Emily Blunt may have brought a new Mary Poppins to the big screen this Christmas, but in the eyes of author-illustrator and children’s laureate Lauren Child, Julie Andrews will always be the nation’s favourite nanny.
The original film, released in 1964, was in her mind when she was illustrating the latest hardback edition of Mary Poppins by PL Travers (first published in 1934), which sees the quirky, eccentric and magical character brought back to life on the page in a pink and orange spotty dress, flying above London rooftops, clutching her flowered bag and green umbrella.
“As an illustrator, you have a duty to look at what it is the author is trying to say and be true to their vision. The only thing I felt that I really changed from her description is Mary Poppins herself, because I just couldn’t imagine doing her any other way than as Julie Andrews,” says Child.
As a youngster herself, Child recalls being taken to see the original Disney film on her first outing to a cinema. Now 53 – the award-winning creator of Charlie And Lola and accomplished novelist with her Clarice Bean stories and Ruby Redfort teen detective series – hasn’t yet seen Mary Poppins Returns but is looking forward to taking her adopted daughter Tuesday, aged eight, to watch it.
One particular story from the original book, which doesn’t appear in the film adaptation, involves the notion that children can communicate with animals until their first birthday, at which point they forget everything.
“It was such a wonderful yet melancholy thought – and I can’t help wondering if Travers was reflecting upon how quickly the innocence and imagination of childhood is lost,” she writes in the foreword.
“The overall message of the book is about making childhood joyful,” she says now. “Mary Poppins is playing with these children, taking them on wild adventures, and whether you believe it’s magic or that she’s just getting their imagination to work, you’re always left with a slight question as to if it’s true or not true.
“That’s such a playful quality and a joyful understanding of children and their need to have fun.”
Parents could learn a lot from Mary Poppins. Child observes that the fictional nanny was always doing things with the children to stimulate their imagination.
“Mary Poppins isn’t taking the children to activities and pressurising them into doing their homework. She’s not hot-housing them. She’s having fun with them.”
Life for children today is tough, Child continues.“I do think that children now are living in a very tough time, where there are pressures on them in school and at home, and what they are having to listen to.
“They are so much more aware of what’s going on in the world through the media, they understand much more of what’s going on. Then there’s the pressure of exams, which weigh very heavily on children.
“I think there’s a point to having a joyful childhood – it makes you more robust and it makes you understand the world better. We are asking children to be grown up too early.”
Child, who studied art at Marlborough College and worked as an assistant to Damien Hirst before becoming a writer and illustrator, tries to ensure tries to apply the same lessons when it comes to her own daughter.
“When my daughter says to me, ‘I want to make pancakes’, I say OK, if I can. Sometimes I think, ‘Oh my goodness, I really don’t want to make some pancakes right now’, but then I can’t have it both ways. If I want her to be excited about cooking, I can’t be a hypocrite by saying, ‘No you can’t’.”
Mary Poppins by PL Travers, illustrated by Lauren Child, is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books, priced £20. Available now.