Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers

Note: I occasionally accept review copies from the publisher. Posts written from review copies are labeled. All opinions are my own. Posts may contain affiliate links. I may receive compensation for any purchased items.

Is there a movie from your childhood that you recall watching over and over and over again? One that you think of, still, with fondness?

For me, that movie was Mary Poppins.

In 2007, I read A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh and loved it along with the movie; they both have their merits.

So this year, I thought that I might also come to love the original character of Mary Poppins, originally created by P.L. Travers in the novel Mary Poppins in 1933.

I was horribly disappointed.

Traver’s Mary Poppins was far from the lovingly-stern nanny Disney created. She seemed, basically, mean and unfeeling. The adventures she had with the children were odd, but they lacked the sense of fun that the movie created for me. Because my first exposure was the movie, this review will compare the book and the movie throughout. There are spoilers.

Book Versus Movie

While the book had four Banks children (twins John and Barbara are the youngest), the two youngest were not a part of the adventures. In fact, even the two oldest children missed some adventures. The adventure in the pavement picture? That was Mary Poppins and Bert on Mary’s day off. That also was the only mention of Bert in the book; he didn’t figure in to the other adventures.

There were some favorite stories that were missing. There was no “tiding up the nursery”; there was no dancing on the rooftops. There was no winning the horse race and singing Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (Ha! That’s actually in my spell checker!). Maybe those were in the sequels, but they weren’t in this novel.

Some of the familiar adventures from the movie were in the book. The children did watch Mary Poppins slide up the banister. They had a tea party on the ceiling with Uncle Albert. Mary Poppins talked to Andrew, the dog. Mary Poppins talked to the birds. She flew in and out with the wind.

And there were new adventures. The children wake up at night to see Mary Poppins gluing to the sky the star papers their gingerbread had been wrapped in. They children wake up at night and go to the zoo, where all the animals are free and humans are in the cages. Mary Poppins takes them around the world instantly with a magical compass (politically incorrect, as has been debated time and again). Mary Poppins tells them fantastic stories about dancing cows. Mary Poppins takes them to feed the bird woman (with their tuppence). Mary Poppins takes them shopping with a star. If you can’t tell, some of these new adventures were rather odd. Weird. Mary Poppins is a weird star-lady.

But my main problem with the novel Mary Poppins is that Mary is mean and cranky. She does not seem to care about the children at all. Take this quote:

All day long Mary Poppins had been in a hurry, and when she was in a hurry she was always cross. Everything Jane did was bad, everything Michael did was worse. She even snapped at the twins. (page 149)

That is not the Mary Poppins I love from the movie. Mary Poppins in the movie says “Will you hurry up?!” but not in a seriously mean way.

The meanest thing Mary Poppins did in both the book and the movie was leave. But it was infinitely worse in the book. In the movie, she told them she was leaving when the wind changed; Jane and Michael cried as she packed. Then, the children rushed off with their father, forgetting to say goodbye. Mary is sad, but knows it is how it should be.

In the book, the children know she is leaving when the wind changes. They worry, but then she says

Now I’m just going to take the shoes down… Behave yourselves, please, till I come back.

And then Mary Poppins leaves and never comes back (in this book).

I think, for a young child, that is the most horrible thing she could do. To leave not just without saying goodbye but without giving any indication that she’s actually going?! I absolutely hated it. I think children would worry that people they love might never come back when they leave.

It’s true that in the movie, Mary Poppins is rather distant and “cold.” She’s also quite vain and self-concerned. But we can all tell that she still loves the children. In the end, it’s the children who have run off without saying goodbye. They choose to move beyond the entertainment of Mary Poppins.

But that leads me to the last point. The movie had an underlying plot, while the book didn’t. In the movie, Mary Poppins comes to save the family relationship, to help the father learn to love his children and cherish them. In the book, the father is mostly absent. Mary Poppins appears to be entertainment for the children, and that is all. The novel lacked any cohesive point that made it feel like a worthwhile read.

The Bottom Line

Ironically, P.L. Travers was quite hesitant to team with Disney to make a movie in the first place. According to Wikipedia, she had lots of input into the script. I have to say, the script writers did a wonderful job and making the premise of a good story into a marvelous one. And Julie Andrews, as Mary Poppins, surely helped it along.

