'Magic Tree House' author builds worlds from the Berkshires
GREAT BARRINGTON — Surrounded by historical art and architecture, Berkshire residents may regularly feel transported to the past. But it would be difficult to find anybody in these hills more versed in time travel than Mary Pope Osborne.
"People can give me one word, and it's like as soon as you open that little door, there's a world," the "Magic Tree House" series author said during a Thursday morning visit to her Castle Street house in Great Barrington.
Osborne recently found that entry point once again. Publisher Penguin Random House had recommended that she base the 60th installment of the children's series on narwhals.
"I thought, 'Oh, I'm going to get out of this one,' and then I looked up narwhals. Actually, they are fascinating; they are in Greenland, mostly. I started investigating Greenland, and then I came across the Vikings who settled there in year 1000. So, suddenly I had this whirlpool of ideas that spun itself into a story," Osborne said. "That's pretty much how it happens."
Though Osborne's creative process is far from formulaic, the "Magic Tree House" books have been consistent best-sellers: Over 143 million copies have been sold in more than 35 languages since the series debuted in 1992 with "Dinosaurs Before Dark." The author is still adding to those totals; her next book is due out on Tuesday. In "Warriors in Winter," entering the magic tree house brings seasoned adventurers Jack and Annie to ancient Rome, where they meet Marcus Aurelius. In other books, they encounter famous figures such as Louis Armstrong, Clara Barton and William Shakespeare.
"I want to introduce little kids to these names early, and then they feel they own them," Osborne said.
The series has been successful enough to warrant companion written and theatrical works by Osborne's family and friends. Nonfiction "Fact Tracker" books accompany the fiction titles. First written by Osborne's husband, Will, the series is now mostly penned by Stockbridge resident Natalie Pope Boyce, Osborne's sister. Additionally, Great Barrington friends Randy Courts and Jenny Laird have teamed up with Will Osborne to create six "Magic Tree House" musicals that are being performed around the country, including in the Berkshires: Berkshire Theatre Group's BTG Plays! is currently touring "Showtime with Shakespeare: A Magic Tree House Adventure," a play based on the "Stage Fright on a Summer Night" book. On Thursday, Osborne and her "Berkshire 'Magic Tree House' tribe" will give a Berkshire Magazine-sponsored talk about the art of storytelling at the Norman Rockwell Museum, taking one of the series' books (likely "A Ghost Tale for Mr. Dickens") and explaining how they interpret the story in different artistic mediums.
"This is the first time our whole team has spoken together about 'Magic Tree House' and our different roles in bringing it to life. That means a lot to me, for us all to be up there," Osborne said.
The author takes a hands-off approach to the nonfiction and stage pieces.
"I don't have anything to do with the musicals, other than give them the book to write about. I don't have anything to do with the nonfiction even though my name's on it because I started the series. Natalie does that by herself. So, we're all three working in parallel lanes," Osborne said.
And they are all toiling in the Berkshires. Osborne moved to the county in the early 2000s to be closer to her sister and her grandchildren. Osborne and her husband own two Great Barrington homes as well as a lake house in Goshen, Conn.
"This we call our family house because we seem to always have traffic in this house of nephews and out-of-town guests," she said, later showing off a wall of family photos in the Castle Street abode. "It's where we entertain. It's where I keep a little office in the back."
But she wasn't writing there on this particular day.
"I was almost late getting here this morning because I was so engrossed in my story up in my little hideaway," she said.
She was referring to the rustic property the couple owns near Alford, about five minutes away from their Castle Street home. It's where they sleep and roam a forest.
"Will's a woodsman. He loves to be in the woods," Osborne said of her husband.
The longtime New York City dwellers appreciate their less hectic surrounds, often playing with their dogs, Joey and Little Bear. They also enjoy poking around local shops.
"We like to take rides into the small towns," she said, mentioning New Marlborough and Monterey, among others.
Osborne's road to writing a bestselling children's series was continent-spanning. An Army brat, the author was born in Oklahoma and raised in several U.S. states as well as Austria during her youth. Her mind was often elsewhere. She played with dolls and built forts outside, constructing different realms in the process.
"I lived in my imagination to an extreme degree. I was always make-believing. In every class I was ever in, I would try to get a seat by the window so I could look out and just invent things [by] looking out," she recalled.
