'Magic Tree House': Author Mary Pope Osborne looks back

The children's series about siblings who travel through time via a magical treehouse is celebrating its twentieth anniversary.

L: By Elena Seibert
The most recent book in the 'Magic Tree House' series by Mary Pope Osborne (l.) is 'A Perfect Time for Pandas,' which finds protagonists Jack and Annie traveling to the mountains of China.

A tiny wooden structure just for you, filled with books and toys, nestled in the branch of a big sapling with the wind rustling through the leaves. What could possibly improve a treehouse?

Just ask children's fiction protagonists Jack and Annie. The stars of Mary Pope Osborne's Magic Tree House series are the possessors of just that, a magic structure that they use to travel through time and space and embark on adventures. The series currently consists of more than 40 books, including the newest, "A Perfect Time for Pandas," which was just released on July 24. The first 28 books follow Jack and Annie and their travels through time, while the rest center on the characters meeting up with famous wizard Merlin, who gives them tasks to accomplish as they go to each time period.

The series also consists of Fact Tracker books, nonfiction titles which delve into topics covered in the books such as dolphins and ancient Egypt.

The "Tree House" books have been adapted into a stage musical, co-written by Osborne's husband Will Osborne, and the book "A Good Night for Ghosts," in which Jack and Annie meet jazz musician Louis Armstrong, will be the basis for a musical titled "Magic Tree House: A Night In New Orleans," also co-written by Osborne, that will premiere at the James Moody Democracy of Jazz Festival in Newark in October.

Author Mary Pope Osborne, who recently donated 28-book sets of the series to every third-grade student and teacher in Newark, N.J., discussed how she settled on a treehouse as a mode of transport, how she hopes to inspire kids about history, and which of the books young readers love the most. Here are excerpts of the interview.

Q: How did the idea of a magical treehouse come to you?

A: I'd tried many things to get kids back in time: a magic cellar, magic whistles, magic artist's studio, magic museum. Nothing was working and I was really about to give up after a year. I was walking through some woods in Pennsylvania near a cabin that Will [Osborne] and I used to have, and we saw an old treehouse that was all rickety and pretty well run-down. We started talking about, "What if I put the characters in a treehouse?" Because then it would always be hidden up in the trees and they could travel anywhere with stuff in it. Finally, that night, we thought it'd be cool to have the treehouse filled with books, because books are magic. The moral of the story is the simplest ideas are the hardest to find.
Q: After graduating college, you traveled with a group of other young people to various locations like Iraq and Pakistan and India – how did doing that traveling affect your writing of the series?

A: I was a vagabond, and what I realized was it was a lot safer to stay at home and be a vagabond. By writing the series, I got to indulge all my travel passions and still be home in time for dinner. [Through the books] I had been to or will travel to a lot of the places, but without a backpack anymore and without risking my life.
Q: What do you think it is about Jack and Annie that appeals so strongly to children?

A: Jack and Annie are ordinary kids, but they're really good kids. They're always trying to help others and they're very supportive of each other. They have a sense of humor, but they love reading and learning and they have great compassion for animals and people who need their help. The series is in over 100 countries, 33 languages, and [the kids] all identify with Jack and Annie. I find that so encouraging.
Q: You've said before that Jack and Annie's relationship is in some ways based on your own relationship with your siblings?

A: Yes, I have wonderful siblings. They're still my best friends. We were all raised in the military so we had to rely on each other. We moved almost every year or two, so we really bonded, and one of the things that we most enjoyed doing together was games of make-believe. We were reenacting Peter Pan and creating forts and spy networks – whatever. Of course, we didn't have computers, watched minimal TV. We read books, but we just lived outside. I think a lot of the impulse from the treehouse comes from an attempt to relive some of that joy, that freedom that we had.

Q: Is there a particular Magic Treehouse book that your fans bring up often when they meet you?

