I’m sure everyone has those burning questions keeping them awake at night. The things about themselves that they just don’t understand, no matter how many rainy days they spend mulling them over. Secrets that, when revealed, turn animated conversation to shocked silence. But I think the time has come for me to confess my most shameful secret: I don’t like Mary Poppins.
“What?” I hear you gasp. “Not like Mary Poppins? Everybody likes Mary Poppins!”
I don’t dislike it, per se, but the most I’ve ever been able to conjure up for the movie is a bland indifference. And while perhaps not my most haunting question, I have spent a substantial amount of time wondering why this is. Mary Poppins seems like something I should like. Whimsical, magical nanny? Check. Ordinary life becoming infused with magical events? Check. Dancing penguins? Check. Only recently did I solve the mysterious case of Mary Poppins and the Missing Affection. The answer is actually quite simple; my heart was already stolen by another magical babysitter.
Ruth Christoffer Carlsen’s Mr. Pudgins is one of those childhood books I grew up on. Even as an adult, I remember it with that magical aura reserved for childhood favorites. It recalls those fuzzy early years, my sisters and I curled up on my parents’ waterbed, listening as Mom would read aloud a chapter before bed. She was an expert at doing Voices, using a high-pitched squeal for one character, a lisp for another, capturing the gruff-but-pleasant cadence of Mr. Pudgins himself. It was almost always only one chapter, no matter the amount of begging or pleading glances we employed.
It’s not just my childhood memories that endear the book to me, though. The stories themselves are engaging. The book revolves around three children: John, Jane, and Petey. Unlike the Banks of Mary Poppins, their parents are rather affectionate. However, like all parents, their mother and father need to go out every now and then. That’s when their babysitter, an older-but-not-elderly man, comes over and the stories truly take off.
Each chapter contains a new adventure, a feature employed by many of my other childhood favorites.* Some of their adventures include a flying bathtub; playing with the “mirror children” (the children’s reflections who escape from the mirror); encounters with a dodo bird; and my personal favorite, when all the faucets start running different kinds of pop instead of water. While each new development delights the children at first, each chapter has some dramatic tension as the children struggle to put everything back to normal before their parents return.
I think perhaps that was my main problem with Mary Poppins; while there is plenty of conflict in the Banks children’s reality – namely with their parents – their magical adventures with Mary act as escapist reprieves rather than character-building conflicts. It is the adults in the story that change, more than the children themselves, whereas in Mr. Pudgins, all of the magical adventures are infused with problems for John, Jane, and Petey to overcome.
I highly recommend Mr. Pudgins to everyone. If you don’t want to take my word for it, check out its thirty-three reviews on Amazon, all five-stars; or its 4.51 GoodReads rating. Unfortunately, the book is currently out of print. This may have something to do with the fact that Mr. Pudgins’ pipe-smoking serves as the catalyst for all of the magical events in the book. The story was first published in 1951, long before the dangers of smoking were widely-known. Maybe they are reluctant to reprint lest they are accused of encouraging pipe-smoking in children? Just speculating why such a wonderful book is no longer widely available. At any rate, although the book is out of print, there are several used copies available on Amazon** for decent prices.
Have a passionate defense of Mary Poppins? Or favorite childhood books or reading memories? Feel free to share in the comments.
*Similar childhood favorites include Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and Pippi Longstocking.
**I swear I am not trying to plug Amazon so much. If you know any other sites where Mr. Pudgins might be affordable and available, please let me know.