“Thirty years? I truly cannot believe it!” said Mary Pope Osborne, reflecting on the three-decade milestone that her Magic Tree House series is marking this year. “Where do the years go?”
Launched by Random House in 1992, the bestselling series is credited with catapulting kids into reading—and lots of them. Sending siblings Annie and Jack on adventures throughout history and the universe, the Magic Tree House has been published in more than 100 countries and translated into 39 languages, and sales have topped 143 million copies worldwide.
Consisting of 100 titles—all still in print—the series has spawned an array of Fact Tracker nonfiction companion guides and a line of graphic novel adaptations, as well as planetarium shows and musical-theater productions. A tireless literacy advocate, Osborne has also established the Classroom Adventures and Gift of Books programs, aimed at inspiring children to develop a lifelong passion for reading, and has donated more than one million MTH books to underserved schools across the country.
Upcoming series additions include Pirates Past Noon, the fourth graphic novel installment adapted by Jenny Laird, due on September 27; and Magic Tree House #37: Rhinos at Recess, a January release in which their tree house whisks Jack and Annie off to South Africa to save a majestic rhinoceros.
And to commemorate the series’ 30th anniversary, Osborne has written Memories and Life Lessons from the Magic Tree House, which Random House will publish on September 6. This compendium of reflections and wisdom the author has gleaned from her own childhood and from writing her series features art by longtime MTH illustrator Sal Murdocca.
Building the Tree House
The foundation of the Magic Tree House was laid after Osborne received a phone call from editors at Random House, asking if she was interested in trying her hand at an illustrated early chapter book.
According to Mallory Loehr (now executive v-p and publisher of Random House Books for Young Readers Group), who had been hired in 1990 as editorial assistant to editor-in-chief Kate Klimo and senior editor Linda Haywood, Osborne was one of three Knopf authors contacted to create new series under the Stepping Stones imprint. The others were Barbara Park, who would write the Junie B. Jones series; and Louis Sachar, who would write the Marvin Redpost series.
Osborne, who at the time had written folklore, mythology, and historical biographies for older children, recalled, “I never thought I would ever have to learn how to write for younger readers!” Yet she was up for the challenge, and began, fittingly, by going back in time. “I asked my twin brother to return to Norfolk, Virginia, with me, where we spent some of our childhood when our father was in the military. The base where we had lived looked exactly as I remembered, and I was flooded with good memories of my life as a seven-year-old. I’ve learned that my imagination is fueled infinitely by my own childhood.”
Shortly after that nostalgic trip, Osborne arranged to have lunch with a group of second graders at a nearby school. “I knew by the end of that lunch that these were my people, and that experience, and my visit to my old home, led me to a place where I was ready to write a young chapter book. I tried all sorts of magic themes, but none really worked until one day, while my husband and I were walking in the woods, we saw a tree house and commiserated about how we’d never had one, though we always wanted one. From there, the premise of the series fell rapidly into place, as if it was always meant to be.”
Amplifying the Magic
Hayward was the editor for the three early 1990s Stepping Stones series, and as her assistant Loehr worked on them, focusing primarily on MTH, and by its fifth installment, she was the series’ principal editor. Though another editor, Jenna Lettice, has done the individual title editing for the most recent titles, Loehr still works very closely with Osborne, and is an unflagging champion of the series.
“From the beginning, I always thought that this series needed to be in every school all over the country,” Loehr said. “There was no other series like it—combining the kid-friendly elements of adventure, magic, and a certain kind of sweet humor with finding out about history and science, famous and sometimes infamous people, as well as having a deeper understanding of the importance of curiosity, teamwork, kindness, and taking action.”
Osborne expressed gratitude for Loehr’s longstanding attachment to MTH, noting that the editor “really got Magic Tree House from the very start, and she traveled the tree house journey with me—two girls going on an adventure! For so many years Mallory has been my partner in magic.”
And there’s more magic in store for MTH fans. Memories and Life Lessons from the Magic Tree House will offer several generations of readers insight into Osborne’s childhood, inspiration, creativity, and commitment to her young readers.
“When I began collecting thoughts for this book and looking through all the books,” she said, “the memories came to me and the quotes came to me and they assembled themselves and fell into place. I couldn’t wait to wake up at five o’clock in the morning and work on the book.”
Osborne was pleased to note that though her husband Will Osborne has created some of the MTH stage productions and he and her sister Natalie Pope Boyce have authored the Fact Tracker books, she has written every one of the Magic Tree House adventures herself over 35 years. “I did not have children of my own—but these books are my children,” she said. “This series is so close to me that if I was told to stop writing the books I wouldn’t—I’d keep writing them for myself!”
The author also underscored another of her lifelong passions—bringing kids and books together. “I read years ago that if children do not read at grade level by the end of third grade, it is very hard for them to catch up and they are four times more likely to drop out of high school, and I have never forgotten that,” she said. “I have been hearing for decades from teachers and parents that many kids have learned to read on Magic Tree House books, and I am so happy to have been able to help empower kids through a love of reading. That is super important to me.”
Memories and Life Lessons from the Magic Tree House by Mary Pope Osborne, illus. by Sal Murdocca. Random House, $16.99 Sept. 6 ISBN 978-0-593-48454-8