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"Magic Tree House" children's book author to lecture and sign books Dec. 4

November 21, 2003

Mary Pope OsborneMIDDLEBURY, Vt.-The author of the "Magic Tree House" series of children's books, Mary Pope Osborne, will give a lecture, "Memory, Myth and History: Where Ideas Come From," at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 4, on the Middlebury College campus. After the talk, she will sign copies of her books. The event, which is free and open to the public, will take place in Mead Chapel on Hepburn Road, off College Street (Route 125).

Osborne has written more than 60 books. The "Magic Tree House" series alone has sold 24 million copies and has been translated into 20 languages. Three of her books will be available for purchase at a reduced rate at the Middlebury event. There will be a limit of two signatures per person.

Osborne grew up in a military family. By the time she was 15, she had lived in Oklahoma, Austria, Florida and four different army posts in the United States.  According to Osborne, moving was never traumatic for her, but staying in one place was. When her father finally retired to a small town in North Carolina, her boredom was not alleviated until she joined a local community theater. After graduating from college in the early 1970s, Osborne traveled through 11 Asian countries, including Afghanistan and Nepal. Upon returning, she worked as a waitress and bartender, taught acting classes in a nursing home, and held jobs as a Russian travel consultant, doctor's assistant and as an assistant editor for a children's magazine.

Book jacket for "Christmas in Camelot" by Mary Pope OsborneAccording to Osborne, one day, out of the blue, she began writing a story about an 11-year-old girl in the South, which eventually turned into the young adult novel "Run, Run, Fast as You Can." More than 20 years and 60 books later, she has garnered high acclaim for her books for children and young adults, which include novels, picture books, biographies, mysteries and retellings of fairy tales, myths and tall tales. Osborne also has completed two terms as president of the Authors Guild, the leading organization for professional writers in the U.S.

Osborne and her husband Will divide their time between Connecticut and New York City. Together, they have created the "Magic Tree House" companion series, "Magic Tree House Research Guides," which help explain the secrets of the rain forest and outer space to children.

In 1985, Osborne attended the Middlebury College Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.

The event is cosponsored by a number of Middlebury College organizations: Creative Writing Program, Women's and Gender Studies Program/Chellis House, Ross Commons,  Abernathy Lecture Series, Teacher Education Program and Dean of the Faculty's Office.

For more information, contact Karin Hanta, Middlebury College interim director of Chellis House, at or 802-443-5937.

To follow is an interview with the author:


An Interview with "Magic Tree House" Author Mary Pope Osborne

Write from the Heart!

Mary Pope Osborne has fared well by sticking to this motto. Her "Magic Tree House" series of children's books have enthused children in 20 countries. When meeting children on her book tours, she is always amazed at how creative, unafraid and spontaneous her young readers are.

By Karin Hanta, Middlebury College interim director of Chellis House

KH: Mary, the title of your talk at Middlebury is "Memory, Myth and History: Where Ideas Come From." Can you briefly tell us what you will be talking about?
MPO: I get ideas for books from my own past, from world mythologies and folk tales, and from history, especially American history. I plan to share these resources with the audience?and hopefully inspire them to tap into their own sources of inspiration.

KH: How did you become a writer? Did your parents urge you to read?
MPO: I read a lot as a child, but I had no idea that I could ever be a writer. I did, however, live in my imagination. I was always daydreaming or acting out little dramas of make-believe ... the banister in the hallway was a horse, the picnic table in the yard was a ship. What I do now is not that different -- I just play with language to bring all sorts of potentialities into form.

KH: You have a twin brother. Do Jack and Annie resemble you and your brother when you were little?
MPO: Yes, my twin brother Bill and my younger brother Michael are still my best friends. We grew up in the military and moved constantly, so we relied on each other for playmates. Most of our games involved make-believe.

KH: Annie is a spunky girl who likes to go out on adventures. Jack, on the other hand, is more fearful. Did you want to create a role model for girls when you first started writing "The Magic Tree House?"
MPO: Not consciously. Annie sort of elbowed her way onto center stage, and I was forced (like Jack) to let her be herself.

KH: You have also done some gender-bending in your retelling of the Grimm fairy tale "The Valiant Little Tailor," who turns into "The Valiant Little Seamstress" in your hands. Did you feel that children's literature is lacking in heroines?