A: Of the first 28, "[Tonight on the] Titanic" is popular, and also "Dolphins at Daybreak." Of the next 20, the one that was so immensely popular was "Dragon of the Red Dawn." That had a great cover with a dragon. We spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about covers and titles and sort of trying to get the kids over the bridge into some meaty subject matter, but still sensationalize the covers a little bit to try to bring them in.

I just want the books to be a stepping-off point. I just want [readers] to go, "I now know a very little bit about Leonardo Da Vinci, I'm going to go learn more." And one way they can learn more is our Fact Tracker series, the nonfiction. My ideal is they read our fiction, read our nonfiction, and then, if they still are interested, they go and read more difficult books about the subject. And they'll always own it. When they really hear about Shakespeare when they get to their teens, they'll feel they're already friends with Shakespeare, or any of these – Mozart, Louis Armstrong. That imprints so much when you're seven and eight.
Q: When you recently donated the 28-book sets to every third grader and teacher in Newark, how did that idea come to you initially?

A: We're going to do a show in Newark next year based on the Treehouse on Louis Armstrong. It's going to premiere at the Jazz Festival. So it was my plan to give one book to every child – then every fourth grader – and probably try to do it before school was out, so they could read it over the summer. And then I came across a report, and I was so stunned by the need for third graders to read that I thought breezily to myself, I should give 28 [books]. So I called someone and said, "How many third-graders are there?" and there's like 4,300 third-graders. Will loved the idea and we said, "Let's just do it."
Prior to that, in the winter, we launched our new Classroom Adventures [program]. We spent the last two years, almost, with a team of teachers – we hired them ourselves – of giving teachers free information on how they can use the books in the classroom to enhance their core curriculum, and then we have a component of that, the Gift of Books, for Title 1 schools. We started giving away books in January through this program, and we were giving 2 or 3 sets to a classroom, any that applied and met the requirements. We'll get some feedback, hopefully by autumn, about whether this did work, whether it raised the scores, and if there's any way to quantify if it really helped the kids. If it didn't, this was still a joyous thing to do. We would do it all over again.
Q: Will the "Night in New Orleans" musical have a life beyond the Jazz Festival?

A: It'll go to all the fourth-grade classrooms in the city, and it'll be at the Performing Arts Center. And then beyond that – we haven't even looked beyond that, but we want it to have a long life. And our dream is that, of course, it gets to New Orleans, and that'll probably be the next big stop.
Q: Is there any news about the Magic Tree House musical?

A: We're planning to take it out again in 2014. Meanwhile, we'll be running the Louis Armstrong show and we have a wonderful new partnership with a group called MTI that's turning Magic Tree House plays into school plays that just kids can do. We'll be launching a lot of theater projects in the next two years. Live theater ignites imagination as much as reading books does.
Q: What do you have planned for future Tree House adventures?

A: I do them in quartets. The next four are "Crazy Day with Cobras," "Dogs in the Dead of Night," and then "Abe Lincoln at Last!," and then the one that's coming out late this summer is "A Perfect Time for Pandas." And then after that is "The Stallion in Starlight." And my sister's working on the nonfiction [Fact Tracker book] to go with that. She's done the nonfiction for the last 19 or 20.
Q: How did that collaboration come to be?

A: It started with my husband Will – he wrote eight of the nonfiction. And then he wanted to turn his attention to the theater projects. So we called up my sister, who's a wonderful writer, and we handed the nonfiction over to her. And they do it totally by themselves, even though my name's on the cover, because I'm working so hard on the fiction. And we just have so much fun because we do book tours together, and the three of us are sort of a wild trio on the road. It's just so much fun. It used to be kind of lonely to go on these book tours by myself, and now I always have one of them with me. It's just a vacation.
I owe everything to teachers, the ones who really got this series off the ground years ago by using it in classrooms.
The teachers have done so many incredible projects with the books. I have volumes of pictures and projects. That's why we have a "Magic Tree House" teacher of the year every year. The teachers are the key to this.

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