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Transcript from an interview with Mary Pope Osborne

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Mary Pope Osborne. The transcript is divided into the following clips:

Mary Pope Osborne

Meet Mary Pope Osborne

My name is Mary Pope Osborne, and I'm the author of The Magic Tree House Series which is a series of chapter books for young readers; and also The Magic Tree House Research Guides I co-author with my sister Natalie Pope Boyce and with Will Osborne. I've written a number of other books as well; but Magic Tree House might be the books that most kids know me by the most.

A state of make-believe

Well, I like to tell kids that it never occurred to me in a million years that I'd be an author when I grew up. We never met authors in those olden days; we never even studied authors in school. It was you got a book, you loved a book and you didn't associate it with the creator.

I don't think I really knew that writing was my calling, but I knew that I loved living in my imagination. I spent all my childhood in a state of make-believe. I mean, I couldn't cross the room without thinking that I was in a movie or I was a cowboy or I was in an alternate reality.

I think because I grew up on Army posts, my brothers and my sister and I were each other's best friends. We moved every year and we just sort of reinvented ourselves constantly; and that was usually through the imagination. I think in that way, I was always an author. I would often speak my stories out loud. I would just talk to myself endlessly, but I would usually be one of the players in this story.

I think that those were the signs; and also I was a big reader. All the kids in my family were big readers. My mom had been a second grade teacher before she married and she made sure we could all read. She'd sit on the couch with us and read with us every day. If there was a weak reader, that one would read with her more.

We were really good readers and we always went to the library, piled up on books. I think that was the reading and the make believe led to my being an author.

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Magic Tree House: The Musical

My father had just retired from the military when I was 15. So we suddenly found ourselves in a fairly small southern town, and we were a little bit fish out of water — the kids in my family. I was having a very hard time at that point trying to fit in with kids who'd known each other all their lives.

I was floundering and I was bored and didn't know who I was; and then down the road from our house was a little darkened theater. I think of it as dark and musty and then magic would happen. I stumbled into that theater one day and started taking classes; and the next thing I knew I got cast in plays and it was the most magical place I had ever entered.

To this day, I can get this sort of excited feeling thinking about leaving the outside world and stepping in there and the smell of that and the feel of it. That saved my life — the theater. I would work onstage, work backstage, just sit in the audience and absorb all of these dramas.

I loved the Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. It was the late '60s, so they were replaying all those wonderful '50s dramas. I thought the actors were fantastic. They were the local banker, the local, you know, newspaper reporter — all the local people who would be in the shows.

But that was probably for me the thing that most influenced my life up to that point besides family which I would say would always be the biggest influence. I had a very tight, wonderful family growing up, but the theater then just saved my life. I think that when kids can have an introduction to the arts when they're young, especially if they feel a little alien to their high school or junior high culture, they might find themselves in a way that's a surprise to them and to their families, which is what happened to me.

A wonderful full circle is that my husband wrote a musical of The Magic Tree House with a wonderful composer named Randy Quartz. And we were looking for a place to produce this show and we interviewed with a lot of New York producer types and we kept not really wanting to do it the way people thought we should do it.

One day, my husband's riding home and he said, "We'll produce it ourselves." Then we discovered that in our community — we'd only lived there a few years up in Connecticut; we'd always lived in New York City — but up in Connecticut there is an incredible local theater that does wonderful shows year-round and draws from all the talent in the area.

We went to this theater and we started paying attention and Will started going to all the shows; and we said: we could cast the show locally. So we cast it locally; it was an 1800 seat theater and we filled it every night and put on the show with 50 actors; and it was a triumph.

And now, ten of those local people are changing their lives, giving up their jobs, two are selling their houses and they're going on a road tour with our show for the next two years. It not only will change our lives — this musical which is going to go all over the country — but it's changing the lives of everybody who's going to be in it.

It feels like that's what happened to me when I was young and now that'll be happening to both the young adults and middle aged people who have always wanted to be professional performers but had to give in to economics and become real estate executives and other things. They're going to give up their jobs now and travel with Magic Tree House: The Musical.