In the end, much to P.L. Travers’ disappointment, I’m sure, I found Mary Poppins the novel to be less than mediocre. It’s not often that a movie out-performs a book, but this is one of them. That said, after reading the novel, it was fun to watch the movie again: some of the characters in the novel become only minor characters in the movie.  There is a relation between the two, but I’ll stick with the movie in the long run. It is already a classic.

I don’t plan on reading the other Mary Poppins adventures – this one was far too disappointing. But I may revisit them in a few years if my son shows an interest in reading them.

What movie from your early childhood do you cherish?

For those of you who have read and watched Mary Poppins, do you like the novel version of the nanny? Which did you experience first: the book or the movie?

Read for the Dewey’s Books Challenge.

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed Mary Poppins on your site, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.

Reviewed on February 26, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • My husband and I were in New York recently and saw Mary Poppins on Broadway. While it was fascinating to see on stage and VERY well done, I was a little disappointed in the story line in a similar way to the way you were disappointd in the book. They include multiple scenes and plot lines that are not in the movie. But, we were wondering if some of these added elements came from the Mary Poppins books. I would like to read them to see if that is true but am glad to have the heads-up so I won’t be disappointed!

  • ak, I was wondering about the Broadway! According to Wikipedia, there are some things from the books and sequels in the Broadway that aren’t in the musical. Is it the same music? That’s what I’d care about: my favorite.

    Kathy, I guess if you can’t watch the movie over and over, it would be harder to compare it to the book. (Which is why I was so disappointed in the book). I’m glad you like them both! I wonder if reading the book first would have made it more enjoyable for me.

  • I loved this movie as I child and I loved reading the book. I don’t recall many of the details from the book, but I do remember that the kids had lots more adventures, that they weren’t always together, and the Mary talks to the dog a lot more than in the movie. I don’t recall feeling upset with Mary in the end or disliking her at any time during the book.

    To this day I love watching the movie and I remember the book fondly, not as a favorite but as a treasured childhood memory.

    Oh, and when my husband started a chimney sweep business a few years back my son thought it was great that Dad was just like Bert. 

  • Most of the music is the same. There are a couple of new songs. We just bought the newest anniversary version DVD and it has a great documentary about the musical.

  • You know, I vaguely recall that I read this and some of the sequels when I was a kid, but I honestly have no recollection of what I thought of it or if at the time I was struck by its dissimilarity in tone and content to the movie. It’s too bad this one didn’t work out for you. At least you still have the movie though!

  • I loved A Little Princess as a child. I watched it over and over again so many times on drives across America that my father, who has never actually seen the movie, can recite it verbatim. But I’m very hesitant about picking up the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett as I’m afraid I not only won’t like it, but it will ruin the Sara Crewe for me.

    I love Mary Poppins but not as much as my mom does. It’s her second favorite movie after The Sound of Music, which I’ve read the book the movie is based on. The book is really good but very different from the movie.

  • I loved the Witch Mountain movies. I’ve always wanted to read the books. I only saw Mary Poppins for the first time when I was in my early twenties! I knew the music though!

    Christina – I don’t think you would be disappointed in reading A Little Princess. I loved it, as well as Secret Garden.

  • Heather J., I’m glad you didn’t dislike the Mary of the book. I just thought it was harsh and worried that kids would be traumatized….but maybe I’m a bit too sensitive since I loved the movie so much! I have to call a chimney sweep for our new house, and I thought the same thing as I was watching the movie: a modern day Bert….You’re not in Chicago, are you? That would work out nicely!

    ak, aw, man! Now I need to get a new DVD too! Sounds fun.

    Steph, I may someday revisit the sequels — like I said, when my son’s older. But yeah, not a favorite.

    Christina, haven’t seen or read that one! But I remember my mother reading me Secret Garden when I was home sick. That makes it a fond memory. I didn’t know Sound of Music also had a book! (that movie was another favorite of mine.)

    Shelley, Hard to avoid the music from Mary Poppins! Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious even showed up in my Word spell checker!

