Magic Mary

Mary Pope Osborne built a fantasy world out of a tree house and invited young readers to see themselves inside. Twenty years and 100 million books later, they keep showing up at imagination’s door.

If Lea Dardess could get a meeting with Mary Pope Osborne ’71, the two might make literary magic together.

She has an idea that she thinks would be perfect for Osborne, the best-selling chil- dren’s book author. If you can picture it: Jack and Annie, a brother and sister who time-travel in a tree house full of magical books, find a Susan B. Anthony dollar with a mysterious “M” on the back. They use its powers to find the real Anthony, who needs their help.

Lea could write her own story about the women’s suffragist, but she’s got enough on her plate now that she has a spelling test every Friday. And she needs to reserve some time for dreaming about becoming a dolphin trainer. Besides, once the 6-year-old gets started, her imagination could go on forever — and she has to catch the school bus every morning at 8.

Good thing Osborne’s around. Her Magic Tree House chapter book series, which is celebrating its 20th year, boasts 47 (and counting) installments about Jack and Annie, who have saved characters from tsunamis and twisters and helped Mona Lisa smile just right for da Vinci across five generations of 6- to 10-year-olds.

There’s more than enough Magic Tree House to satiate the unabridged mind of young Lea, just as there was for Nicholas Mohorn, who first read the books as part of a second-grade classroom assignment. When the now-11-year-old heard his aunt (me) mention the author’s name … well, as Jack would say: “Oh, man!” He slip-slid his way in stocking feet from two rooms away.

“Did you say Mary Pope Osborne?” he asked, wide-eyed. “The Mary Pope Osborne? As in, the Magic Tree House? I know her!”

He doesn’t know her. But like hundreds of thousands of other children who have climbed that rope ladder into the big oak tree with Osborne, he feels he does. She gets kids, and they get her, and it’s a rare and beautiful thing to behold in a childhood landscape of glitter and gaming.

It may not matter to Lea or Nicholas that Osborne has sold almost 100 million Magic Tree House books worldwide since the first alliterative title, Dinosaurs Before Dark, debuted in 1992. Or that, among children’s book series, only one — a juggernaut about a boy with a lightning bolt scar — has spent more weeks on The New York Times best-seller list. Or that you can’t find a theme park, action figure, Lego set, video game, cereal bowl or billion-dollar movie franchise bearing Jack and Annie’s images (Osborne’s choice).

What does matter is that they see themselves in the stories: Lea, as the brave Annie, who wouldn’t mind peeking at a mummy; and Nicholas, a careful Jack who looks before he leaps. Osborne, who receives such heartfelt fan mail from young readers that she can quote even many of the oldest ones verbatim, said that familiarity, mingled with excitement, is what has driven the series’ success.

“Jack and Annie have these great adventures,” says Osborne, “and every kid feels like them. They’re just ordinary kids who find themselves in extraordinary situations. I believe kids are amazing. And I believe we can challenge them a lot more than we do. They can do more than just absorb the world around them. They can participate in it.”

Or, as Lea put it: “The books are never boring. But sometimes the room I’m reading them in is.”

“Dear Mary: I wish Jack and Annie would come to Faraday School in Canada, and that Annie would not be afraid of the Grade 6’s upstairs.”

Osborne has spent a lifetime crafting the soul of Magic Tree House books.

She and her siblings — twin brother Bill Pope ’71, younger brother Michael Pope ’73 and older sister Natalie Pope Boyce ’65 — lived richly in their imaginations as children, scripting and performing circus acts, flying planes that looked suspiciously like picnic tables, singing little jingles. (“If you like peanuts and chocolate, too, then Snick Snick Snick is the bar for you!”)

Their parents obliged them. “When she was a 2-year-old,” said Osborne’s 95-year-old mother, Barnette Dickens Pope, “Mary was playing with a friend over the top of the mountain — that’s according to her. She’d never even seen a mountain.”

Each time the family prepared to relocate with their Army-colonel father, he told his children the tale of two chimpanzees named Cheetah and Meetah, who had moved to the same new post as the Popes. The chimps were not always well-behaved in Col.
Pope’s series, but they always fit in perfectly at their new schools.

Osborne led the Pope tribe. “She was a tough little girl,” said Natalie, who is six years her senior. “She had this big mop of curls and these giant blue eyes, and any other children who might be inclined to chase or hit one of my brothers never thought she would retaliate. But she was a force of nature. She would fight injustice at the drop of a hat.”

“Woe betide any bully that came into the room or into the playground when my sister was there,” agreed Michael. “She was right in his face, circling the wagons as needed.”

