Lauren Child on new Mary Poppins: We are asking children to be grown up too early
As everyone's favourite nanny returns to cinema screens this Christmas, children's laureate Lauren Child talks to Hannah Stephenson about the iconic character's reboot
EMILY Blunt may be bringing a new Mary Poppins to the big screen, but in the eyes of author-illustrator and children's laureate Lauren Child, Julie Andrews will always be the public'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 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.
"I wonder if we're trying to stimulate their imagination, or are we trying to fill them with activities and showing them things constantly, rather than letting them discover?," Child says.
"Mary Poppins is actually out and about with those children and she's part of it," she adds. "I'm not saying all parents need to be doing that, but 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."
Exposure to social media and screens isn't going away, she reflects.
"There's a lot of talk about less screen time, but screens are there. I can't see them going away. We all use them. We say, 'My child watches too much', but what are we doing? You can't expect children not to be on these things, when we are all doing it. We are having to navigate our way through it too," says Child.
"Perhaps we are all too accessible. We carry our phones around with us. Not too long ago, people didn't expect us to answer a call at a second's notice, or answer an email or a text and be forever at work."
Child tries to ensure her daughter has a balanced life.
"It's about encouraging her to do other things, rather than just be watching stuff. I loved watching television when I was little and it did me a lot of good in many ways. But it's just how much of it are you doing, and are you managing to do other things as well and have a more rounded impression of the world?
"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'."
Might Mary Poppins be seen as old-fashioned by some younger audiences?
"Well, you could say Harry Potter's set in a strange boarding school and there's something quite old-fashioned about that. But people love entering other worlds. It doesn't matter. It's about the ideas and the quality of the storytelling.
"It is amazing that Mary Poppins is a household name around the world," she adds. "We may not know PL Travers' name so readily as, say, AA Milne, but she has created one of the most iconic children's characters."
Child, who studied art at Marlborough College, where her father was head of the art department, grew up in Berkshire and after college did various jobs, including window-dressing and lampshade design. She also worked as an assistant to Damien Hirst, before embarking on a career as a writer and illustrator.
For years, she has worked from her home in north London, which she shares with her partner Adrian, a criminal barrister, but she's about to move to an office where home life doesn't distract.
"Psychologically, people always think you're available when you're at home. But I want to leave work and come home. I've always had trouble juggling work with home life."
:: Mary Poppins by PL Travers, illustrated by Lauren Child, is published by HarperCollins Children's Books, priced £20. Mary Poppins Returns is released in cinemas on Friday December 21.