So we're having a ball producing this and putting it out and we just bought a 50-foot trailer that'll carry the sets around the country. The whole thing is a little bit like: my mom can sew, we have a barn — let's put on a show. So we're going to see if we can pull this off and hope that people will come.

My husband Will and I will drop in and visit the show and do publicity whenever it's necessary. There's a wonderful website called MTH — for Magic Tree House — MTHmusical.com. It has all kinds of information — videos, songs, photographs — and it'll have a list of everywhere the show is going to go in the next year and it'll keep revising the list.

Anybody who's interested and trying to catch it in their state or their area could look at the website.

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Leaving room for the imagination

I was offered film and television for some time and I turned those down; and I thought: you know, it's wonderful — you do that overnight; it's a big sensation, but then two years later, it's old news.

What's happened is over 15 years it's just steadily grown. Every child still thinks he or she is the first to discover it. I like having the kids read and not turn to a DVD. I want them to have to work at reading to get the story. I feel the musical requires that same use of imagination — it's ephemeral.

You have to fill in the rest of the space, the room; you have to take a song and let it work on you. It's a part of the creative collaboration the way reading is. So the musical seems… you know, theater is as old as reading. It seems like part of that world and not part of the technological world that sometimes tends to take things away from children by doing too much creation without the child involved.

I get distressed when I hear about toys that come with names and personalities and voices; and I prefer the school of thought where a child invents through the barest of material things. A wonderful passage in… I believe it's in Of Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston (is when she says her childhood best friends were a bar of soap and an old corncob and these elements that she would play with and give them names.

Until the day came when they weren't there anymore because her adult self took over and they weren't magic anymore — these items. It's one of the most heartbreaking things I ever read, but the life she had viewed those objects with in her own creativity is so rich and kids just don't have as much chance to do that now.

This sounds odd and I've said it a number of times so it might even now sound hackneyed coming from me, but I look forward to the day when an adult who read Magic Tree House says to a child or another person: I loved these books when I was little and picks it up and then looks at it and goes, "Well, this is so little — there's not that much here. There's just not that many words."

Then they'll realize: oh, I was filling in all the blanks. I was seeing ten times more than she even gave me. That was what was working on me all these years was my own collaboration with the author. I think that's the mystery of the printed word — that it's these little calligraphy we look at and then it blossoms into this inner world.

There's nothing that can replace that. I feel like that's what authors are obliged to keep giving to children. Especially now that children can't play outside as freely as we could; they can't jump on their bikes and ride two miles away when they're six like we did; they can't go fish in streams. My brothers would take off in the morning in the summer and come home at dinner when they were seven and eight years old.

We had so much freedom and we would invent all day long these lives. And children now are supervised every minute, they have play dates, they go to lessons, if they're lucky, or otherwise they stay inside and watch television. So there's not that chance for developing a self — a self that trusts itself and that gives itself boundaries and moral lessons through experience.

And the thing that hatches you into an adult — it's been taken away right now. So I think reading is about the major source that replaces play the way we used to play.

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A magical evolution

Originally, I was just going to do four Magic Tree House books; and I wanted to get back to my other writing which I really enjoyed. I was writing a mystery series with bugs. I was working on a lot of retellings of folklore and fairytales. I was also working on a book on the religions of the world — which meant a lot to me based on my background of studying religion and traveling all over the east.

So four Magic Tree House books, mass market paperback books — perhaps they'd make enough that I could support some of these other habits because they were going to go out in a much bigger way than the more, trade books, books that would end up more in libraries and small bookstores.

That was my intention in 1991, I think. The four books came out and suddenly something happened to me that had never happened before — I started getting letters from teachers and from kids and parents. I'd never gotten letters like these before. Where I thought these were my simplest work and not my most artistic work — these letters were phenomenal in terms of how a kid learned to read in the books or how a kid wanted more of the books.

