Ever since 1992, Mary Pope Osborne has been thrilling kids everywhere with her delightfully exciting Magic Tree House series. The globetrotting escapades of time travelers Jack and Annie are brimming with adventure and magic (not to mention some subtly placed lessons on history and geography). With a life like Osborne's, it's only natural that she would be capable of bringing such wondrous stories to life.
Osborne was brought up in a military family, and her parents' work led to a lifestyle marked by constant change. "By the time I was 15," she says on randomhouse.com, "I had lived in Oklahoma, Austria, Florida, and four different army posts in Virginia and North Carolina." While many kids would probably feel disoriented by such constant change, Osborne wouldn't have had it any other way. "Moving was never traumatic for me, but staying in one place was. When my dad finally retired to a small town in North Carolina, I nearly went crazy with boredom. I craved the adventure and changing scenery of our military life."
And adventure is exactly what Osborne got! After college, she embarked on a series of daring treks across the globe that would surely give Jack and Annie a run for their money. "For a while I camped in a cave on the island of Crete," she said. "Then I joined up with a small band of European young people heading to ‘The East.' We traveled through 11 Asian countries and nearly lost our lives, first in an earthquake in northern Afghanistan and then in a riot in Kabul."
Following an illness she contracted in Katmandu, Osborne returned home to the U.S. trying her hand at a vast variety of jobs: window dresser, medical assistant, Russian travel consultant, waitress, bartender, and an assistant editor at a children's magazine. Although Osborne had unconsciously moved closer toward her ultimate career, she says that her first attempts at writing seemed to come without warning. "One day, out of the blue, I began writing a story about an 11-year-old girl in the South," she recalls. "The girl was a lot like me, and many of the incidents in the story were similar to happenings in my childhood... it became a young adult novel called Run, Run Fast as You Can. Finally, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up."
She sure did! Since then, Osborne has penned a slew of stories, including picture books, chapter books, middle-grade biographies, and young adult novels; but she is indisputably best known for her wonderful Magic Tree House books, a happy hodge-podge of history and mystery with a time travel theme kids find irresistible. No doubt inspired by Osborne's own highly adventurous life, these exiting expeditions have attracted droves of children and pleased educators by combining compulsively readable storytelling with useful facts about geography and history.
As was written of the series in Children's Literature, "Mary Pope Osborne provides nicely paced excitement for young readers, and there's just enough information mixed in so that children will take away some historical fact along with a sense of accomplishment at having completed a chapter book." As much as Osborne has certainly pleased her readers (not to mention their parents and teachers), perhaps no one is quite as pleased as she. "I'm one of those very lucky people who absolutely loves what they do for a living," she explained. "There is no career better suited to my eccentricities, strengths, and passions than that of a children's book author."
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A few fascinating outtakes from our interview with Osborne:
"One of the most defining experiences of my life was traveling overland in an old van through the Middle East and Asia in the early 1970's. One day, when a small group of us were camped in a remote part of northern Afghanistan, we saw a woman riding horseback over the sloping plain. Her long brown hair floated on the wind and she wore a bright gypsy-style dress. When she got closer, I realized she was one of my roommates from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill! Though I didn't even know she'd left the U.S. -- and she didn't know I was in Afghanistan, we weren't that surprised to come upon each other. That says a lot about the times we were living in then."
"After 26 years of living in New York City, my husband Will and I now spend most of our time in Northwestern Connecticut, living in a house that overlooks a lake. We kayak and hike with our two Norfolk terriers, Joey and Mr. Bezo. Will's learning Italian, and I've been working with a tutor for two years trying to understand Dante's Divine Comedy. One of my biggest hobbies is reading philosophy and theology. We spend lots of time, of course, on our work. After writing three shows for the Morehead Planetarium in North Carolina, Will's writing a musical based on the Magic Tree House series. I'm writing book # 38 in the series. I also spend a lot of time with my sister Natalie Pope Boyce who works on the Magic Tree House Research Guides. Natalie and our nephews and some of our best friends live nearby in the Berkshires Hills of Massachusetts, so we're up there a lot, too. My only complaint is there is not enough time to do all I want to do. For instance, I'd love to take drawing classes and I'd love to paint the lake we're living on. And I'd love to bird watch and become a better cook and learn about classical music. Maybe sometime in the future...."
