containing everything she could possibly need, including houseplants and floor lamps, is not unlike Hermione’s beaded bag in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, so perhaps Mary knew the Undetectable Extension Charm? Or was herself a student at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, long before Potter’s time? Well, we’ll never know, because as the first chapter of P.L. Travers’ 1934 novel tells us, “Mary Poppins never told anybody anything.”

There were eight Mary Poppins books, published at long intervals, over a period of more than fifty years. Mary Shepard illustrated all of them.

I’m curious to read the Mary Poppins books, since the character of Mary sounds darker and more mysterious than Julie Andrews’ version. Travers herself was a bit of a mystery too: a single mom, an actress, a poet, a dancer, a journalist, and possibly a curmudgeon before she took to writing children’s books. She was apparently involved as an adviser on the1964 musical, but she didn’t like the way Mary’s character had been sweetened with Walt Disney’s spoonful of sugar, and she didn’t like Walt much either. She never again agreed to another Disney adaptation. The Mary she created had shiny black hair like a wooden doll’s, and “large feet and hands, and small, rather peering eyes.” She gave fierce, terrible glances that told you “you could not look at Mary Poppins and disobey her. There was something strange and extraordinary about her – something that was frightening and at the same time most exciting.”

Originally Travers had hoped E.H. Shepard of Winnie the Pooh fame would illustrate the Poppins books, but he was too busy. And then by chance she discovered the drawings of Shepard’s daughter, Mary, a young woman just out of art school. The image that caught her eye was penned on a Christmas card, and showed a horse flying through the air, Poppins style. “Of course it wasn’t Leonardo, but I didn’t need Leonardo,” Travers later wrote. “I was after a happy imperfection, innocence without naivete, and, as well, a sense of wonder.” The young Mary Shepard — who said she felt like Eeyore in Travers’ domineering presence — was easily manipulated. Travers led her on walks through the park to point out possible likenesses for the characters in the book, and vetoed the position of the protagonist’s feet. Shepard wanted fifth position, with the feet turned out, but Travers insisted on fourth, with the feet at right angles. And like the stern Mary Poppins she created, she was not a woman to be argued with. Eventually, though, Shepard’s depictions of Mary and the Banks family took shape, and added a charming new layer to Travers’ story.

Walt must have sided with Mary Shepard -- notice Mary Poppins' feet are in the fifth position....

Unlike Travers, I’m a fan of the movie. It’s nostalgic for me, and very much of  my time — but I agree that something vital is lost when we take the edge out of children’s stories. When we make things too happy and pretty and sweet for them. I remember N’s Bambi phase, and how I cringed every time Bambi’s father said, in his deep, serious voice, “Your mother can’t be with you anymore.” But it seemed to me N was figuring things out by watching — big concepts given clarity by storytelling. Food, in a way.

And still today that’s happening. The drama in Harry Potter is sometimes pretty intense, what with Harry, Ron and Hermione searching out the various hiding places of the Dark Lord’s severed soul and destroying these “horcruxes” one by one for the greater good. The other night as we lay in bed reading, N grew increasingly agitated when Ron seemed unwilling or unable to destroy one. Evil emanated from the nasty thing, and grabbed onto his deepest weaknesses, ensuring him he was “least loved … second best, always, eternally overshadowed.” Suddenly N let out a great wail of exasperation and shouted “I wish she would just write the story the way I have it in my head! This can’t be happening!

I know that feeling. When you are so immersed in a story, and it twists in a way you never imagined, and you want to scream, NOOOO!, but you keep reading all the same, even more compelled than you were before. It happens with children’s books and adults’ books alike, if the writer is savvy enough — though I don’t know why I make the distinction. Travers certainly didn’t. According to biographer Valerie Lawson, author of Mary Poppins, She Wrote, Travers always denied writing with an audience in mind. “I never know why Mary Poppins is thought of as a children’s book. Indeed I don’t think there are such things. There are simply books and some of them children read.”



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18 responses to “Feeding the Birds

  1. Oh wow, this blog post is a treasure bursting with treasures. Thanks for this.

  2. I read Mary Poppins to my boys (10 and 6) in the spring, and they both loved the book version. We talked about the difference between book and movie, and the youngest compared the book Mary Poppins to the movie Nanny McPhee, who can silence children with just a glance. Like you, I love the movie for sentimental reasons, but I’m glad the boys have met both Marys. Prickly caregivers are an important part of a kids’ literary repertoire.

  3. jim

    Ahh, late for work again as I cannot just postpone reading your latest post, How much I missed when I was young———


  4. Oh, what a wonderful post.
    Incidentally, Life-savers (the candy) are marketed under the brand name Poppins in India, and when I was little, it was perfectly obvious to me that they were named after Mary Poppins.

  5. Marilyn

    Another wonderful story about a wonderful story. I have never read the book but loved the movie. I remember the year N dressed as Mary at Hallowe’en and looked so much like the movie Mary right down to the pose with the umbrella.

    • Yes! I was just searching for a picture of that. She was in JK, and wore it to school too. She got a certificate for best homemade costume! We taped a parrot head to her umbrella, stapled organza to a sunhat, and somehow transformed her nightgown and coat into an Edwardian lady’s outift.

  6. Lenny

    Thanks K. for the trip down memory lane. I had a parrot umbrella and the record too and will always remember my Gran, visiting from Scotland, taking up my hands and dancing around my room to A Spoon Full of Sugar.

    As for the movie, yes I’m reminded too of Nannie McPhee. Penned and scripted by Emma Thompson, it definitely dared to be darker than Disney but Poppins had its dark and melancholy spots too – Feed the Birds and ChimChiminee – and the sweepers – some just children.

  7. Heidi

    I love the fact that Traverse was “possibly a curmudgeon” before she took to writing children’s books. It sounds like she was an interesting character and involved in many artistic pursuits. So it would make sense for her to create another such interesting character!

    • For sure! I’m looking forward to reading about PL’s MP but am also intrigued by the biography about PL Travers herself. That’s one of the reasons I love doing this blog — finding out a little more about the writers behind the stories.

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  10. Free

    I was lucky enough to read the books before I saw the movie, which did not appeal to me (and might have discouraged me from reading the books). I was not a sentimental child.
    To me Mary Poppins will always be the way she should be – snippety, black-haired, with bright beady eyes that miss nothing. Harshness leavened just enough by touches of unexpected, no-nonsense magic.
    Thinking about it now, Mary was the first female character I encountered in a book who was a strongly-defined, independent woman. Mary lived life on her own terms, thank you very much. Girls need more characters like that in their entertainment. Anything to stop them thinking Bella from Twilight is a role model *shudder*

    • So true re characters girls need. So far we have not moved into the Twilight stage, but it looms. And N is easily dazzled by Belles and Bellas! Hopefully the good base we are forming now gives her firm ground for a lifetime. Thanks for your comment.

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