Mary Pope Osborne on Free Play, Reading, and Joy in “Magic Tree House”

By | May 27th, 2024
Posted in Interviews | % Comments

[Photo credit: Elena Seibert]

Mary Pope Osborne is not a big name in comics but she is a gigantic name in the world of children’s literature. Her “Magic Tree House” series has been running for over 30 years and inspired multiple generations of readers, like myself, to inquire deeply and with openness. Her 39th (or maybe it’s 67th) “Magic Tree House” book, “Windy Night with Wild Horses” has just come out. It was a joy to get to talk to her about a wide range of topics related to her books, in particular the graphic novel adaptations by Jenny Laird and Kelly & Nicole Matthews that are going three years strong, with book 7, “Sunset of the Sabertooth” on the horizon.

Thank you to Random House for setting this up and for Mary Pope Osborne for being so generous with her time and answers. You can find Mary on Instagram @mary_pope_osborne and Twitter/X @MaryPopeOsborne.

Did you initially pitch the idea of adapting your books into graphic novels?

Mary Pope Osborne: No. In fact, I was resistant to the idea. And I said, “First of all, I don’t know if we can get the right illustrations. Second of all, I don’t want to get kids looking at graphics instead of chapter books.” But then I did my research – Random House wanted to do this – and I found out that educators seem to agree that graphics helped with literacy. And that’s my thing. I’m mainly interested in helping kids learn to read and if reluctant readers come to a graphic, it’ll help them get over the hump, you know, and start. As a child, Mom gave us lots of comic books and I know that got us reading more quickly than anything. That was the first hurdle. The second was to find the right illustrators.

I was sent boxes of books of different illustrators. Finally, there was that one, those two sisters, twin sisters mind you, who are geniuses. Kelly and Nicole Matthews. Once I saw their work, I said yes, let’s do it, but I’ll only do it if I can choose who will do the adaptations. So I chose the person. I love the illustrators and I was pleased with the literacy component, so we started and I’m really pleased with what’s evolved.

Cover by Kelly & Nicole Matthews

How involved are you in the day to day of each adaptation?

MPO: Fortunately, not much, because I really am still writing the chapter books. I’m constantly researching and working on those and loving it still. The way I’m protected is that my best friend, who’s a very gifted writer. “Magic Tree House” is kind of a family affair. No one else but myself has written the fiction, the original books. My sister and my husband wrote the “Magic Tree House” Fact Tracker books, the nonfiction companions. Then my husband and our two best friends, a composer and a playwright, started working on adaptions for the theater. They have nine shows that are children’s shows that around the country.

Oh wow.

MPO: The website is Magic Tree House On Stage on Stage. The woman in that trio is my best friend and she said she could do the graphics and adapt them. I’m just so pleased with what she does. I don’t even question anything. She makes it better than I could make it. Like I said, the adapter, the illustrators and the educational component, it all fell into place, so I’m really super lucky in this way.

When you’re doing your research for the books, how are you balancing being historically accurate, like when you’re setting it in, let’s say, Roman times or feudal Japan, with making it accessible and appropriate for children as well.

MPO:You know, by now, it’s innate. I don’t even have to question how to do it. But in the beginning, it was a super challenge. First of all, there was no internet to go to. I lived in New York City and I just would haunt every library there and find libraries that you didn’t even know about, like in the Museum of Natural History or some small private library, and I would get as much information as I could. Invariably you gather all your data and all your facts and you kind of know as you’re reading. Something pops out and your imagination starts to play with it.

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I have notebooks and after a few months of research, I sit down and look at the notebooks and it all starts working. It’s just kind of amazing. I can’t explain it. I’ll give you one example of a miracle of what I needed and what I found.

I was writing a book on six-year old Mozart giving a concert in Austria. I wanted on the cover wild animals, led by little Mozart and Jack and Annie from the palace or whatever, the Empress’s Palace. I could see it from a scene in “The Magic Flute,” but I couldn’t justify having the wild animals at the palace. I have to do covers, well, they have to do covers before I write the book because we are on that kind of tight schedule. So then went ahead and did a beautiful cover of wild animals and Jack and Annie and Mozart and I’m researching and I come across the information that this palace was the first place in ever to have a private zoo. That’s, like, the best day of your life when you find a detail that’s esoteric but it fits so well.

