Monday, January 30, 2012: Dedicated Issue: Random House Children's

Congratulations, Mary Pope Osborne! 100 Million Magi Tree house Books Sold!

Magic Tree House: Abe Lincoln at Last! by Mary Pope Osborne, illustrated by Salvatore Murdocca

Magic Tree House: Abraham Lincoln: A Nonfiction Companion to Magic Tree House #47: Abe Lincoln at Last!

Mary Pope Osborne's Classroom Adventures Program

Kids can play games and learn with Jack and Annie at

2nd Annual Passport to Adventure! A Magic Tree House Live Reading Tour!

Editors' Note

The Magic Tree House Turns 20

In this issue, with the support of Random House Children's Books, Shelf Awareness takes an in-depth look at the Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne, illustrated by Sal Murdocca, on the occasion of its 20th anniversary. The novels (which cover history and science with a touch of mystery solved by time-traveling siblings Jack and Annie) and their companion Fact Trackers (which delve more deeply into the topics of Osborne's novels and are written by Osborne's sister, Natalie Pope Boyce) have sold more than 100 million copies. The interviews are by Jennifer M. Brown.


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Books & Authors

Mary Pope Osborne: Classroom Adventures Take Root

Twenty years ago, when Mary Pope Osborne published the first Magic Tree House book, Dinosaurs Before Dark, she had no idea how successful they would be. She has worked with the same editor, Mallory Loehr, for two decades, and the series has sold more than 100 million copies. Osborne credits teachers with igniting the fire with her fans. As a 20th anniversary gift of thanks to them, the author has launched the Classroom Adventures Program, which she calls "the gift of books and the gift of time." Each book begins with siblings Jack and Annie sent off on a mission via a Magic Tree House they've discovered in the woods in Frog Creek, Pa. The tree house travels back in time, allowing the children to help solve a mystery or aid a historical figure, such as President Abraham Lincoln in the most recent book, Abe Lincoln at Last! Magic Tree House #47. Here Osborne discusses teachers' role in the series' success and outlines her plans to give back to these classroom leaders.

What were the seeds for the Magic Tree House series?

I started writing children's books 10 years before I began writing the Magic Tree House books. Random House suggested I do a series. I thought, "I'll do a little time travel series and then get back to my work." I started getting letters from teachers about how they'd used the books in kindergarten, first grade and second grade. I was so excited I went to 100 schools in three to four years. I got really engaged in education. It sort of took over. For the last five years I've devoted everything to Magic Tree House.

Do you share the research you do for your novels with Natalie for the Fact Trackers?

Natalie researches for the nonfiction on her own. My research is so private in the way a story evolves for me. I'm outlining and choosing from vast amounts of research, looking for that chemistry of drama, information and excitement.

With Abe Lincoln, I knew I wanted to get into his childhood and also his presidency. I didn't know how I'd get there. Then all the pieces come into play, but they're chosen out of notebooks and notebooks of notes I've taken. There's an alchemy to it, but it's a mystery, and I have to surrender to the process each time.

Right now I'm gathering my materials to research the relationship between Alexander the Great and his horse. I'm planning a trip to go work with horses. My sister will write about great horses the way we did great dog stories [in Dog Heroes].

Had you planned a trajectory for the series from the beginning?

First of all, I was startled at how hard it was to write for second grade. It took a lot more artistry, in a way, than the middle-grade books and YA books I'd written. I was trying to take complex information and get it across simply. In the course of doing that and then hearing from teachers, it became a bigger challenge than I thought it would be. That's what sucked me into doing one contract, then another and another.

The series didn't take off until book 16 or 17. After it took hold, I started having a sense of personal responsibility to kids and teachers and parents that was really strong. I got bushwhacked by second graders.

Were the Fact Trackers part of the series from the start?

I was probably on book 15 or 16, when teachers kept saying, "Oh, we'd love more information." [My husband] Will said, "Let's do a line of nonfiction, so teachers can have companions to the fiction--to teach fiction and nonfiction together." In those days it was called "paired selections." Now a lot of kids who prefer nonfiction will get them at bookstores, but we hoped teachers would use them. We first chose the books we thought teachers need most for curriculum--dinosaurs, ancient Egypt, the rain forest, the moon.

