By Benita Jeune and Brooke Nevils
She’s one of the most successful children’s authors in the world. Her “Magic Tree House” chapter books have been translated into 32 languages, with sales of more than 100 million copies worldwide. She’s published 48 installments of the series so far, and her adoring fans, who are mostly in the 6-10 year old age range, consider Mary Pope Osborne to be nothing less than a rock star, lining up for autographs at her readings and greeting her tour bus with ecstatic screams.
The best-selling books chronicle the adventures of Jack and Annie, a brother and sister who discover a tree house filled with books that let them time travel back to wherever the book is set: the Civil War, the Titanic, even Elizabethan England to meet William Shakespeare. Along the way, they have hair-raising encounters with dragons, tigers, tsunamis and twisters.
Yet if you’ve never heard of Mary Pope Osborne, it’s probably because despite being flooded with offers, she has adamantly refused to commercialize the stars of her books. You can’t buy any Jack and Annie toys, and you won’t see a Jack and Annie TV show or a Magic Tree House movie series any time soon.
“When people really started coming to me, I thought, what am I doing with the books? I’m trying to ignite the imagination of a child. I’m trying to get them to picture themselves as Jack and Annie,” Osborne told Rock Center’s Meredith Vieira in an exclusive interview. “Because the books were selling really well, I had the privilege of not having to license the characters for the sake of income and I could really decide to do what my heart wanted to do, which was not take Jack and Annie out of children’s imaginations.”
What’s most important to her, Osborne says, is simply that children read.
Earlier this year, she came across a study that found that children who do not master reading by 3rd grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school than their peers who are proficient readers. She was so troubled by the study, she personally donated a set of her first 28 books to every third grader in Newark, New Jersey, where many kids struggle with reading.
“I’ve talked to people who, because of books, got an education, ended up going to college, ending up seeing a big world and finding a place in it,” says Osborne. “ You co-create when you read. You picture things. You grow up and you think you’ve lived those adventures. That’s why I think if children can’t read, they’re denying themselves a huge chunk of life.”
Osborne is constantly pushing the educational component of her books. The series, which is widely used in grade school classrooms, comes with a companion series of 26 non-fiction “Fact-Trackers,” written by Mary’s husband Will Osborne and her sister, Natalie Osborne Boyce. Osborne even created a curriculum guide she calls the Classroom Adventures Program , which provides free lesson plans for educators.
And according to Jacqueline Haley, principal of the Old Mill Pond elementary school in Palmer, Massachusetts, Osborne’s books are making a big difference to young readers.
“I walk into classrooms and I see kids that are engaged in reading and excited about reading,” she says. “These kids, they don’t have action figures. They dress up like the characters. We have students that took a refrigerator box and made a tree house, and then they imagine that they’re the characters in the stories. I think it’s great that they use their imaginations.”
Osborne has received thousands of letters from her avid fans, many of them suggesting topics and titles for new books. One fan, nine-year-old Molly Freer, was so inspired by the books that she began writing and hosting her own episodes of the Magic Tree House News on YouTube.
Osborne, who didn’t even publish her first Magic Tree House book until she was in her 40s, says she feels a great responsibility not to disappoint her fans.
“If I do a book signing and they come up and I can just have that little moment where each child just gets something, that connection -- that feeds me,” says Osborne. “Because they see me as a rock star, strictly because I write books. And for a child to value someone who writes books is so extraordinary to me, and so special, that I want to be the person they want me to be so that they will always have an enthusiasm for books.”