Then, recently, my book is on Jack and Annie saving otters in Monterey and they have to scuba dive. I’ve never scuba dived. I know nothing about it, so I did tons of research. But to add to that, my editor had some professional scuba diver friends who read it or got all the questions they needed and then sent me pages of information to double check my manuscript. So between experts, internet, libraries, it’s a dance and it’s always different, which keeps it alive and interesting to find new information.

And because when you’re when you’re doing research, sometimes it’s more historical, sometimes it’s more practical?

MPO: Well, I often give them skills I don’t have. Like they become bat boys in the book on Jackie Robinson and I have to give them a magic thing to make them experts, so in the Jackie Robinson book, Morgan le Fay gave them baseball caps that when they put them on, they knew everything a bat boy would know for big league game. Then I had to go find out what bat boys knew! Same when I did the Galapagos book that came out recently. I had to make them experts in turtles. They were world turtle experts when they put on their name badges. So I had to learn a lot about turtles.

I know a lot of useless information about everything [laughs.]

Is it useless if it’s helping people learn and get interested in things?

MPO: No, it’s never useless and I love having that.

You know, a lot of facts leave your brain over time, but you’ve opened a door. Like I’ve done 67 “Magic Tree House” books now and I feel like I’ve opened 67 doors to different worlds and different information. I mean, nothing’s better than learning about the world.

I just love these covers so much.

So I actually had a question about that. I work in a library and we have a lot of first editions of “Magic Tree House,” meaning the numbering is now different.

MPO: Oh yeah.

So I’m very curious, what prompted you to shift away from the Merlin Mission style books. I know that they’re aimed at a slightly older audience, but I guess why did you go back and renumber them instead of continuing on?

MPO: That is a good question. It was asked a lot by us at the publishing house and myself. What we eventually decided it was a rebrand, almost, of the covers and I had enough Merlin Missions. Because they were two levels, and Merlin Missions are at a higher reading level and twice as long, at least, and more complicated, we said let’s make them two different things. Now, it got more complicated. That was complicated enough, but if you’re doing a library cataloging, the ideal is that you put all the, what they call the classic ones first and then you go to the Merlin Missions and put them after, so kids can pick according to how they’re able to read.

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But then, after I did 27 Merlin Missions – and they were exhausting to write, I have to admit – I wanted a simpler format, so Random House suggested, let’s go back to your first 28, before “Christmas in Camelot” and add to that. So this otter book I’m working on is literally number 40. Well, here, this one [“Windy Night with Wild Horses”] just came out, and it’s number 39. So I’ve gotten up to 39 on this easy format, and then I do 40 and then we’ll probably cut that off, then you go to “Christmas in Camelot” and you start with one.

So it’s one through forty, and then one through twenty-seven. And then the one that always gets left out, because they do lists of it, is the “Super Edition.” I feel like that’s an orphan. The Super Edition is “World at War – 1944.” That one is always left out but that is my favorite book. It’s twice as long as the Merlin Missions. And if I ever wanted to, I could add to that third level but it takes a really long time because it was long compared to the others. I have really enjoyed the smaller format, because I can wrap my mind around it with some ease, don’t have to pad it for length, I can get to the story.

As you can imagine, I need change. To write 68 books is just perfect for my temperament and my impatience in life. And then after this, I’m not sure. We’re talking about some other way to bring their stories alive that’s a little different. We’re contemplating that now.

Maybe an audio drama?

MPO: Audio drama’s a really cool thing. But I never…yeah, I did think of an audio drama but just in terms of some people wanted to do podcasts of them. We held back because we’re still working with a fabulous film company about with animation. That’s sort of way on the side because we’ve gone down that road a few times but we wanted to be much more involved than I think anybody wanted us to be. We’ve pulled the plug a few times.

But as you could tell from what I’ve said, this is about keeping it close. I think it’s one reason it stays what it is because it has family to it, it has a great team at Random House that’s been intact for a long time. It works like a well oiled machine and anybody who comes aboard is carefully chosen and is in the spirit of the series, you know? In some ways, we might be waiting for some of our early readers to grow up to help us expand in other ways.

I think they’re starting to get there. I’m one of those early readers.

