Since 1992, Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House series has transported siblings Jack and Annie—and young readers—to a wide variety of historical eras and locales throughout the globe, and has sold more than 143 million copies worldwide. In Magic Tree House #30: Hurricane Heroes in Texas, Jack and Annie are whisked back to Galveston, Tex., in 1900. Due out simultaneously is a nonfiction companion book, Magic Tree House Fact Checker: Texas by Osborne and Natalie Pope Boyce. PW spoke with Osborne about the latest installment of the series, and what lies ahead for her intrepid characters.
What inspired Jack and Annie’s most recent mission?
I had read several years ago that the biggest natural disaster in American history was the 1900 hurricane that completely washed over Galveston and claimed the lives of between 8,000 and 12,000 people. I asked kids and adults if they knew about the hurricane, and no one outside of Texas seemed to have heard the story. As I researched it, what I found most amazing was the courage demonstrated by the people of Galveston, including a nun, Mother Mary Joseph Dallmer, who sheltered more than 1,000 residents in her convent and school. It was such a devastating hurricane that it was a difficult story to tell, but by focusing on the bravery of the people and their willingness to help others I was able to make it palpable for kids, parents, and teachers.
As I was writing my final draft of the novel in September 2017, Hurricane Harvey struck Texas, and I once again was amazed by the spirit and courage of Texans in the face of adversity. At the time, the book had the working title, Stormy Time in Texas, but I changed the title so that it highlighted the hero angle of the story and I tweaked the plot to emphasize the fact that Jack and Annie were there to help—not just to survive. They rescue a toddler and two dogs, and stay up all night helping Mother Mary Joseph. I wanted to underscore the extraordinary heroism of the people of Galveston in 1900, and to see it happening again 117 years later during Hurricane Harvey, just as I was finishing the book, was stunning and very inspiring.
Earlier Magic Tree House titles have sent Jack and Annie into the midst of a twister, a volcano, a tsunami, an earthquake—and now a hurricane. Why do you think natural disasters are of such intrinsic appeal to children?
If I’m writing an exciting drama, I prefer to write about a natural rather than a human disaster. I want my characters and readers to be able to experience the devastation, but feel stronger coming out of it, since these are stories of escaping, helping others, and surviving. I want to educate readers about the dangers of natural disasters, but I also want them to realize the healing potential of bad situations. I know it sounds like a cliché, but I want my books to empower kids and let them know they don’t have to be victims of disasters—they can emerge as heroes.
In every Magic Tree House book, Jack and Annie have the opportunity to help others, and I try to tie that into their adventure without being didactic. In Hurricane Heroes in Texas, they know the hurricane is coming, and they have trouble making others believe they are in danger, yet they persist. Kids have it in their nature to be heroes, and I want to amplify that as much as I can.
Where will the magic tree house next transport Jack and Annie?
I just finished Warriors in Winter, which will come out next January. Jack and Annie find themselves in a Roman camp in the early 100s AD, and their mission is to act like warriors. I know that kids love to read about warriors, so I decided to tell a story about a Roman legion, and I snuck in a fun bit about the kids encountering Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his Meditations. The idea of a seven-year-old becoming acquainted with that work gives me great pleasure!
And I’ve started to draft To the Future, Ben Franklin!, set during the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Franklin was 82, but played a huge role in getting delegates with differing opinions to compromise on the Constitution. In the book, Jack and Annie urge Ben to encourage compromise, and they bring him back with them to the present day—which is the first time in the series that they’ve done that. They take him to a public library, where they Google the United States and Ben learns how the country has grown, and recalling “e pluribus unum,” he realizes that Americans have forgotten how to be one. That was a learning piece of the story as I tried to answer the question, “What would Benjamin Franklin do and say today?” I did have some fun with the story—when he sees and hears an airplane, he freaks out and runs to hide behind a tree!
Do you ever worry about running out of ideas for Magic Tree House plots, and are you gratified that your books have been embraced by children and adults for more than a quarter century?
Well, I’ve been doing this for 26 years, and so far I haven’t run out of ideas. Truly, it all starts with the kids. For many years I went all over the country, visiting schools, and I always urged students to share their suggestions for book ideas, and had them vote on their favorites. I’d say that the first 28 Magic Tree House books were inspired by kids. They’ve taught me a whole lot, and teachers have also been instrumental, suggesting subjects that tie into their curricula. We started Magic Tree House Classroom Adventures, providing free online lesson plans to tie into each book and other material for teachers, and we’ve given away many thousands of books to underserved communities. That brings me great joy!
And another thing that makes me joyful now is meeting former Magic Tree House readers who are young adults, and who are very nostalgic about who they were at seven or eight. They share their memories of reading my books, and usually those memories involve parents, siblings, and favorite teachers. That age is such an important and formative time for readers. The letters kids send me today are essentially the same as the letters I received 26 years ago—they are perennial and universal, and I find that very endearing. I feel very blessed.
Magic Tree House #30: Hurricane Heroes in Texas by Mary Pope Osborne, illus. by AG Ford. Random House, $13.99 Aug. ISBN 978-1-524-71312-6
Magic Tree House Fact Tracker: Texas by Mary Pope Osborne and Natalie Pope Boyce. Random House, $6.99 paper Aug. ISBN 978-1-101-93648-1