  • This is sort of unrelated, but your critique of Mary just sneaking away from the children reminded me of the worst babysitting experience of my life. I was like, 15 maybe, and I was sitting for an only child who was about 18 months old, I think. This was the first time his parents were leaving him with a sitter that wasn’t family, so we were all pretty nervous. Mom introduced the kid and I, and then we sat down in the living room to watch tv. Mom and Dad were in the kitchen getting ready, and then they just snuck out while we were occupied. Kid started to tear up, so I turned to see if Mom was there, and we both realized at about the same time that Mom and Dad had just abandoned us. As soon as he realized they were gone he started to cry, and didn’t stop for the next five hours (despite my best efforts to read stories, play games, watch movies, rock in a rocking chair, or anything). So, lesson to parents — sneaking away from the babysitter is not a good idea!

  • Kim, oh that’s so sad — for you and for the kid! But yeah, that’s what I felt Mary was doing.

    My son is 17 months old. He doesn’t care if I leave, as long as he has toys. Hmmm.. What’s he trying to tell me?

  • For me, it has to be The Sound of Music! Mostly because of the great songs. I recently rewatched it after, oh, more than 15 years. And it’s still as charming as ever!

  • Like Olduvai, I really loved The Sound of Music! My grandmother bought me the VHS for Christmas, and I loved the songs. Oh, and also Disney’s Snow White. And My Fair Lady. And Funny Face, with Audrey Hepburn!

    But… I’ve never seen Mary Poppins

  • Olduvai, yeay! I love that one too!

    tuesday, I say Funny Face a year or two ago. I’d say, if you like Sound of Music, you’d probably like Mary Poppins — similar themes of the nanny making a difference in the dad’s and kids life, plus the same singer!

  • I read a couple of the Mary Poppins books as a kid but I do prefer the movie more (which I saw first). I think Alice in Wonderland was my favorite Disney movie but I preferred the movie more.

  • Ladytink, I’m glad you liked the books too. But I do think loving the movie makes it harder. I like the book of Alice but I’ve only seen the movie a few times. It is a rather odd story either way, huh.

  • I too had so fun with this movie and really wanted to read the books to my kids. When I read the first book I was sorely disappointed. Then my research skills took over. Travers was a sad, sad person. Her life was filled with people leaving her life at a young age. Both mother and father. When she allowed disney to do the movie she thought she was going to get much more say than she did. Disney has a way of ruining stories and putting his own take in the finished product. He changed the story line to suit his own agenda of mothers and fathers paying more attention to their kids. Great motive and a wonderful movie but, it had nothing to do with the book. Travers sat and cried at the premiere. Sad. So her life’s work was trashed in her eyes by Disney.
    I do think after reading the books 1) The movie is sooo much better than the books and 2) the books are a good commentary on the english nanny system and the detached life some children lead when in it.
    Parents in the books are detached and so is self-absorbed Mary Poppins. These poor kids really have no one to comfort them or to count on. I think this was the whole point of Traver’s books in the first place. I don’t understand why she chose to write to children. Maybe to allow them to see magic all around without the luxury of adults pointing it out. However, with that said I think she would have done better to write social commentary to adults to try to fix the problem. Travers herself might not have been stable enough emotionally to do just that.
    If you chose to read them to your children I suggest talking about the dialogue the people use. Harsh words and certain attitudes should be pointed out as simply not how families should talk and treat one another.
    Thanks for letting me vent my disappointment

  • Maggie Thomas, wow, thanks for that background info about Travers. Sounds like the movie was completly against what her point was. I didn’t like the books much either for the very reasons you say Travers wanted to write it! Very sad.