MPO: Yeah? It’s so wonderful! What I tell kids is, if you come to me, like, if you’re 25 or 30 and you get all emotional, talking about the books, I say it’s not me. It’s not the books. It’s who you were when you read those books. Usually around seven and eight, I think we’re the best people we can be because we’re open and we’re not judging everything and we’re not under peer pressure and we’re not, you know, eating up the culture in any way that’s bad for us. We’re just open to the joy of being alive. I think that’s what people really get nostalgic about. Then their interaction, psychically, with Jack and Annie revolves around that kind of play, which is another thing I think kids are missing a lot in their lives is free play. What could be more free than climbing into a tree house and going to another part of the world without your parents?

No parents, just a few adults. A magic mango.

MPO: [Laughs.] Exactly. It’s such a joy and I love talking to people who knew the books when they were young.

I don’t have any in my current apartment, but I’ve got them back back in my parents house. I used to read them at Barnes and Noble. We would go. I would read them and then I would bring them home, like halfway through the book already, going “When’s the next one?!”

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MPO: When they were first coming out, I know older kids who had sort of passed out to another reading level, around fourth and fifth grade, would grab a new one and go to the back of the store and read it real fast and then return it. Booksellers told me that. It was funny.

Cover by AG Ford.

Have you seen a noticeable difference over the 30 years in how readers are responding to the books?

MPO: No, it’s amazing. I can note, to amplify that, I find that if I go to school now and talk to second and third graders, and I did a lot of that 30 years ago, they’re the same. It’s kind of fantastic. Kids don’t change that much when they’re small, and it’s true around the world. The books are in 35 languages. I’ve toured Japan and Italy and Germany and France. I’ve talked to kids and met with them in schools and libraries and there’s kind of a universal openness and kindness and receptivity and excitement and exuberance. I just find that if we could all stop growing at about eight, the world would be a great place.

I think I’d appreciate growing a little more. I couldn’t reach things when I was 8.

MPO: Ohhh. You were a little guy.

I was! I didn’t really start growing until like, 9th, 10th grade.

MPO: I just love those little kids. You come up in the line and they just look over the table and they’re so serious. Boys especially, the boys aren’t as socially, you know, voluble for discussion as the little girls and the boys just stare at you. It’s very cute.

Are you often able to coax the questions out of them eventually?

MPO: Yeah. And, you know, I lean…This is funny. When I used to do a lot of book selling – and it sort of stopped with COVID and then I didn’t really crank it up again, because it was so nice having a break. But when I did bookstores, I would try to get the bookseller to bring the kid right to the edge of where I was sitting so I could just barely touch them when I spoke to them. It’s amazing how that kind of touch, you know, leads to connection. Then I would touch them and say “Hi, sweetheart. What did you want to ask me today?” And I would get an answer!

The trick for the children’s book either is you can’t drop one stitch, because that kid has waited for this moment. Their parents are watching, hoping and praying that you don’t just bypass their child. You have to give them 100%. But if you can just touch them and connect to them, you get fueled by an energy. Sometimes when I was doing huge signings, I would say to the bookseller, “bring them closer, bring them closer,” because I knew that I would get more ability to connect with them and stay energized myself. I learned so much just by being in contact with so many kids over the years.

Were there any questions that kind of recurred in terms of what kids were excited to ask you about?

MPO: They were more excited, which is really wonderful, especially in the first 10 years, to tell me what I should write about. That really makes them happy.

The cool thing is I got to the point where I figured out how to ask questions and get them to vote on the answers when they were in front of me as a group. I still do that. If I do a Zoom with kids or I go to the local school, I’ll always say I’m thinking about these three things, and you can vote one time. Tell me which one you like the best. And I would really steer my course that way.

Then there was always the Gasp factor. Like if I said something like a shark, a book on sharks, you know, they go *GASP*. And I would tell Random House, “Oh, I got some gasps with that event. I think now I know what to do next.” I would also have them vote on titles. I would even take covers that were sketched out and ask them to look at the art and tell me what they liked best, because I went to so many schools.

