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Favorite friends

My daughter, luckily, is still at the age where she wants to crawl up into my lap and read a stack of picture books. I let her pick the titles which means, unfortunately, it's sometimes less quality than I'd like. We had a very good one home from the library the other day--written by astronaut Mark Kelly--called Mousetronaut...the "partially true" story of a mouse in space. Though, for the most part, they're short books full of pop culture characters. Or I get to read flowers, princesses, etc..

That's all ok though.

The bright spot in our family reading has become the chapter books. Ok, I use "bright spot" loosely because sometimes they seem to be paying no attention as one of the parents reads aloud before bedtime. It's become a beloved ritual we all participate in together, however, and the kids absorb things even when they appear to be not listening. The literary characters pop up in daily life when we least expect it...with phrases and personality quirks making it into situations where they're taken out of the context of the book and applied to real life. I consider this a bigger success than sitting quietly to hear the stories themselves.

We tackle--if we're lucky--a chapter per night. Sometimes it's more like 10 pages or a half-chapter and we leave off whenever there is a break in the writing. Or when the kids act up and a quick lights out is in order. When we first started reading chapter books, my son's teacher had suggested he may be ready for Harry Potter, but we laughed that off as far too scary for his delicate tastes. We brought home a number of classic children's books to try out...Treasure Island was too intense. Then there was Little House books, Winnie the Pooh, and Peter Pan. 

Only two stuck. But they've been enduring new favorite friends to the point where my son has an explicit nightly rotation of them: "Paddington, Mary, Paddington, Mary." We've nearly run out of books in each series. "Mary," of course, is Mary Poppins. These aren't adapted popular versions of them either. We're reading the genuine, original, classic versions by Michael Bond and P.L. Travers, respectively.

The Paddington series is especially wonderful for kids because it teaches a few clever story devices in an interesting way. Paddington can always be expected to get into trouble, it will usually involve a misunderstanding, and the characters are consistent about their personality traits. Paddington will always have a marmalade sandwich under his hat and his trademark "hard stares" have worked their way into the family jargon as code for "tread carefully." And his thirst for a "very good value indeed" has become a nice shorthand for enjoying something beyond expectation.

Sometimes one of us reads a story that the other parent already read and the kids never stop us. They gladly sit and listen a second or third time to the exploits of the obnoxious neighbor trying to pull a fast one on the bear only to get poetic justice in return. Ask my kids where Paddington comes from and they'll lower their voices to a quiet whisper before breathlessly mouthing, "Darkest Peru!"

Mary Poppins is a bit of a different beast. I think I probably appreciate her more as an adult than I ever would have as a child. So I'm not sure what my kids make of her. Especially if you've seen the Disney movie about the process of making Travers' nanny character into a film, there is a lot of darkness and serious business that is subtle and I may have missed otherwise.

For all the fantastical voyages and dreamy, whimsical adventures that Mary takes the Banks children on, she's also cold, formal, mean, vain, and not as altogether positive as an adult figure. As a parent, I appreciate that she represents the duality of parenting...alternating between fun and frolic and yelling at the children not to spill on the carpet. The Banks children love Mary Poppins dearly, but she comes in and out of their lives in apparent random fashion. But, hey, it's better than the clueless mother and father, right? In fact, Mary Poppins never explains anything. Ever.

If you're more familiar with the Disney movie than the original books, the literary Mary Poppins comes down far less on the "cheerful outings" side of the equation and is more of a device to set up myth-like stories. It's never quite as magical as the Disney version. And I mean that in both senses. The Mary Poppins stories themselves are rather flat and I'd call her extraordinary and peculiar more than anything. She's escapism without the underlying morals of the movie. Travers herself writes in the book we're currently reading, "she cannot forever arrive and depart."

Mary Poppins is both beloved and frustrating and, I suppose, that's what makes her beloved. It's an endless circle of "just enough" and "never enough" where the children return from an amazing adventure to the dull reality of the nursery. It's a theme that Poppins shares with another certain wizard character you may know from British children's literature...we all have as our inner selves something fantastic but are forced to live out life in rather ordinary circumstances.

The endless cycle of boredom and imagination is a topic children exist in and adults remember all too well.