Mary Shepard: illustrator of the Mary Poppins books

Explore – Mary’s grave and see what it tells us about Mary Shepard

Discuss – how to go about creating an image for a story book character

Discover – the inspiration for the image of Mary Poppins and create a peg doll 


Subject Areas

  • Art and Design – Exploring ideas, and Developing practical work related to literary subjects
  • English – Reading for information; Understanding texts; Using stories to stimulate imagination

 Possible Topics

  • The importance of stories and literary characters as role models and as imaginary friends
  • The role of illustrations in influencing our image of a character and in adding to/ reducing our enjoyment
  • The importance of creativity and imagination – and its varied forms: artistic, written, musical, etc

Suggested Activities

  • The inspiration for the image of Mary Poppins was a peg doll; get the children to create their own clothes peg character (see more details on the next page)
  • Ask the children to imagine that they are given a story to illustrate and a simple object like an old teddy bear; how would they go about creating their illustrations  (there is more advice on how one illustrator does it below)
  • Can you help to find the missing Mary Poppins doll? (see more details on the following pages)

 Creating the image of Mary Poppins

According to various stories P. L. Travers was demanding—she insisted that the image of Mary Poppins should resemble the peg doll she had as a child and she wanted it to ‘have no figure’.

What did this doll look like? P. L. Travers gave her doll to a library in New York.  This library is now closed but some tourists took photos of the doll before it closed and put the images on Flickr – see and

There was a lot of debate between P. L. Travers and Mary Shepard about Mary Poppins’ feet, and in which ballet position she should hold her feet. Author and illustrator argued hotly about this for a long time. Ask the children to look at pictures of Mary Poppins on Google Images and see what they think. If they don’t do ballet they may have to find out what the different ballet positions are.

In the first book Mary Poppins is described simply as having “shiny black hair…..Rather like a wooden Dutch doll… she was thin, with large feet and hands, and small, rather peering blue eye”. There is not much detail; the rest of the image of Mary Poppins was created by Mary Shepard.

In an interview in the Ham and High in 1982 Mary said that, although she drew the character from the peg doll, something happened along the way. ”Well, Dutch dolls do have rather an empty stare … Mary Poppins assumed an expression, stern, with a twinkle.  She was fairly doll-like in the earlier books, but somehow her personality took over”! The illustration on the front page is from the first Mary Poppins book, and the illustrations below from the book ‘Mary Poppins A – Z‘ were nearly 30 years later. Can your students see the difference?

Some people would say that Mary’s drawings defined the image of Mary Poppins and contributed much to the success of the book and its sequels, all of which she illustrated. What do the students think?

Mary Poppins sweets ©Minette Hunt

Mary Poppins & sweep ©Minette Hunt

The importance of the illustrations can be seen from the fact that in 1964 – when Walt Disney made a movie of Mary Poppins, starring Julie Andrews – a lot of the story was changed, and the time period and décor were pushed back from the 1930’s of the book illustrations to a plush Edwardian era. But Julie Andrews’ costume and bearing stayed true to Mary Shepard’s drawings, and Mary received a payment from the film-makers for using her images.

Creating a book illustration

How do you think Mary went about creating an illustration for a character in a book? How would you do it? Would you simply start to draw, or would you look for ideas in books or on the internet or somewhere else?  How difficult do you think it is to create the image of a character in a book?

Another illustrator of children’s book recently explained how she creates her characters.  First of all she creates a story board and thinks of words from the book which describe the character – like: curly hair, likes playing in the woods, cheeky, etc.  She draws shapes, for example the character’s head shape or their hair, and then thinks about the colour and texture of their clothes. Finally she puts it all together.  She also collects children’s books which she uses for inspiration, not to copy but to encourage her own creativity.

Making a peg character and writing a story about it?

It is possible to make wonderful peg characters using wooden clothes pegs and bits of cloth, magic markers, sequins, wool, pipe cleaners and all kinds of craft material. If you go onto the flickr website and put ‘peg doll’ into the search box you will get lots of pictures of peg dolls that other people have created that may help you think of new ideas.  You can also use clothes pegs and cardboard to create animals like crocodiles or lizards.

After creating their character each student could write a story based on it; or the whole class could agree a subject, write a story together, and make the various characters and scenery that appear in it.

Where is the Mary Poppins doll now?

P. L. Travers gave her Mary Poppins peg doll to the Donnell Library in New York because they had a famous collection of toys on which stories were based.  In this way she hoped that lots of children would be able to see the peg doll and understand what inspired her stories. However the Donnell Library was closed in 2008 when the New York Public Library (which owned it) sold the property to a developer.

The display at the Donnell had the star attraction Winnie the Pooh and all Pooh’s friends, as well as the Mary Poppins peg doll.  All the toys were moved to the main 42nd Street Library and sadly are no longer on view.

It is believed that Mary Shepard bought a similar doll to use for her work but no one knows where it is.  Could it still be somewhere in London? One of Mary’s grand-daughters remembers going to visit her when they were little and Mary had a drawer full of toys which they could play with, but no-one can remember the peg doll.  Might Mary have already given it away? Where is it now?  Do you think you can find it?

What story does Mary Shepard’s grave tell us?

Mary’s husband was a famous editor of Punch magazine and was 28 years older than she was.  He died in 1971. Mary had no children of her own, but Edmund Knox had two from his first marriage and so Mary became their step-mother. His daughter Penelope, who later became the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, was only seven years younger than her step-mother and, as they grew older, they became very close – more like sisters than mother and daughter. They both died in 2000.

Mary was modest about her talent. She was so modest that she said she did not wish to be buried with her husband because he was quite famous and she said her name would add clutter to his stone. Because Penelope’s children knew how close Mary and Penelope were, they arranged for twin headstones to be placed next to Knox’s. They are side by side above the cremated remains of Penelope and Mary, one showing a hand with a pen, the other a hand with a paintbrush. Visit the grave to have a look at the gravestones, and see what story you think it tells.

Memorials are interesting but sometimes they tell you only half the story.  After the war Mary and her husband lived at 108 Frognal and the house has a plaque on it, but Mary’s name isn’t mentioned; see

Literary and Artistic Links

The ‘Winnie the Pooh’ books and ‘Wind in the Willows’ illustrated by her father E H Shepard. A number of his works may be viewed on ArtNet:

Penelope Fitzgerald, her step daughter, became famous as a contemporary British novelist and biographer and was a Booker prize-winner in 1979. See


Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online)

P L Travers (1963). ‘Mary Poppins from A – Z’. London: Collins

The ‘Mary Poppins’ series by P. L. Travers – the first published in 1934 and the last one in 1988; all have been reprinted numerous times in various editions.

Mary Shepard’s obituary in The New York Times –

This page was last updated on November 30th, 2020.


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