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The first 10 years of this series, I was on the road almost as much as I was writing, getting to know kids, because I didn’t have kids. I got to know kids in a way that’s different from a parent, because they see me as peer, you know? They would come up and whisper, one boy whispered, “Miss,” and he was in third grade, “Mrs. Osborne, you don’t know this, but I’m an author, too.” They’d have this sweet thing where they would feel like you and they were on the same level, same reading level. One kid stayed after and simply once walked up to me and said, “Hey, are you a kid or a grown up?” because I’d just been talking about kid things for the whole hour!

It’s a incredible position to be in. It’s so life affirming. Not only the kids, but the parents. I would love to have a video reel of the parent’s faces as I’m posing for a picture with a kid and they’re taking it because their smiles are so loving and their big eyed enthusiasm for their child’s moment, it would it would give you a lot of good feelings for this country. Because it comes from every part of the country, every economic level, every culture part of the country, this goodness of wanting their children to learn to read.

What’s been one of your favorite moments, first of the prose books, because I know you said your favorite book was the Super Special. Of the graphic novel adaptations, are there any moments that you really like that is either different, or just a really good adaptation from your books?

MPO: When our team worked on the musicals, they would add scenes, just to get a full bodied piece. So Jenny, who worked on the musicals and now adapts the books, she would bring in some of the musical elements to the graphic novels.

For instance, in the “Knight at Dawn,” Jack and Annie are thrown in a dungeon and the guards come in and they have a flashlight from home and they shine it. That freaks the guards out and they escape. So in the musical, we added some people unjustly accused and put in the dungeon that they found there when they went into the dungeon, so part of the story becomes liberating those people. That got into the graphic and it worked so well, I wish I’d thought of it, but I was confined to a certain amount of words for the original book. So things like that, where you pad a scene or you add a little detour to getting where they go in the original.

It’s a good exercise actually, for the kids to compare the two and see what you can do with story and how you can play with elements of it. But I got this [a copy of the “Dinosaurs Before Dark” adaptation] out just because I wanted to show you a moment when I just gasped, and I think doing the graphics was such a great thing. When I get these two-page spreads, you know? These artists are so fantastic. And they’re just so many. I mean, every book has one. Like this one with the crocodile from “Afternoon on the Amazon.” They’re in all of these books.

The spread from Dinosaurs Before Dark.

One sister draws the stories and the other sister paints the stories and the palettes and the colors, they’re just so rich and beautiful. They equally contribute. You just want to take them apart and frame them because the pictures are so wonderful.

It captures the sense of adventure and whimsy of the books perfectly.

MPO: And the exotic locations of the different books and the difference between those locations. I know you were going to ask the question about are we going to do the Merlin Missions. So right now Jenny’s working on “Christmas in Camelot,” “Haunted Castle on Hallows Eve,” “Summer of the Sea Serpent” and “Winter of the Ice Wizard.” Can you imagine how those full spreads will look in those fantasy realms? I think it’ll be just spectacular.

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It’s also very exciting because your original books had some illustrations in them as well, right?

MPO: Yes, they do. That’s why chapter books are different from middle grade books because they add art to help kids just feel comfortable with a transition. They’re always for the most part, black and white. We’ve had some special editions that get colorized. I’ve had two different artists do the the main line of books. One is Sal Murdocca who, oh my gosh, Sal probably did 50 books. They’re just phenomenal. Then A.G. Ford came aboard and then we had a different illustrators for the nonfiction books and now, of course, for the graphics. So a lot of different artists have given us great art.

I remember Kelly & Nicole’s art from the “Dark Crystal” comics. That’s where I first saw their their stuff, so it’s very fun seeing the difference. Because the tones are different. One is a little darker, maybe a lot darker, than the other but they both still have that sense of place. One of the pages that struck me in the new adaptation of “Sunset of the Sabertooth” was when the treehouse first lands in the ice age. It’s just the treehouse in a tree with all the snow around it. Absolutely gorgeous and a great compliment to the original art too.

MPO: Yeah! You make me think, I wish I could go back to that box of books where I thought “These are the ones.” I don’t think I even remember the original.

To the original cover, that’s an example of where I took in, almost a full cover art, and showed it to a bunch of school kids and they were a little wishy-washy about it. I figured out they were not featuring the Saber-tooth in the front. We had Jack and Annie in the front and the Saber-tooth was way back, so I thought, put the Saber-tooth as the prominent feature and Jack and Annie looking down. That changed the whole cover. The kids helped me get there, so that was a good example of getting input from kids.