For the last four books, we've introduced the [adventure and the nonfiction title] together. They get double the information off the bat. But that's challenging, too, because you have to think about the story and figure out the nonfiction pairing for it. With the Alexander the Great book, Natalie's already done ancient Greece, so she came up with Horse Heroes.

How did the Classroom Adventures Program begin?

We give an Educator of the Year Award every year, and I've met these teachers over the years who've done such creative things. The Classroom Adventures Program started because we wanted to give books away to schools that couldn't afford them. But when we visited those classrooms, we realized that the teachers didn't know what to do with the books. We thought, "We'll do this program for them." Then it grew to "We'll do this program for everyone."

How will the program work?

It will roll out nationwide; the Web site will launch in the next two weeks. It will supply teachers with three things:

  1. A curriculum key to the stories and Fact Trackers with regard to how they correlate to subjects they're teaching and the core curriculum standards
  2. A reading level guide for all the books, which includes: Lexile, Fountas & Pinnell, Guided, DRA, Accelerated Reader Reading Levels and Grade Level Equivalent
  3. Lesson plans for each book to supplement what teachers are already doing

We have a partnership with First Book to do the actual book distribution. I can buy the books on the marketplace for the schools that qualify for getting them for free. We want to help supplement the goals of curriculum and testing, so it doesn't seem to move teachers or schools off of their mission. We don't want to take them away from the competency scores that teachers have to work with now.

 photo of Mary Pope Osborne ©2012 Elena Seibert


Do you know the next MTH Educator of the Year?

Paula Henson and Paula Cirillo: By Teachers, for Teachers

The Classroom Adventures Program was designed by teachers, for teachers. We spoke with two of the key teachers behind the creation of the curriculum materials for the Classroom Adventures Program. Both of them won the Magic Tree House Educator of the Year Award: Paula Henson from Knoxville, Tenn., won in 2007, and Paula Cirillo from Moorpark, Calif., is the 2009 winner.

Author Mary Pope Osborne hired Cindy Mill of Milestone Productions, based in Minnesota, to create the Classroom Adventures Program. The author had witnessed Henson and Cirillo's successes firsthand, and encouraged Mill to get in touch with the teachers to tie lesson plans for the books to the core curriculum standards. These standards were once established state by state, but most have now gone national, according to Henson and Cirillo.

"Mary's work has transformed my teaching," Henson said. Her son built a life-size Magic Tree House for her classroom as his Eagle Scout project, using the trunk of a huge oak tree donated by a Knoxville tree surgeon, and painted a mural of Frog Creek Woods (where heroes Jack and Annie live) on the walls. Students sit on a bench at the bottom of the tree and pull out headsets from its roots to listen to the books on CD.

Paula Cirillo starts the school year by asking each student to choose one Magic Tree House book to read. She matches a book to the child's interest. For instance, she'll recommend Midnight on the Moon to a child with an interest in space. "As the year goes on, they become a specialist for all the connections they'll make with that book." She instructs them to build a tree house in the setting for the book they've chosen, rather like a 3-D book report. "When you step into our classroom, you know it's a Magic Tree House environment," Cirillo said. Henson added, "They feed off of each other's enthusiasm."

The duo believes it's important to keep building the Magic Tree House library as the school year progresses, and some teachers don't have the budget to do that. Through the Classroom Adventures Program, qualifying schools will be able to request the titles they want, correlating them to their students' interests, and receive them through the partnership with First Book. That's "the gift of books" Osborne mentions. "The second ingredient to the Magic Tree House classroom is the lesson plans," Cirillo said. "That's where the gift of time comes in: downloadable lesson plans from Paula Henson, myself and other teachers across the country. We've put in so much of our own time because we love it, and not every teacher has that time." Henson added, "They can meet these core standards in ways that can get the kids excited."

Henson and Cirillo established a Curriculum Key that will sort the 47 (and future) novels and related Fact Trackers by subject. Teachers will be able to find every Magic Tree House book that would teach that particular subject, and also click on a specific book to see which subjects that volume covers. Once a teacher selects a book, he or she can sort them by the core standards (e.g., within language arts, the teacher will see the standards that apply for cause and effect, speaking and listening, etc.). They'll also be able to see the reading level for each book in a variety of scales (e.g., accelerated reader level, the Lexile system, etc.).