The child would send me their own Magic Tree House story. All these interesting things start coming in. When Random House said: would I do four more — I thought, well, just four more wouldn't hurt anybody, so I'm just going to jump in and do four more. When those eight were done, by the time they were done, I was traveling all over the country visiting schools.

I just fell into this groove of wanting to be with kids and talk to them about the series, I was getting their ideas about where Jack and Annie should go. I would arrive at a school and they'd have all these projects for Magic Tree House. They would have bulletin boards and stories and do little plays. None of this had ever happened before.

Suddenly I just was caught up in the energy of that; and then Random House asked for four more books. We got up to 12 books and about that time I said: there's a future here. This is so intoxicating to be part of the educational process. Teachers were playing a big role and inspiring me and in talking to each other and getting the books around.

At that point, we said: what would be the most educational way to continue this series? We thought: well, what's happening is I'm taking a different subject with each book, teachers and kids want to know more about each subject. What if we start a non-fiction line? I think there was a name for this in education called "Parents Selection."

You take fiction and non-fiction and get kids to understand the relationship. We had a perfect set-up. My husband, Will, took on that job because I was pretty busy with the fiction. He's an excellent writer and a great researcher; and he started the Magic Tree House Research Guides. We did one on knights and castles and mummies and pyramids and the rain forest.

They started coming out as companions to my first books. Then we leapt over some subjects to do curriculum… more curriculum-connected subjects; teachers start playing even a bigger role. We got teacher advisors, teachers started writing to us, we were writing back asking their advice — we got several teachers as official advisors.

At that point, this became a serious educational tool. After Will had done, I think, eight, he was going to ask to do a Magic Tree House Planetarium Show at Chapel Hill. He left to do that show and then two more subsequently; that's when we pulled my sister onboard to take over the non-fiction line.

The Magic Tree House Research Guides now are a big part of the whole program — there are about 17 of them out there — and Natalie and I tour with her books and my books. This way a child who's more of a non-fiction reader gets to come in from that angle, a child who's fiction… you know, gets over to non-fiction through the fiction.

Hopefully then, all children use this as a launching pad to go and read more about a subject of interest beyond our books. That's what we encourage in the non-fiction is: you can do your own research and you can go on the internet, you can go to the library, you can go to a museum — whatever. We want children to be curious and find that gaining knowledge is fun.

We try to keep it fun by, you know, encouraging their curiosity and their interests. I think it's just fun for us — more fun now than it ever was, and I'm working on my 41st book. Somehow that whole thing of changing your subjects and opening yourself to the world is a real motivator for the writers as well as hopefully the readers.

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An international appeal

Well, right now, Magic Tree House has sold over 50 million books in this country; and then we're best sellers in a lot of other countries. We're best sellers in Germany and France and Italy and Korea and Japan, to name a few. I believe we're in 29 countries, but we've had the wonderful experience this past month of visiting Japan where the series is the second best seller after Harry Potter of series.

They had a national contest of bookstores to come up with displays for the series and of schools to submit. The prize would be a visit from me and the schools would submit why they loved the series. My husband and I went over and visited all these bookstores in Japan; our publishers there took us around; and then we went to the Japanese schools and had a wonderful time.

We really felt: oh, my God — kids are the same everywhere. You know, there was such a similarity in those readers and the readers here. We just went to a Navajo reservation in New Mexico — the kids were reading Magic Tree House there — and the Navajo children were just like the Japanese children, just like the American children.

We're getting this great sense of kids being connected. Not that the series connects them, but the series is the evidence or the lens of you can look at the kids through to say: you know, kids are really… I don't want to sound Pollyanna, but they're wonderful everywhere. They identify with Jack and Annie who have super values and are responsible and good learners and want to help people.

These little kids in all these other countries feel the same and they want to learn about the world. It's very heartening. We love now this idea of traveling internationally to meet readers; and we may go to Europe in the next year to visit some of the readers over there.