Adolescence crashed down on Osborne, though. The once-confident student body president, known for her polished shoes and speech, lost her bearings in eighth grade when the family moved to Fort Bragg. The kids there had a “different way of being in the world,” and Osborne deeply felt that difference as she hurtled toward an age where one could no longer pretend to be a circus acrobat. The imagination, that sacred space of her childhood, was replaced with a spiritless adolescence.

In high school, Osborne found refuge from the peer pressure at the Fayetteville Little Theater, where she says the founder, Olga Thorp ’56, “saved my life.” Not only did Thorp return Osborne’s imagination to her through the stage, she sometimes gave her a job baby-sitting the future chancellor, her son Holden Thorp ’86.

“It’s kind of a terrible time in one’s life, but it was soul-making,” she said of those years, which she would draw on more than a decade later in young adult novels like 1982’s Run, Run as Fast as You Can, her first book. “I started to develop a real self by suffering, and I needed to know what kids feel in every possible situation. So it was a short-term disaster, but a long-term blessing to feel alienated.”

That alienation is also why Jack and Annie will never age past grade school in the Magic Tree House series. They are embedded in the sweet spot of childhood, and that is where Osborne has promised they will remain.

“Dear Mary: I am 7 years old. I’m working on my book. It’s called The Septic System, and it’s a little scary.”

A note to Lea and Nicholas: You may want to get your parents’ permission before you meet us in the next few paragraphs, where we shall begin the “checkered past” portion of your favorite author’s life — which involves a steep cliff, a hasty marriage and a couple of near-death experiences. Go ahead. We’ll cover a few back- ground details while we wait.

Osborne spent her first two years at Carolina in the drama department, where she became a well-known actress on campus. But it was a different sort of drama that ultimately hooked her. When she saw a friend crying one day from his experience in a psychology of religion class, she abandoned the stage and switched her major to religious studies.

“He was so affected by the class,” she said. “I was hungry for that kind of knowledge.”

After college, Osborne and her roommate, Susan Reynolds Sultan ’74, backpacked through Europe. In Matala, a town on the southern coast of Crete, they lived in a cave on a cliff for six weeks, with a tiny path and a long drop-off as their front porch. As dark, confined spaces go, Sultan said, it wasn’t so bad. They made their beds from branches, had two rooms and even a couple of shelves.

“We would walk into town and get these sandwiches and stay on the beach and think we were in heaven,” Sultan said.

And then came Miguel.

“Oh, Miguel,” groaned Sultan, wearily. “He was a handful.”

The Spaniard charmed Osborne into going east with him. In Magic Tree House character terms, Osborne says she’s a solid Jack — if she’s going to do anything courageous, she needs an Annie to push her. Like Sultan, for example. But Miguel was a special kind of fearless “that bordered on psychotic,” Osborne said.

They had no money, didn’t speak one another’s language and barely knew each other — and still, Osborne thought, why not? So Sultan returned home, and Osborne followed Miguel through Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal on a rickety bus, enduring an earthquake in northern Afghanistan and a riot in Kabul, feeling terrified but all the while sending cheerful little notes home to her parents about how she was with a group of students and having a wonderful time.

Then the notes stopped. Osborne’s parents discovered that their daughter was in a hospital in Katmandu with blood poisoning, deathly ill. She spent two weeks there recovering and reading The Lord of the Rings as the Himalayas stood guard outside her window.

Her parents’ congressman helped ship her home.

The apple of the Popes’ eye had developed a hippie core, and that was a difficult reality for the colonel, who was by then the president of Oak Ridge Military Academy near Greensboro.

“He was a leader of men,” Osborne said, “but at home, he was very vulnerable. He was a sentimental person. The ’70s kind of swallowed us all up, me and my brothers. He couldn’t relate to us, and he was kind of heartbroken. And he kind of blamed Carolina a little bit, said, ‘Oh, those professors are terrible.’ We were against the war, and he was in the military.”

After her illness, Osborne returned to Chapel Hill, saved some money and moved to California. And then, said the woman who would become one of the world’s most beloved children’s book authors: “I brought this crazy character from Spain over here and married him.

“I didn’t even tell my parents I married him, at first. And when I finally did, we had already separated. Suddenly — it was so surreal — their friends started sending us gifts, but by then he was long gone. So I put the gifts out on the lawn and put them all up for sale.”