  • I do have to say I am reading them all to my kids now and they love them. We talk a lot about the words and actions of Mary and the parents. I thought I would quit after the first book but when my kids pointed out how Mary Poppins and I were alike I was intrigued. Turns out kids really do see both sides of the story. They said I could be stern but I also took them on adventures. I stress I have never taken them through a bowl, Or had a tea party on the ceiling but, I think they may want me to. I enjoy the idea that my kids think these things are a possibility and I don’t know that I could give them such wonders myself so, I am glad in a story they can get there.
    I think the key is not to think that stories have to be all light and magic but, the reality of life can actually mesh the two. When my 8 yr old says, “Wow, that was a mean thing for Micheal to say.” I don’t really worry. When she says, “Hey, Mom you are as mean as Mary Poppins.” I worry. Just not about the story, about me.
    Good lesson for Mommy

  • I am a student from Germany and I am writing a huge essay about Mary Poppins at the moment. I am so disappointed with your comment!
    Same as you, I saw the movie first and loved it more than another movie. All my childhood I watched it again and again. Last year I bought the book and read it. And I loved it even more! I was suprised too, that everything was so different, but for my essay I had to do a lot of research. I found out about the author’s opinion and most of the Mary Poppins fans reactions on the movie. True fans can never say that it is better than the book! How can you presume to claim the book is terrible? Think about it, THAT is what P.L. Travers wanted to convey and not that sickly sweet and falsified character from the movie! I get really angry when I see how her classic dragged in the mud. It was not disney who created Mary Poppins, it was Travers and without doubt her book is the truth. Don’t try to create a Mary Poppins you must not be scared of. Have you read the book carefully? Jane and Michael DO love her more than anything else. For them she is perfection and the adventures are much more creative than the ones Disney added. You cannot say, in the book is something MISSING! Because it contains EVERYTHING that is Mary Poppins.

    Be careful with your easy critism!

  • Hi Teresa, I’m glad that you like the book! I personally disliked the book. I can “presume” to dislike it since I did. I am not interested in reading the book again. I’d rather watch the movie. I didn’t think she was sickly sweet and falsified in the movie — I like her!

  • I liked Julie Andrews, too. And certainly everone has his own opinion. I just think you cannot talk badly of the book, because that is where Mary Poppins was created and she was created in the harsh and vain way she is presented… You can say you like the movie better, but cannot say that in the book scenes are missing. The scenes you “are missing” are just added, but not belong to the original.

  • I haven’t read all of the comments below, so forgive me if I’m being repetitive here, but I don’t understand at all how you could even begin to say that you were disappointed in the book. Did you read all of the series? By the way you stated that Mary Poppins “never comes back”, I can see that you have not. After all, the next book in the series is called “Mary Poppins Comes Back”. Saying, “Behave yourselves until I come back,” means to behave themselves until she returns again for her next visit, not necessarily to be taken quite so literally.

    Many of the events that happen in the movie and the Broadway production alike appear though out the books. I think that before you dare publish anything against a published author such as P.L. Travers, you should do your research. And who ever heard of a movie being better than a book anyway? Puh-lease.

  • I absolutely hated the book. I read it for a university course on childrens literature and found the book to be discusting, rude, and somewhat horrific. Mary Poppins is a liar, a thief, a bully and down right cruel. I understand that maybe in the 1930’s in britian that children were expected to be the good little mini adults and be very much proper, but mary poppins in the book is definately not what i would call a good child-carer.

  • As a latecomer to this discussion, I’m sorry, Rebecca, that you were disappointed in the novels. I LOVED them as a child, and still do enjoy them quite a lot, possibly because they are more real than the syrupy movie. I have recently re-read them, and have a theory: I think people dislike the novels because Mary does not worship the children, but instead demands their respect. Our culture puts children in the center of the universe, little idols to be indulged and coddled, rather than humans who need to learn things like respect, critical thinking, and accepting the consequences of their actions. Mary is very rude to the children, but she never puts them in danger, often shows them love, and actually teaches them self-respect, respect for others, and the use of their own minds. The movie Mary Poppins focuses her attention on the children, reinforcing the idea that they are the most important creatures on the planet. The book Mary Poppins has the children’s attention focused on HER, which is a lot more interesting. It’s really important to separate the two — you can enjoy them both, but don’t waste time trying to reconcile them! They have two different aims, one driven by popular culture and one by P.L. Travers’ imagination.

  • Hi, I’m looking for articles similar is this. I’m writing my term paper for English and I was thinking of writing about the difference between mary poppins in the movie and the book. I need help with articles plz help me

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}