I Missed This Children’s Book

It’s a detailed story about a children’s author which I never knew about. I’ve certainly seen the movie over and over but I didn’t know there was a Mary Poppins book. It wasn’t the type of children’s literature that I read as a child.

If you read these entries about The Writing Life, you know that I’m fascinated to read the stories and experiences of other authors. In this week’s The New Yorker (and thankfully posted online) is the story of P. L. Travers who wrote the Mary Poppins books (yes there were more than one). You will want to read the complete version of Caitlin Flanagan’s fascinating story but I’d like to call attention to a couple of things for writers.

About the 1964 world premiere of the Mary Poppins movie, Flanagan wrote, “Inside the packed twelve-hundred-seat theatre, the members of the audience responded to the movie with enthusiasm: they gave it a five-minute standing ovation. In the midst of the celebrating crowd, it would have been easy to overlook the sixty-five-year-old woman sitting there, weeping. Anyone who recognized her as P. L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books, could have been forgiven for assuming that her tears were the product either of artistic delight or of financial ecstasy (she owned five per cent of the gross; the movie made her rich). Neither was the case. The picture, she thought, had done a strange kind of violence to her work. She would turn the personally disastrous premiere into a hilarious dining-out story, with Disney as the butt of her jokes. But she had a premonition that the movie she hated was about to change everything for her. Writing to a friend, she remarked that her life would never be the same.” Notice this author’s personal reaction to seeing how her work was transformed into a much loved movie.

Later in this article, we learn more about Travers’ background. Here’s another sentence that struck me, “Obviously, Travers did not write her books to commemorate a happy childhood, but she did seem interested in rewriting her bad one.” It’s a common theme for many writers and it particularly seems true in the fiction area (just an observation). Each of us have made it through some difficulty or painful experience. We may or may not write about this painful life experience but it’s something inside that drives us forward to tell stories and communicate.

Also notice how Travers was intimately involved in every aspect of the publishing process including the book cover design and even the typeface for the book. Concerned about her reputation and her other books, she considered releasing the book anonymously—but her publisher wouldn’t allow it—and in this case, the publisher won that argument and used her name.

How did Walt Disney learn about the Mary Poppins books? His young, book-reading daughter Diane introduced Walt Disney to these books. When he saw the potential for these books, he checked to see if the material was in the public domain (or free for anyone to use) and discovered it wasn’t. Disney launched a 15–year courtship of P.L. Travers to win her trust and get her to sign a contract for the movie rights. It didn’t happen overnight or instantly but took a lot of continual effort.

This article includes details about Travers contract with Disney. She insisted the movie would not be animated and because the Disney animators were on strike against the studio during the negotiations, Walt Disney agreed. For me, the lesson is that there are many factors involved in these negotiations. Even years after the fact, we can see some of them but certainly not all of the various dynamics involved. Her contract included something that Walt Disney almost never allowed—script approval. Yet what happened as the movie was produced? That story is told several pages later in this article. While she had this contractual right and she approved a version of the script, she never saw the actual movie until the 1964 premiere.

Was P.L. Travers happy with the results? At the after-party, she tracked down Walt Disney. Here’s how Flanagan captures this detail, “Well,” she said loudly. “The first thing that has to go is the animation sequence.” Disney looked at her coolly. “Pamela,” he replied, “the ship has sailed.” And then he strode past her, toward a throng of well-wishers, and left her alone, an aging woman in a satin gown and evening gloves, who had traveled more than five thousand miles to attend a party where she was not wanted.” The Mary Poppins movie ultimately won five Academy Awards. While Travers tried to protect her creation, obviously Disney transformed her books into a household word. The group process was better than the single author could have ever done alone.

It’s a remarkable story with twists and turns and creative lessons for writers.

3 Responses to “I Missed This Children’s Book”

  1. Camy Tang Says:

    That’s an interesting article. I have to admit, I don’t particularly like the author, at least as she’s portrayed here. She seems like a control-freak bully.

    I personally believe that when stupendously creative artists are rude or selfish, it can’t be excused simply because they’re brilliant.

    I don’t know how Disney got her to agree to the script, but I’m glad he did. The movie has a satisfying emotional tone that I value more than her eccentric, bullying original nanny.


  2. Terry Whalin Says:


    It is true that P.L. Travers isn’t portrayed well in this article. She does seem to have issues with control but you’d be surprised how many authors want to control the details of their publishing product. It’s difficult for us to tell in an article of this nature if Travers worked cooperatively or resisted at every possible point along the way.

    I believe in the creative ideas of the team–and how cooperatively the team can accomplish a great deal more than a controlling individual author. One of my books that doesn’t have my name on it (thankfully). The “author” controlled every detail. This author picked the cover design and even the color paper. Ugly is the best word to describe the finished book. I couldn’t even give them away. It was a disaster and didn’t sell. These bestselling authors are probably still wondering what happened.

    Each of us can learn a great deal from these stories like this one about P.L. Travers–if we listen.


  3. Susan Lyn Says:

    An interesting comprehensive article. I think it was extremely fortuituous for Travers that Disney discovered her stories.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the Mary Poppins story as told in the movie.

    Thanks for the blogpost.


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