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Power to the little people

The one that's coming out in the fall is called Eve of the Emperor Penguin. I have to say that kids have navigated this whole series. When I'm on a book tour, which I do at least once a year, I get kids to vote on ideas that I'm thinking about. I come off that tour and I always know what my next few books will be.

A couple of years ago — I think maybe because of March of the Penguins, the movie — every child I met was advocating for a penguin book. Based on that, I started my research and Eve of the Emperor Penguin will be next. I didn't necessarily have children all over the world telling me to do Mozart, but I wanted to do Mozart.

I figured out a way to — as I did with Shakespeare — I didn't call it Shakespeare, I called it Stage Fright on a Summer Night, so that children who could relate to stage fright would be sort of tricked in to getting to know Shakespeare. But with Mozart I call it Moonlight on the Magic Flute, because that sounds sort of mysterious.

I've got a lot of votes for that title without children really knowing what it was about. I'll get title ideas confirmed as well as subject ideas when I do my little surveys. Now the interesting thing is on a recent tour, I kept getting huge reactions to one word; and this word would get more reaction than any other word I put out there — pandas.

I don't know why, but it was universal — even among the Navajo children I just visited. Definitely I'm starting now to gather information on panda bears and we'll work that in down the road. It's so fun because it's constantly weighing what children want against my own interest and it's great when they coincide.

What I'll do is I'll say, "Now we're going to do a vote because there are a lot of you here; and I'll say an idea and everyone vote if they love the idea and just don't raise your hand if you don't love it. But when you come up to me, if you have an idea I haven't mentioned, just let me know real fast."

I get hundreds of pieces of paper with little ideas written on them and little titles written on them. It provokes in children ideas of where they'd like to go, what they'd like to read about. So I think it's a fun give and take. It's always worked that way. If all the children and I suddenly run out of ideas — we'll stop.

But until then, I think, as long as I'm healthy and in my right mind I'll just keep going with the whole series. It's so much fun. I would say it's more fun now than ever.

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A magical journey with Frodo

Maybe it was from that childhood I lived of feeling so free and so adventurous; but when I was in my early 20s, with not much money, I sat out to travel and my college roommate and I went… actually, I hate to say this — don't anybody do this — but we hitchhiked and got down to Crete, and we didn't have much money so we found a cave on the coast of Crete that we moved into.

We lived in this cave for two months and we cooked all our meals on a little kerosene stove and we went down to the village and we'd wash our clothes in the water — in the ocean water. Then one day a van came through to the town with some other kids and said, "Well, we're going to India — come with us." So we jumped in the van and we started traveling in this old rickety van over land.

We bought 25 pounds of dried oatmeal and put it in a box on top of the van — that was going to be our food. This sounds like a fairytale, but we started east and I ended up traveling by myself and with a few other kids and got all the way to Nepal. I went through Turkey and Syria and Lebanon and Iran and Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan and India and Nepal.

Just traveling, you know… living, camping and staying among the people that we met; and never hardly spent much money. We'd go to the markets and buy a few fruits or vegetables or bread every day; and would cook on the kerosene stove — eggs; make eggs — and just lived, you know, this sort of sublime traveler's life.

The whole time I was doing it I was reading Lord of the Rings — I have to add that. There was a copy of Lord of the Rings in the van that was all three of the trilogy and I felt like I was Frodo and we were on our adventure and we ran into problems — we were in an earthquake in Afghanistan and we got caught in a riot in Kabul where they tore apart a lot of things in our van and we were running through the streets trying to get away from a mad crowd of people based on a car accident that had happened.

We were in many stressful situations but just going on with our little trip. I got to Nepal and I got blood poisoning and I just was very, very sick. I went into a hospital that was like a missionary hospital and I was the only westerner in the hospital in a ward of Nepalese women.

It was a delirious time… I'd look out the window and I could see the Himalayas and I was living out that sort of the final throes of that Tolkien dream, in a way, where the whole trip was going to come an end and I felt like what had happened in my life — none of it really made sense suddenly.