Osborne’s dad convinced her to return east and train to be a travel agent in Wash- ington, D.C., in an attempt “to civilize me.” In 1975, a friend from college, John Haber ’70, invited her to opening night of the musical he was directing, Diamond Studs. From the balcony at Ford’s Theater, she fell for the man playing the lead role of Jesse James. He turned out to be Wilkesboro native and UNC classmate Will Osborne ’71. Although they later realized they had been in a number of performances together in Chapel Hill, they didn’t know each other; she had left the drama department just as he switched to it as a junior.

“I ran off and joined the circus with his show, which was a much more fun and sane enterprise,” she said. “And my dad had a history of disliking my boyfriends. So by that time, my parents had been through such hell with me, that, when Will — this long-haired, unemployed actor from New York City — came to meet my father …”

Their prospects didn’t look good. But let the kids tell the story:

Mary: My dad and Will talk in the parlor at Oak Ridge, like something out of the 1800s. And I hear my dad, his heavy footfalls coming up the steps. He comes in the room, and his eyes have tears in them, and he says, ‘I couldn’t like him better if I had picked him myself.’

Will (shrugs): I made him laugh. Some alarm went off while I was talking to him, and he said, ‘Oh, that’s just my hearing aid.’ And I said, ‘Oh, thank God! I thought it was your pacemaker!’ He thought that was really funny.

Mary (tears up): He just thought you were the nicest guy. And that meant more than anything to me.

They married in 1976. Mary’s dad died in 1984, too soon to see her soar to success with Jack and Annie. But she had written a couple of books by then, young adult novels that explored the growing pains we all go through. Every day, Col. Pope put on his suit and his hat, grabbed his cane, and walked down to the little bookstore in Greensboro, where he inquired if they had sold any of his little Cheetah’s books yet.

“Dear Mary: KEEP WRITING THOSE BOOKS. And here’s an apple and four marshmallows to eat when you’re working.”

Osborne’s European adventures made the tiny tenement walk-up she shared with Will on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village look like the Ritz-Carlton. But their early years together in Manhattan, where they lived for 27 years, were marked by sacrifice in the name of their art. At age 30, they made a pact: No more bartending. No more waitressing.

“We used this image,” Mary said. “We were crossing a bridge, the shore was burning behind us, and we had to get to the other side. And from then on, we never did anything else but write or act.”

Ends were met, but barely. Will carried a change of clothes so he would be prepared for the next audition, used pay phones to call his agent. Mary sold a book, wrote another one and kept writing … on her rooftop, in libraries, whatever worked.

“I remember the first year or two,” Mary said, “I’d be out on the street in the middle of the day, and I was certain a truant officer was going to pull up and say, ‘You have to go to work like everyone else!’ I’d feel guilt that I was not doing it the way others were.”

She had published three heavy-themed young adult novels and was working on a fourth, about a runaway, when the first seedlings for the Magic Tree House plot sprouted in an unusual place.

Osborne taught writing at a runaway shelter in Times Square, and the teens’ bleak autobiographies sat like anvils on her heart. One day, from a stack of National Geographics, she pulled photos of exotic places and challenged the troubled kids to pretend they were there. Again and again, life told her: Never underestimate the gift of an imagination.

“I just got lovely writing that day,” said Osborne, who abandoned the runaway book and published several mythology volumes for children.

A few years later, Random House asked her to work on an idea for a children’s book series. Time travel appealed to her, and one day on a woodsy walk with Will in Pennsylvania, they found an old tree house. It clicked: A tree house, filled with books about faraway places — places that crossed time and geography, places where children could be given jobs to help others — seemed like a pretty good portal to the imagination.

The first four installments took Jack and Annie to see dinosaurs, knights, mummies and pirates, and were a hit with the publisher. They wanted more. But teachers she spoke with wanted some changes: Mainly, the sentence fragments that Random House editors had instructed its children’s book authors to use at the time. “They are clunky, crude, badly written,” Osborne says now of the first four books, whispering: “They embarrass me. You must know, they get better.” (She is rewriting the first book, Dinosaurs, to honor the series’ 20th anniversary.)

Osborne listened to the educators, who wanted “kids to learn the right way” with full sentences. A loose partnership with teachers was born — and so was a children’s literature phenomenon.

In 1993, she became only the second children’s book author in 90 years to serve as president of The Author’s Guild.

“When I was young, I felt like anything was possible, and everything would lead to something great,” said Osborne, who was 42 when the first Magic Tree House book was published. “But it was a process. It took a lot of falls and getting up again to get to the great stuff. I didn’t know it would get as great as it got. But I also didn’t know that even getting good would take as long as it took.