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In the winter of 2006, Mary Pope Osborne took a few moments to tell us about her favorite books, authors, interests, and inspirations:
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Egermeier's Bible Story Book by Elsie E. Egermeier. When I was eight years old, I came across Egermeier's voluminous collection of Old and New Testament stories. The book was more than six hundred pages and the writing was unwieldy and difficult. Yet I made the decision to read three stories a day until I had finished the book. It took almost a year, and when I finished, I loved the book so much, I started over at the beginning. By the time I was eleven, I'd read Egermeier's Bible stories three times. My love for old stories and western history began with this book, as well as a thirst to learn about the different cultures and religions of the world.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett -- In this book, I discovered my first girl hero -- lonely, abandoned Sara Crewe who tries to make the best of a terrible situation.
Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe -- Wolfe's rich, wild language sent my teenage imagination soaring and made me want to write.
Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger -- "Remember Seymour's fat lady" was the mantra of my youth.
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky -- The scene with the Grand Inquisitor has long been a reference point for me.
The Elements of Style by E. B. White -- E. B. White lessons about the elegance of simple, clear writing well serve all writers.
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf -- Insightful, lyrical, original, To the Lighthouse is the most moving book about family life I've ever read.
Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov -- Nabokov's memories about his childhood in pre-revolutionary Russia inspired me to take a more thoughtful look at the world around me.
My Mother's House/Sido by Colette -- My senses were opened by Colette's haunting evocation of her childhood.
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway -- The clean, crisp writing in this book was a guide and inspiration when I began writing young adult novels.
The Art of Eating by M.F.K. Fisher -- This collection of Fisher's exquisite books about food and life helped get me through two traumatic times in my life.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?A Shop on Main Street -- I thought this small Czech film was the most profound film I've ever seen regarding the Holocaust.
A Member of the Wedding (with Julie Andrews and Ethel Waters) -- I love the depiction of small town southern life in the 50's. Its three leading characters are totally original and yet totally familiar.
Winged Migration -- I think this documentary is one of the most beautiful films ever made.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I like all kinds of music. Some of my recent favorites include Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach, Jay Ungar's fiddle playing, Kenny Werner's Maybeck Album, Janet Marlow's Relaxation Music for Horses, Bob Dylan's Modern Times. I've listened to all of these while working.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
We would be reading The Luminous Ground, which is volume four of architect Christopher Alexander's stunning series The Nature of Order. Alexander dismantles our current machine-like world view and deadly modern architecture and reconnects us to a more personal and spiritual world. I would love to talk with others about it.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I love to give and receive art books.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I have no rituals or routine. I wish I did, but I'm not that consistent. I write at different times of the day and thanks to my laptop, I write in umpteen different locations. I can write in Grand Central station or in the loneliest little library.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on the Random House Book of Bible Stories, co-authored with my sister, Natalie Pope Boyce, and on a Magic Tree House book about Leonardo Da Vinci.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
In my first ten years of writing for children, I published about 20 different books, such as realistic novels, retellings of mythology and fairy tales, and books about history and biographies. All these interests eventually constellated into the time-travel adventures of my Magic Tree House series. It took me over a year, though, to figure out how my characters would travel through time. I tried a magic cellar, magic whistles, a magic museum, a magic art studio.... After working on seven different manuscripts that didn't work, I took a walk in the woods one day and came across an old tree house....
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
I know many great new writers, but the one who most immediately comes to mind is Jenny Laird, a wonderful playwright. I find her lyrical work very moving.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Actually I don't resonate with the concept of being "discovered," because it implies that you are dependent on the views of others. If you've discovered that you have a love and talent for writing and you focus your life on that passion, then you have already been discovered by yourself.