They know what they want.

MPO: Yeah, they know what thrills them. And like I said, it’s universal. I just can’t get over how when I was doing all that surveying on my own, how universal the choices were across the across the board.

One other question I had was, we were talking early on about how graphic novels are sparking literacy in kids and getting reluctant readers in. Have you seen a lot of crossover so far between the two? Have you seen your original books inspiring people to go to the graphic novels? The other way around? Is there parity between the two? Is it just approaching different readers at different places?

MPO: I just know it anecdotally from my own circle of friends and kids around and it seems they’re happy to get a regular one and they’re happy to get a graphic one and I haven’t had a lot say “Oh, I prefer this or I prefer that.” I think they get a different experience.

It’s funny. I’m not even clear on this myself. Are the smaller kids getting the graphic or let’s say the older readers? I think it’s both. I think, like, if I give a graphic to a mother with a four year old, I’ll say, you know, they can look at the pictures and you can help them with the story. But then I know the older kids just enjoy that style so much that they’ll pick one up too. So. And I’ve have heard, graphics are popular now and I’m not even sure for who? I’m sure there are more sophisticated ones that are only for the older kids but it seems to be pretty all ages. You have a wider audience with the graphics.

Yeah. Right now we’re in the middle of a resurgence. It’s all over all over the place. We can’t keep books on the shelves at the library, especially with, like, the middle grade ones.

MPO: What do you think? Do you think that kids don’t want to read a longer book or a book that takes more effort? Or do you think they just love the the graphics so much.

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I think they just love the graphics. Because I’ll see the same people who are checking out the “Baby Sitters Club” adaptations are also then checking out the the “Wings of Fire” prose books. Or, say, for “Wings of Fire,” someone will have the stack of the graphic novels, and then they’ll have a stack of the prose novels.

MPO: Oh, that’s so great. You would know because you’re, you’re checking books out. We should talk more to librarians.

We have good insight.

MPO: Yeah, I know. I know. Teachers and Librarians. That’s why I tried to make Librarians magic creatures in the first series. They got their magic Librarian card and in one adaptation we did that I’m going to use, probably, for my next incarnation of the series, Morgan has a spectacular library in Camelot and I’m playing with the idea of using that library as a centerpiece for Jack and Annie to save or do something. I haven’t gotten that far yet. But before you could order from Amazon and go to the big stores and get a discount, I lived in libraries. Libraries gave me everything growing up and well into adulthood. I wanted to make them a little cooler with kids.

We appreciate it! So let’s end on, where would you like to take the “Magic Tree House” to? If you were in there, maybe with Jack and Annie, where would you like to go?

MPO: Well, it’s kind of cliched, but I would probably want to go somewhere to meet George Washington. I did a biography of him. I did two “Tree Houses” with him in it. I’ve read so much about him. And I’m so amazed at how he did what he had to do to create a country, basically. Our country. So many things people don’t even know about, like him leaving office. You know, he left office because he people wanted him to be king. They wanted him to take over. He said no, we’re going to have a different kind of thing. I have to leave so someone else can come. His elegance and his thoughtfulness and his caring and yet his fierceness…there’s so many qualities there.

He’d be one of about 100 people, but it probably would be a person more than anything and wherever that person was is the place I’d like to go meet them. Abraham Lincoln, you know, and someone I came to totally admire was Florence Nightingale. I did a book on her in the Merlin Missions. And then, obviously, Louis Armstrong. My husband and I have spent so much time in New Orleans and he wrote a musical adaptation with Allen Toussaint, who was a famous musician in New Orleans, of the book “Last Night in New Orleans” with Jack and Annie meeting Louis as a young man, a teenager. Just working on that project and going down there a lot has made that a perennial favorite place of ours. So always New Orleans, but meeting a young Louis Armstrong would have been the perfect combination.

Elias Rosner

Elias is a lover of stories who, when he isn't writing reviews for Mulitversity, is hiding in the stacks of his library. Co-host of Make Mine Multiversity, a Marvel podcast, after winning the no-prize from the former hosts, co-editor of The Webcomics Weekly, and writer of the Worthy column, he can be found on Twitter (for mostly comics stuff) here and has finally updated his profile photo again.