Magic Tree House author Mary Pope Osborne on the books' 25th anniversary
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the iconic Magic Tree House books. The beloved children’s book series, written by Mary Pope Osborne, follows siblings Jack and Annie as they discover a magic tree house filled with books about subjects like Vikings and volcanoes that transport them to different time periods. The young protagonists are avid readers, and the bestselling books have inspired a love of reading in countless children. Twenty-five years later, Osborne is still writing them.
Most fans remember the books’ themed titles, which include alliteration and a mention of the subject, time, and date: Dinosaurs Before Dark, Mummies in the Morning, Abe Lincoln at Last!, Christmas in Camelot, etc. The imaginative covers by Sal Murdocca always showed the siblings in the midst of their latest adventure, riding dinosaurs or walking on the moon. The series includes the original Magic Tree House books, the Merlin Missions, which are meant for older readers and follow Jack and Annie on missions for Merlin the magician, and Fact Trackers, the nonfiction companions to the fictional books. Osborne is prolific: There are currently 54 Magic Tree House books and 34 Fact Trackers. The next one, A Big Day for Baseball, is about Jackie Robinson and comes out Aug. 15. The author also promotes children’s literacy through the Classroom Adventures/Gift of Books program, donating Magic Tree House books to schools.
EW spoke to Mary Pope Osborne about those titles, taking book suggestions from young fans, the upcoming Magic Tree House movie, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How does it feel to be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the books?
It doesn’t feel real. In some ways, I feel like I just started writing them. It’s still an adventure and a challenge and I’m still having fun. So I guess as long as I keep having fun I’ll keep writing them.
Tell me about the decision to make the titles themed in that they always have some kind of time or date in them.
I was originally contracted to do four books so I thought that would be the link and then I did four more books and by the time they asked me to do four more I thought, “Well I can’t keep up this time of day thing,” but to my surprise, we’ve pretty much kept it up. Once or twice we’ve cheated a bit but I keep my ears open for any words that imply time, and now 55 books later we pretty much stuck to the time idea, even though I moved to days of the week, months of the year, seasons, anything that implies time, even the words “hurry up.”
What’s the latest news on the Magic Tree House movie?
We waited for 23 years before we decided to make a film and when we met with Lionsgate Entertainment, we became convinced that we’re on the same page about the series and how we saw Jack and Annie. We’re at the beginning stages right now and everybody’s excited about it and it seems like it’s going to be a whole new chapter in the life of Magic Tree House.
Why did you pick Christmas in Camelot to turn into a movie? It wasn’t the first book, but it was the first Merlin Mission.
It’s the first Merlin Mission and it’s a longer story and it lends itself to a lot of fantastical adventure. It’s longer, it’s deeper. The regular Magic Tree House books are half the length. They’re for beginning readers and the Merlin Missions are for more advanced readers.
What moved you to start the Classroom Adventures/Gift of Books program?
From the beginning, teachers were really supportive of the series and they kept me wanting to write more books. I would go to schools all over the country and get feedback from teachers and from kids. They gave me ideas for new books, they showed me great projects they were doing based on the series, and teachers were using the books to help kids learn how to read, so it really changed my life. After 20 years I decided to give back to the teachers. So I started a website that’s a gift to teachers of time and books and it gives them all the information they would ever want about how to use Magic Tree House in their classrooms from lesson plans to reading level information, curriculum information. For Title 1 teachers, we offer them the opportunity to apply for free books of magic tree house for their classrooms.
Did any of those suggestions from children make it into the books?
Oh yeah, in the beginning, I totally went by the popularity of different suggestions. I take suggestions and then I get kids to vote on the most interesting ideas. So that would be the next one I did.
What’s the process for designing the covers?
I’m such a great admirer of the illustrator, Sal Murdocca. Sal works as hard at his book covers and his art as I do on the stories. He does his own research and I do my own research and then he puts together a concept and then I respond to the concept and the editor and art director are very involved. We go through many different ideas for every cover and the covers have to be created before I’ve written the book because they have to go out for publicity a good period ahead of time. So sometimes I’ve literally had to pack a story into the cover. I’m not sure now that I’m writing the story, how does that cover work? There have been a few times where I had to explain something in the story that was on the cover but it really didn’t make a whole lot of sense in the story.
Where did the idea for the books initially come from?
Random House wanted me to do a series. And I thought time travel would be a fun subject for little kids but it took me a whole year to figure out how to get them back in time. I tried magic whistles, magic artist’s studios, a magic cellar. I was just spinning my wheels and nothing was working and I was gonna give up because I had other projects I was enjoying, but then I had a log cabin with my husband in Pennsylvania and we were taking a walk in the woods in Pennsylvania and we saw a tree house in the woods and it just suddenly clicked in the conversation we had. The next day I was calling Random House, my editor, to ask her opinion and then within a month after working a year I started crafting Dinosaurs Before Dark. I like to tell kids that sometimes the simplest ideas are the hardest ones to find.