There's definitely something magical about Mary Pope Osborne. Combining time-travel, adventure and history, her Magic Tree House books have enthralled millions of kids since the series began in 1992 with Dinosaurs Before Dark.
If you've come anywhere near a child in the last nine years, chances are you're familiar with Magic Tree House. The stories revolve around two children, eight-year-old Jack and his seven-year-old sister, Annie, who discover a tree house filled with books that magically transport them to other times and places. Jack and Annie's adventures have taken readers to the Amazon, ancient Egypt and even the moon. In other stories children travel with Jack and Annie to learn about saber-toothed tigers, dolphins, pirates, polar bears, coral reefs and the rainforest. Now, just in time for Christmas, Osborne has created a special Magic Tree House book, Christmas in Camelot. The hardcover is twice as long as the series books, making it a perfect holiday present for that die-hard Magic Tree House fan on Santa's list.
What inspired Osborne to write a Christmas story set in Camelot? "The Magic Tree House series uses characters from the legend of King Arthur, Osborne explains. "In medieval times, the storytellers of Arthurian legends blended elements of Christianity with old Celtic myths, so that miracles and marvels often took place in Christmas in Camelot. My aim was to bring that sense of medieval magic to the story and then end it with a joyful, traditional Christmas celebration. Osborne, who grew up in the military and lived in posts from Oklahoma to Austria, has vivid memories of Christmas as a child. "My family lived in a different house almost every year. But we carried our family Christmas decorations with us wherever we moved. No matter where we were living, we put up the same tree ornaments, displayed the same wooden angels, decorated the dining room table with the same holiday centerpiece, she adds. "I think these familiar objects helped make us feel secure and close to each other during the holidays and gave us a sense of continuity and connection to the past. Osborne laughs as she remembers one of her favorite Christmas memories. "About 10 years ago, my husband Will was doing a play out of town during the holidays. On Christmas Eve, our dog and I traveled to join him. When we arrived at the theater, the weary actors were receiving notes from the director. In the lobby I dressed the dog in a Santa hat and a red cape with a white fuzzy collar and a wide black belt. Then I sent her alone into the theater. She walked down the aisle very carefully, so as not to disturb her costume. When the actors caught sight of her, they broke into laughter and applause. I know that was the best Christmas of her life. And now that I think about it, that scene strangely prefigures the opening scene in Christmas in Camelot, in which a knight all dressed in red enters the gloomy hall of Camelot on Christmas Eve, startling King Arthur and his court. Osborne researched Christmas in Camelot by reading Arthurian legends, books on Celtic mythology, and learning about Christmas rituals and traditions. In fact, researching is one of the aspects of being a writer that Osborne loves best. "I did not actually Ã”discover' history until I was an adult and began to do research for my books, she explains. "Now there is nothing I love more than doing research. It's like a treasure hunt. I recommend to children that they discover the joys of learning about history far sooner than I did. To help children do just that, Osborne and her husband have launched the Magic Tree House Research Guides, companion books designed to give children additional information about the topics covered in the books, along with tips for finding out more on their own.
Osborne is now writing book number 25 in the Magic Tree House series, set in Shakespeare's time. Will she ever tire of writing Magic Tree House books? "How could I? she laughs. "I get to throw myself into every single subject. Besides, I have an incredible audience. I receive more than 500 letters a month from children. How could I disappoint them? Osborne's books and the Magic Tree House web site at www.randomhouse.com do reach a huge audience. And it's clear Osborne loves this contact with her readers. "The Magic Tree House has opened the floodgates and let thousands of children into my life, she says. "I feel as if these kids and I are all exploring the creative process together, using our imaginations plus our reading and writing skills to take us wherever we want to go. This, I tell my small fellow authors, is true magic. Deborah Hopkinson is the author of several children's books, including Under the Quilt of Night, coming in January.