“By the time Will and I found success, we were already the people we are. I’d like to think that we could go back to absolutely nothing. We would go back to our apartment on Bleecker Street … if we could just get up all those steps.”

“Dear Mary: Thank you for writing the Magic Tree House series. It was so thoughtful of you.”

Osborne’s career writing for children didn’t lend itself to having children of her own. “I know I would have loved every minute of it if I’d had kids … and that I would have died from exhaustion,” she said — but she has plenty of them in her life nonetheless. She helped raise her nephews in the Berkshires, where she and Will have a second home, and is part of a close network of friends and family who now care for her young godson, a child with autism in whom Osborne delights.

And then there are her young fans. At her book signings, the lines snake out the door and around the block, armies of 1,200 strong, quaking at the prospect of meeting the author. She doesn’t leave until she has met them all.

“She really is a celebrity among children,” said longtime friend Haber, who was a consulting producer for the touring stage show Magic Tree House: The Musical in 2009, co-written by Will. “It’s electric when she shows up at an event. She’s like a rock star.”

Her sister, Natalie Pope Boyce, writes the nonfiction companion books in the Magic Tree House series, called “Fact Trackers.” (Boyce took over the job from Will when he was tasked with writing a Magic Tree House show for the Morehead Planetarium in the 1990s. That show, “Space Mission,” was digitized last year and is now distributed to planetariums all over the world.)

On book tours, Boyce sees firsthand the impact of her sister’s series.

“At least once at every signing, a mother comes up to her and begins to cry,” Boyce said, “because she’s gotten some little boy who had decided he would not read, and would never read, to read. And she’s had mothers of autistic children come through and say that this was the first book their child ever read. It’s very, very moving. These books, I know, make huge, huge differences in children’s lives.”

Even 12- and 13-year-olds, often boys, will sheepishly make their way to Osborne at a signing table, mumbling and apologetic for their presence among young kids. She is swept up by their “sweetness and their sincerity.”

“I love them,” Osborne said in a whisper. “I feel like I’ve been given this extraordinary lesson. You’ve got a long line, but every face is an angel. They’re coming with love. Their vulnerability — and their parent’s vulnerability, because they are so excited for their child — is all over their faces. Over and over, it breaks my heart. I have tons of these moments, and they add up, you know? And I go, ‘Mary, you’re pretty lucky, you know that?’ ”

“Dear Mary: I figured out a way you could do this. Send me the book to my house and I don’t tell nobody. I promise.”

That letter came from a second-grader in the Bronx many years ago, who went to school in a building with no windows and no library. The student had written Osborne once before and asked her to send a book to her school so she “could own it.” Osborne replied that, although she’d like to, it would not be fair to her classmates. Still, the student didn’t give up. She found another stamp, thought up a solution, and she wrote again.

“What a passion for reading this child had,” she said in a speech she gave at the International Conference on Health and the Environment at the United Nations last April. “I burst into tears, and of course, sent her a book. But now I wish that I had sent books to all the children in her school as well. By not providing children with books, by not helping them discover the joy of reading — we are suppressing not only their dreams, their hope for the future, but their inherent dignity.”

With thousands of Annies like the little girl from the Bronx cheering her on, Osborne has returned to her roots as a wagon-circler. This time, however, the bully in question is illiteracy. Woe betide it, as Michael Pope would say.

“My theory is that any kid in the country who can manage to read Magic Tree House will become a totally literate person,” she said, and she’s putting her money where her mouth is with a classroom initiative and other projects to aid Title I schools and teachers through her series. (See Dear Mary: Your book almost made me smart”.)

Over her 30-year career in writing, Osborne has ushered onto the page voices as varied as the clever arachnid-detective in her Spider Kane mysteries and the vividly original 11-year-old girl in Adaline Falling Star, a young adult novel published in 2000. At times, she misses that kind of experimentation. But Magic Tree House, she says, has become a calling, one she won’t give up anytime soon.

Osborne has another godchild, her best friend Susan Sultan’s son. When Magic Tree House was growing in popularity, Osborne visited his school, and the little boy was so proud of her that he introduced her as his “fairy godmother.” Sultan tried to correct him, but he refused to budge. He’s 25 now and still calls her that.

This is Mary Pope Osborne, my fairy godmother.

Lea, Nicholas, and the thousands of children who write Osborne each year to say thank you for building the Magic Tree House, couldn’t have said it better themselves. But who knows? With Jack, Annie and the brave and magical Mary on their side — oh, man — someday, they just might.

Copyright 2012 UNC General Alumni Association

From the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of the Carolina Alumni Review