Writing didn't come until later. Initially, she was interested in theater, studying drama at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill before focusing on world religions.
"That was certainly an opening into other cultures," she said, noting that she later penned a book about the subject ("One World, Many Religions").
After college, Osborne traveled throughout Europe and Asia, visiting places such as Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria. At one point, she lived in a Crete cave.
"I was in that '70s mode," she said.
Her trip came to an end after suffering from blood poisoning in Nepal.
"I got very, very sick," she said. "I think I decided that using my imagination was better than putting a pack on my back and heading to some place. With 'Tree House,' I can go anywhere in the world."
She met her husband after returning to the U.S. Will was playing Jesse James in a Washington, D.C., musical.
"I saw Will on the stage, and I just lost my head thinking how adorable he was," she said.
They met afterward, learning that they both attended UNC at the same time.
"I realized then that the secret to life is timing," she said. "Everything is timing in terms of when you really should be with someone."
She moved to New York City to live with him. Eventually, they were married. As a wedding gift, they asked for a portable typewriter so that Mary could compose while Will toured.
"Out of that came my whole career," she said.
During that period, she wrote four of her six young adult novels, all of which are now out of print.
"They were very gritty and hard-hitting and kind of depressing," she said. "They got a bit of notice, and it was that notice that ultimately had Random House ask me if I wanted to do the series for younger readers."
Osborne hadn't planned on writing a series.
"I didn't want to do the same thing over and over. If there's a hallmark to what I do, it's that I do a lot of different things," she said.
But the concept of time travel appealed to her.
"Every book would be its own world," she said.
She agreed to write four "Magic Tree House" stories, thinking that she would make enough money to return to her "more artful work."
Then the letters started coming. Parents and teachers informed her that the books were helping their children and students learn to read.
"I felt like I had struck gold in terms of a life's purpose," Osborne said.
Since 1992, she has finished at least two "Magic Tree House" books per year. During that time, she has also visited hundreds of classrooms as an advocate for children's literacy. She donates thousands of books annually to students. Last year, for example, she gave 90,000 "Magic Tree House" books to Chicago Public Schools second and third-graders, who watched a streamed version of one of the series' recorded musicals.
"We're going to be doing a lot more of that," Osborne said of the donation.
A movie may also be in the works, though Osborne doesn't know when that will come to fruition. In 2016, Lionsgate purchased a "Magic Tree House" screenplay written by her husband and Laird. For years, Osborne was approached about TV and film opportunities, but she always turned them down.
"I think that was a wise thing to do because I didn't want media to replace reading. Also, I didn't want it to be an overnight hit and then old news the next year," she said.
She isn't focused on bringing the series to the screen. Instead, she concerns herself with writing. She came up with the ideas for the first 40 or so books; now, it's a more collaborative process with Penguin Random House.
"They said sharks, and I went in to do Mayans, so we compromised: I did sharks off the coast of a Mayan village in the Yucatan Peninsula," she said of one such meeting.
She is grateful to have had the same publisher, editor and agent for all 27 years of the series' existence. Its first illustrator, Sal Murdocca, recently retired. The current illustrator is AG Ford.
"Most people think an author and an illustrator are talking all the time, working together; you never talk because between you is editorial and the art department. You each have an ambassador that meets in the middle and works out the differences, if there are any. I would see my illustrator very rarely," Osborne said, adding that she enjoys illustrators', musicians' and actors' interpretations of her stories.
Osborne also relishes watching her initial readership age.
"They started to grow up. Now, sometimes if I go to an airport or check into a hotel, the young adult who checks me in will recognize the name. That's a new phenomena that's really fun and has added even more joy to the whole experience of writing these books," she said.
As for her current student readers, Osborne wants them to experience the freedom she felt as a child.
"Because they don't play outside like kids used to, I hope it gives them a sense of autonomy and independence and they identify with Jack and Annie, so they can kind of test themselves against Jack and Annie," she said. "Jack and Annie are just ordinary kids. Now and then they have a little magic to play with, but basically all their choices kids can make, too. They're not superheroes."
Reading the books allows children to develop their imaginations, too.
"These are just codes on a page. You go through the codes, and you see a whole world. You see your world," she said. "To me, it's cliche, but that's the magic."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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