MPO: Nowadays, children's literature has an abundance of wonderful, strong girls. But when I was growing up, girls in fairy tales were mostly well known for sleeping (Snow White & Sleeping Beauty) or for having small feet (Cinderella).  I find it fun to go back and scramble up some of the old stories.

KH: Individual chapter books in "The Magic Tree House" series are sometimes accompanied by research guides. How do you and your husband, who is your co-author for these guides, conduct your research?
MPO: We read lots of books; check the Internet; talk to experts; and visit museums, planetariums, aquariums and zoos.

KH: You traveled extensively through Afghanistan, Iraq and India when you graduated from college. Could you envision writing a book about this part of the world so it becomes less foreign to American children?
MPO: I did write a book called "One World, Many Religions," which tells children about the major religions and explains religious practices in different parts of the world. I've also written a "Magic Tree House" about India and now plan to write one that takes place in the Arabian desert. I haven't figured out yet how to work Iraq and Afghanistan into my fiction.

KH: Are there still taboos in children's literature?
MPO: These days I know of no taboos in children's literature. I've found that most editors are eager to explore new territory and they get very protective of authors who want to try something different. For a while, though, I thought we were going overboard with political correctness. I was told years ago that I should not refer to a Ty Rex as a "bloodthirsty creature" as it was unfair to stereotype them.

KH: How does your cooperation with your illustrators work? Can you voice objections if you don't like their visual rendering of your stories?
MPO: I have always had the good fortune of having great illustrators. They seem to take my ideas and amplify them in wonderful ways. I'm now working on a picture book with Vermont illustrator Bonnie Christensen and we're having a good time sharing ideas.

KH: What is your new picture book project about?
MPO: I am writing a non-fiction book on Pompeii. Bonnie just traveled there and brought back wonderful images.

KH: You were only the second children's book author to serve as president of the Authors' Guild, the most established writers organization in America. What did you learn from this experience?
MPO: I took on this position when electronic publishing rights had just become a big issue. We did our utmost to alert authors of the issues and protect them.

KH: "The Magic Tree House" has sold 24 million copies in 20 countries. Have you ever been approached to adapt the series for television?
MPO: Yes, I have. The main joy of writing the "Magic Tree House" series is that it helps children learn how to read and inspires them to use their own imaginations. I don't want videos and movies or TV to replace books, and I don't want Hollywood to usurp kids' own imaginative images of Jack and Annie. I have, however, allowed the Morehead Space and Science Museum in North Carolina to create a permanent "Magic Tree House" exhibition that guides visitors through the universe. My husband Will has written the show which uses some great multi-media effects.

KH: Vermont is replete with creative people. Do you have any advice for budding children's book authors?
MPO: Write from the heart, and be remarkably original. But at the same time, try to tap into emotions and ideas that are universal, so young readers can feel a connection to your story.

KH: You once said that you want children to use their imagination to help them in times of stress. How does this work exactly?
MPO: I want children to be able to turn to a book and "escape" from situations that they have no control over. In the alternate realities of good fiction, they can find meaning and dignity.

KH: Your books teach children a great deal about the world. What do you learn from children?
MPO: When I experience children in schools and bookstores, they seemed filled with wonder, curiosity and enthusiasm. They inspire me to approach my work in the same way. When "The Magic Tree House" first came out, I spent about five years traveling the U.S., visiting schools. Children and teachers helped me develop the series by suggesting ideas and telling me what they wanted to learn more about. I just came back from a nationwide book tour for "The Haunted Castle on Hallow's Eve." I met with as many as 700 children some nights. With every audience, I asked kids to vote on book ideas for the series. I got tremendous help. And the kids, I hope, got to feel a part of the process. I also get ideas from kids in the mail. I might receive 500 to 1000 letters a month from children. They often send me their own stories and drawings. They think?and they're right?that we're involved in the same creative process. I am always amazed at how excited about learning small children are. Sometimes I see kids shut down in the higher grades. They become too aware of peer opinion and they lose respect for their own originality and creativity.

KH: But isn't there anything else we can do to help them remain creative and spontaneous?
MPO: I can think of at least two things: If parents are curious and excited about things, they can sometimes "wake" the kids up to the world around them. And if teachers are really passionate about their subjects, they can often inspire the most reluctant learners.

KH: Thank you for the interview. 

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