My parents — this is so sad — my parents contacted their congressman because they hadn't heard from me in a long time, and the congressman contacted the embassy in Nepal and I was visited by an embassy official who said, "Is there a girl here?" And I was there and I was so embarrassed.

I felt like I had just sort of lost my head and headed east and dropped my poor parents notes from different major cities where the post could get through. I came back to the states and got well, finally — it took another few months to get well — and then ended up living in California.

Didn't quite come to my senses for a while and then my poor dad was trying so hard to incorporate my interests into a career; and he told me he'd found a travel school where I could train to be a travel agent. I came back to Washington, DC and went to this travel training school so I could be respectable.

Then one night I went to the theater to watch a musical of Jesse James at Ford's Theater and this actor walked on stage — he was just gorgeous — playing Jesse James with a guitar, wearing boots and a cowboy hat; and I fell in love with him from the balcony. It was just my heart just… I went backstage after the show because I knew someone else in the show and I met Jesse James, and we're about to celebrate our 32nd wedding anniversary next week.

That was Will. Will lived in New York — he was just an actor in a show in DC traveling. I went to New York to marry him; and then I finally, after being a waitress and a bartender and everything else in New York to put together a living, I started writing. I sold my first book and then I never looked back.

I had many lucky moments in my life where things should've gone terribly wrong where I made it; and finally found my voice in writing for children in the early '80s.

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An apple and four marshmallows

I think most children's authors would tell you that one of the most rewarding parts of being a children's author is getting letters from children; and the letters are so rich and so funny.

Last week I got a little package — it looked really like a child had put it together. In a little plastic bag was an apple and four marshmallows. A little note came with it that said, "From a six-year-old" — because his mother attached a note trying to explain what was going on — and she said, "He did this all on his own."

He had brought this to her and said, "I want her to have this to eat when she's writing." And then he put in his note — this is so funny — "I want you to write these books 'til you die." He sent me an apple and four marshmallows. I got another letter about a month ago that I saved that said, "I am the best friend you will ever have."

Which I… you know, it's a little anonymous person out there, and I think, "yeah, probably they are." The letters can be so heartbreaking and wonderful; and sometimes a child tells you problems and sometimes a teacher writes about a child's problem. Not long ago I met a child who had no parents who had written his own story — he was eight — and this story was about a monkey who had a baby and how she took care of the baby.

It just made me cry because it was a child's wish through this storytelling; but I thought at least he could put that into a story. You have these amazing little inspirational encounters with children that keep feeding the muse and make you want to keep that connection going. Children at that age — especially at 7 and 8 — are still so fresh and so unimpaired by peer pressure that they will tell you what's in their hearts and minds.

They'll also treat you like an equal — like a colleague. I had a child come up once in a group of children — he sort of stood off to the side — and finally he leaned over and whispered in my ear and said, "Mrs. Osborne, you may not realize this, but I'm an author, too."

You have that kind of sharing that's not like you're a grownup and they're a child; and they just see you as another creator like themselves. Once after I finished a school assembly this little boy stayed behind and he came up and the boy and I were the only ones left in the auditorium — I don't think his teacher noticed he hadn't gone back with the class.

He looked at me and he said, "Hey, are you a kid or a grownup?" — because I had just finished this whole thing about The Magic Tree House, and, you know, Jack and Annie, and I think he really got confused about my identity because of this make-believe world. You have these magical encounters, and then the children are gone.

That child you thought was your best friend is 10 years old and is reading Harry Potter and is just gone. But then there's another one who's popped up in their place. You lose them — they just slip through your fingers. All the old letters you have — that person is not there anymore, but then you have these new letters.

It's different from adult book-writing where you would have a fan base that would pretty much stay as it is. But this is just these little spirits that keep coming through and coming through. It's shocking to think that the ones I'm talking to now weren't even alive 10 years into the series; and they're like mushrooms after rain — they're sprouting up again.

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"I'm wondering what to read next." — Matilda, Roald Dahl