I am who I am, and I do what I do, in part because of Mary Pope Osborne. As a kid, I remember beelining straight for the "Magic Tree House" section of the library's children's section, knowing that any book that I chose would transport me.
In the chapter books, brother-sister duo Jack and Annie travel through space and time, and encounter the kind of things I wished I learned about in elementary school, like saber tooth tigers and ancient civilizations.
The "Magic Tree House" novels were the first books I turned to after I could read on my own. Funny and imaginative, they my gateway to a lifelong love of reading.
Mary Pope Osborne, who has been writing the series for 30 years and was working on her 65th installment at the time of this interview, said I'm hardly the first person who has told her that "Magic Tree House" impacted them.
Speaking to TODAY, Osborne recalled a particularly memorable encounter with a reader, now all grown up.
At the time, she was in a parking lot grocery store. A fan, she said, started calling her name and ran across the parking lot. "She burst into tears and said, 'You got me through a troubled childhood,'" she said. "It was so powerful, that one line: 'You got me through a troubled childhood.'"
Osborne recently compiled her wisdom of 30 years of writing the “Magic Tree House” series in a book called “Memories and Life Lessons from the Magic Tree House” out earlier this year.
Below, we caught up with Osborne about a lifetime with Jack and Annie.
The path to 'Tree House'
Part of what has kept her writing, Osborne said, is that her younger self is never far away.
"I've been a 9-year-old boy now for 30 years," she said, laughing. "I look in the mirror and I'm changing — but inside I'm not changing. I have no sense of my own age, because I don't have my own children."
While writing, Osborne is able to call upon the feeling — which she calls the freedom of childhood — that ran through her when she and her brothers played.
"We constantly invented our own reality. A table would become a ship," Osborne said. She grew up in a military family, moving about every two years. "We didn't mind the moving because we always had each other, and the new environments stimulated different kinds of play."
Starting with that latchkey childhood, freedom and curiosity are threads through her biography, leading up to the creation of "Tree House."
In her early 20s, Osborne traveled through Europe and Asia, stopping in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. She fell ill in Nepal and practically had to be airlifted home, putting an end to her bohemian journey — and starting her next adventure.
She and her husband moved to New York, where he tried to find acting work. Between waitressing jobs, Osborne began writing for kids.
"I'd go up to the roof of the Bleecker Street apartment and I started writing children's stories. I had no idea what I was doing. It just sort of rushed through me," she said.
Osborne published children's books about history and mythology before she was approached by Random House about starting a series.
"I came up with an idea of time travel, but I didn't know how I would get a brother and sister back in time. It took a year of bad ideas to get to the good one," she said.
In the seven failed manuscripts, Jack and Annie used devices like a magic cellar, a magic artist's studio, a magic museum and magic whistles to travel back in time. The breakthrough came when she and her husband were on vacation in Pennsylvania and encountered a tree house.
"We're walking in the woods and saw an old tree house. Both of us wished we'd had when we were young. By nightfall, I had it, and then I had the book," she said.
As for what makes tree houses so, well, magical? Osborne took a guess. "It's entwined with nature. You're up high, you can see all around. It's possible no one knows you're there. You got a ladder. And you can put books up there."
Fan mail and the ‘gift’ of writing for young readers
Reflecting, Osborne has a theory about why her books have such a lasting impact on readers, whether middle schoolers or adults.
Her books are geared at kids aged seven to 12, which she says is “the age where I think (kids are) most themselves, before peer pressure and culture steps in to distort their thinking. They’re opening their minds.”
She is teeming with anecdotes about her encounters with young readers, like the young boy who took her over to say, shyly, that she “might not know this,” but he was an author too. “They don’t see the world as limited. They see it as full of possibility,” she said.
“So when (adult readers) come up to me, I realize if they’re weeping or if they’re overwhelmed, it’s for that self that they were that they’re getting back in touch with,” she said.
“I tell audiences of adults, just go back to being who you were at 7 and 8. Because you were right: The world is filled with wonder and magic and you have a big role to play in it,” she said.
She said the volume of fan mail from readers is so great she had to hire someone to help her sort through it.
“The first kid the first time I knew I was on something extraordinary was when I got a letter in the first year after the first book. This little boy said he was 7 years old and he was writing his own book, and it was scary. It was called ‘The Septic System.’ I just thought that was so amazing."
Over the years, kids have sent her an apple (“his mother attached a note saying that he wanted me not to get hungry so I wouldn’t stop writing”); invitations to birthday parties; bracelets; pictures and more in the mail.
“They they cheer me on. They try to raise my self-esteem. They tell me if I get stuck, I could write back to them, and maybe they can help me,” she said. “You can’t keep them all, but you don’t forget them.”
Books as a 'stimulus to education'
Osborne sees her books as a "stimulus" to education, with the goal of each book to open pathways to more. "If they read it, I'm not the final word. Hopefully, they'll go learn more," she said.
Osborne said she “constantly” interacts with her young readers around the world, and has used their input to “steer her” through subjects.
“They all want to surf in Hawaii, and they all wanted to meet the gorillas in the cloud forests,” she said.
Through research, she puts the topic of her next book up for vote. Then, Osborne said pitches ideas to focus groups and gets a “strong sense” on how an idea is going to translate through their responses.
For example, Osborne wanted to write about Shakespeare and the Globe Theater. The title “ Showtime with Shakespeare” didn’t land — but when she refashioned it to “Stage Fright on a Summer Nights,” the kids showed more enthusiasm.
“I have worked around the limitations of some subjects,” she said.
Sometimes, the reverse happens, and kids get her interested in topics she wasn't interested in — like Galapagos giant tortoises. "I didn't think that would grab me, but I became obsessed with it. I was getting up at 5:30 every day to go have my adventure again, through the writing of the first draft," she said.
How to raise a reader, according to Osborne
First step? Osborne said it's "absolutely essential" parents find out if they're learning to read at school. "If they're not, make sure you give them lots of time," she said.
Osborne cited the importance of reading alongside an adult or older sibling. "More happens than just learning to read, it's entwined with affection and compatibility and nourishment," she said.
Then, before they can read themselves, try reading to kids. "Reading across the bridge gets them across the bridge and interested in books," she said.
She also recommends kids following along with an audio book or reading graphic novels.
What's next for 'Tree House?'
Osborne has no plans of stopping writing her "Tree House" novels. "If I had to stop my life with those kids, I would probably go into mourning — or at least secretly keep them," she said.
Jack and Annie are very real presences in her life. “Memories of Jack and Annie’s adventures are mingle with my own. It provides a rich life,” she said.
“Tree House” has become a family affair. Osborne’s husband, alongside two family friends, have written nine “Magic Tree House” musicals. Her older sister writes companion non-fiction and has written about 40 so far. There are also graphic novels and a planetarium show.
“Between the five of us in the Berkshires, we have our little empire,” she said.
One thing you'll never find in any of the iterations? Parents. A child psychologist once remarked that she liked Osborne's books, but why didn't parents go along with Jack and Annie?
"I thought, 'That's the whole point.' That's where kids get this vicarious thrill. Kids like 'Tree House' because they get to have a surrogate adventure without the grownups."
This article was originally published on TODAY.com