Recently, I put my name on a waitlist at the library to read P.L. Travers’s book Mary Poppins. There was a wait, I supposed, because another reader like myself had wanted to peruse the original book before the sequel to the 1964 iconic film starring Julie Andrews would release next month (with a young Mary Poppins now played by Emily Blunt).
I’d never read Mary Poppins before, though I’d enjoyed the movie growing up as one of the dozen or so VHS that my family owned and watched so many times over that the dialogue and details of it had become so etched in my memory that I can still recall them after having not seen the movie in over a decade or more.
Movies have the power to draw us back to the literature that inspired them, as I wrote about in my recent post The Bookshop. But there is something more I’d like to consider about my reading of Mary Poppins, and that is the appeal of children’s literature as a grownup person. I hesitate to say the word “adult” – as though “child” and “adult” were of two different species entirely, instead of being the same one, just further along on the scale of time. “Grownup person” seems to be more fitting in this way (for are we not all just grownup, or semi-grownup, people of the ones we once were in childhood?).
Before going to borrow the book, I had no idea that Mary Poppins was not a single book but a series, which I found when I checked out the 80th anniversary edition which included the first four books. (In fact, the biography of Travers in the book indicates that she indeed wrote eight Mary Poppins books in total.) And at the end of the over 1000 page tome was another unexpected delight: a personal essay, written by Travers, based on an address she gave in 1974 called “On Not Writing for Children.”
As a child who grew up watching the magic of Mary Poppins bring a full-length lamp out of her carpetbag, or jump into a chalk painting on the sidewalk, or scale the chimney tops of London at twilight with the chimney sweeps, the title of this essay was intriguing. But it was also the exact kind of quirkiness that the essayist in me delighted.
“‘On Not Writing for Children’ — what an odd title for a lecture, you will say,” Travers began her essay, “especially from one whose books are largely read by children! But I hope they are also read by grownups . . . I think that grownups are a very important part of children’s literature, so called.”
When questioned by a journalist about her “general ideas on literature for children, your aims and purposes and what led you to the field,” Travers admitted that “this flummoxed me.” She explained that “it was a strong belief of mine that I didn’t write for children at all, that the idea simply didn’t enter my head.”
This reminded me of something that Madeleine L’Engle said, perhaps best known as the author of A Wrinkle in Time, as she recounted in A Circle of Quiet: The Crosswicks Journal what happened when she was asked why she writes for children.
“My immediate response to this question,” she writes, “is, ‘I don’t.’ Of course I don’t. I don’t suppose most children’s writers do. . . .
“If it’s not good enough for adults, it’s not good enough for children. If a book that is going to be marketed for children does not interest me, a grownup, then I am dishonoring the children for whom the book is intended, and I am dishonoring books. And words.”
I think also of L.M. Montgomery, who is predominantly regarded as a children’s writer, when her books beginning with the famous Anne of Green Gables in 1908, were not originally intended to be read specifically by children. But in the decades since, the book has primarily been marketed for children, young girls in particular.
All of these examples of so-called “children’s books” and their creators, who easily come to mind, tells me something about the craft of writing for children. And that is this: that it seems to me that the best children’s writers are not writing for children at all, no more than adult fiction writers are writing for adults. Rather, these writers (whether for children or adults) seem to be writing for themselves, writing down the stories that they feel compel to tell. Their stories, and the relatedness and timelessness they encompass, are adored by children of all ages . . . adult ones included.
“Far too many people misunderstand what putting away childish things means,” L’Engle continues, “and think that forgetting what it is like to think and touch and smell and taste and see and hear like a three-year-old or a thirteen-year-old or a twenty-three-year old means being grownup. When I’m with these people I, like the kids, feel that if this is what it means to be a grownup, then I don’t ever want to be one.
“Instead of which, if I can retain a child’s awareness and joy, and be fifty-one, then I will really learn what it means to be grownup. I still have a long way to go.
“So with books. A childish book, like a childish person, is limited, unspontaneous, closed in, certainly doesn’t appeal to a true grownup. But the childlike book, like the childlike person, breaks out of all boundaries. Here again joy is the key.”
And so, as I open up the third of the Mary Poppins books, and again immerse myself in the nursery and greater world of Number Seventeen, Cherry-Tree Lane — with Michael and Jane Banks, and their twin siblings (yes!) Barbara and John, and baby Annabel, and Robertson Ay, and Ellen and Mrs. Brille, and Mr. and Mrs. Banks, and Bert and the Police Man and the Ice Cream Man and the Park Keeper across from their home — I do not read with apologetics that I am reading a children’s book.
Rather, I read with a delight of seeing Mary Poppins through Jane and Michael’s wide eyes. Mary Poppins who knows everything. Who everyone seems to know. Who has a nighttime birthday party at the zoo and receives a snake skin as a special present; who has the planets and stars in the solar system dance for her; who helps Noah’s daughter fish wooden tree boughs out of the arc and place them on the tips of trees to bring springtime to the park across the way. Mary Poppins who disappears again when the wind changes, when the necklace breaks, when the door closes. Mary Poppins whose return presence makes everything in the Banks’ household right again.
Perhaps that is the lasting pleasure of the literature that is adored by young and grownup children alike: no matter the subject matter of the book, or even its genre, the writer’s words, if the writing is good, invite us to use our imaginations and enter another world for a brief time before we return to our own.
Question: What are some of your favourite “children’s literature” books which you have read and enjoyed as an adult?