"I'm big on making connections. Recent research has shown that as you make connections to other books, other life experiences, your own schema, comprehension increases," Cirillo said. "Just yesterday one of my students told me he saw a picture of the Mona Lisa on a bag at the supermarket, and that made him think of Monday with a Mad Genius."

What excites Henson most about the Classroom Adventures Program is the idea of getting this out to teachers who "probably have to buy their own books with their own money," said Henson. Teachers can request specific titles and the Fact Trackers that go with them. She added, "I think it's important to be able to tailor the program to the interests of your students." What most excites Cirillo is the fact that she can share these lessons, and they'll reach students besides her own. "I've seen the difference it's made in my life and my students' lives," Cirillo said. One parent told her, "I don't know what you've done, but you've lit a fire under my son. He reads for an hour after school." Cirillo added, "That's the reward we get, and that gives us the adrenaline rush to burn the candle at both ends to get this done."


Look for more Magic Tree House throughout 2012

Teamwork in the Tree House

The rigorous schedule of the Magic Tree House series requires that everything run like clockwork. By now, illustrator Sal Murdocca, along with Mary Pope Osborne and Natalie Pope Boyce, author of the Fact Tracker titles (who is also Osborne's sister), have the timing down pat. Sometimes the only hint that Boyce has to go on is a book's title and cover image and "the general thrust of the plot." Family ties get her no inside information.

The same is true for Murdocca when he works on a cover, because he completes it far in advance of receiving a manuscript. Often Osborne will suggest a cover image, and Murdocca will come back with a sketch. "She has a great sense of what works," according to Murdocca. "Mary's suggestions are always welcome." For instance, as he works on the cover featuring Alexander the Great and his horse, Bucephalus, for #49--which will be a full-color painting--he's also getting a feel for what part of China will be Jack and Annie's destination for the black-and-white interiors of A Perfect Time for Pandas (#48). All three of them--Osborne, Murdocca and Boyce--do their research independently.

Boyce views the research phase not as a duplication of efforts but as a built-in insurance measure. "When we're on the final tracks of our books, [Mary and I] get together by telephone or by email," Boyce said. "We begin to quiz each other. She'll say, 'I don't agree with you about that, can you find something more?' It gives us both the freedom to put our own stamp on things." Boyce backs up her facts with three reputable sources, and an expert relevant to each book also checks for accuracy. An expert at the National Zoo vetted A Perfect Time for Pandas (#48), which will come out in July, and four or five different people examine each title carefully for reading level, factual information and clarity.

As he researches photographs and other images, Murdocca might check out books from the library or search archives on line. On a few occasions, he has traveled on location. For Carnival by Candlelight, Murdocca went to Venice for four days with his sketchbook and camera. "One part takes place in a prison there, so I went to the prison and into the cells," he said. He also traveled to New York City, the setting of Blizzard of the Blue Moon, and to Plymouth to research Thanksgiving on Thursday.

Sometimes Murdocca has to make a judgment call regarding appropriate content for first- and second-graders. He found a good solution for Abe Lincoln at Last! by showing the moment just before John Wilkes Booth pulls the trigger. "Illustrators in those times tried to interpret [Lincoln's assassination] visually. Some of the interpretations are outlandish," Murdocca said. "But I would see what side of his head he was shot in, where would his head be positioned. It's a book for children, so you want to be careful but also not lose the drama. I found a good photograph of the restored theater and tried to make the whole setting be the drama."

There have been one or two occasions when Boyce has shared her research with Murdocca, such as a toga versus no-toga controversy for the Fact Tracker title Ancient Greece and the Olympics. The expert on the book said that the competitors in that first Olympics did not wear clothing. "We knew in the art we had to have the athletes partially clothed," Boyce said. "I found an eyewitness account that said the athletes had worn togas but they threw them off."

Murdocca, who has lived with Jack and Annie lo these two decades, sees how they have evolved. "I was just thinking the other day," he said, "if you look at the early Peanuts strips [by Charles Schulz] and then the later ones--even the early images of Mickey Mouse--it's a natural thing as you develop these characters that you'd see a slightly better way to represent them. Jack and Annie have matured over the series."

photo of Sal Murdocca ©Nancy Caravan; photo of Natalie Pope Boyce ©2012 Elena Seibert

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