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|Mary Pope Osborne Home
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|In Our Other Stores|
Signed, First Editions by Mary Pope Osborne|
|American Tall Tales, 1991|
|Spider Kane and the Mystery Under the May-Apple, 1992|
|Dinosaurs Before Dark (Magic Tree House Series #1), 1992|
|Spider Kane and the Mystery at Jumbo Nightcrawler's, 1993|
|The Knight at Dawn (#2), 1993|
|Mummies in the Morning (#3), 1993|
|Pirates Past Noon (#4), 1994|
|Night of the Ninjas (#5), 1995|
|Afternoon on the Amazon (#6), 1995|
|One World, Many Religions: The Ways We Worship, 1996|
|Sunset of the Sabertooth (#7), 1996|
|Midnight on the Moon (#8), 1996|
|Dolphins at Daybreak (#9), 1997|
|Ghost Town at Sundown (#10), 1997|
|Lions at Lunchtime (#11), 1998|
|Polar Bears Past Bedtime (#12), 1998|
|Vacation Under the Volcano (#13), 1998|
|Day of the Dragon King (#14), 1998|
|Viking Ships at Sunrise (#15), 1998|
|Hour of the Olympics (#16), 1998|
|Tonight on the Titanic (#17), 1999|
|Buffalo Before Breakfast (#18), 1999|
|Tigers at Twilight (#19), 1999|
|Kate and the Beanstalk, 2000|
|Dingoes at Dinnertime (#20), 2000|
|Civil War on Sunday (#21), 2000|
|Virginia's Civil War Diaries: Book One, 2000|
|My Secret War: The World War II Diary of Madeline Beck, Long Island, New York, 1941, 2000|
|Knights and Castles: A Nonfiction Companion to The Knight at Dawn (coauthor), 2000|
|Dinosaurs: A Nonfiction Companion to Dinosaurs Before Dark (coauthor), 2000|
|Revolutionary War on Wednesday (#22), 2000|
|Mummies and Pyramids: A Nonfiction Companion to Mummies in the Morning (coauthor), 2001|
|Pirates: A Nonfiction Companion to Pirates Past Noon (coauthor), 2001|
|Twister on Tuesday (#23), 2001|
|Earthquake in the Early Morning (#24), 2001|
|Rain Forests: A Nonfiction Companion to Afternoon on the Amazon (coauthor), 2001|
|Christmas in Camelot (Magic Tree House), 2001|
|The Brave Little Seamstress, 2002|
|New York's Bravest, 2002|
|Space: A Nonfiction Companion to Midnight on the Moon (coauthor), 2002|
|Stage Fright on a Summer Night (#25), 2002|
|Virginia's Civil War Diaries: Book Two, 2002|
|Good Morning, Gorillas (#26), 2002|
|Titanic: A Nonfiction Companion Guide to Tonight on the Titanic (coauthor), 2002|
|Tales from the Odyssey: The One-Eyed Giant, 2002|
|Tales from the Odyssey: The Land of the Dead, 2002|
|Thanksgiving on Thursday (#27), 2002|
|High Tide in Hawaii (Magic Tree House Series #28), 2003|
|Haunted Castle on Hallow's Eve (Magic Tree House Series #30), 2003|
|Summer of the Sea Serpent (Magic Tree House Series #31), 2004|
|Winter of the Ice Wizard (Magic Tree House Series #32), 2004|
|Carnival at Candlelight (Magic Tree House Series #33), 2005|
|Season of the Sandstorms (Magic Tree House Series #34), 2005|
|Night of the New Magicians (Magic Tree House Series #35), 2006|
|Ancient Rome and Pompeii: A Nonfiction Companion to Vacation under the Volcano, 2006|
|Blizzard of the Blue Moon (Magic Tree House Series #36), 2006|
|Dragon of the Red Dawn (Magic Tree House Series #37), 2007|
|Tsunamis and Other Natural Disasters: A Nonfiction Companion to Hide Tide in Hawaii (Magic Tree House Research Guide Series #15), 2007|
|Monday with a Mad Genius (Magic Tree House Series #38), 2007|