• Osborne, Mary Pope bio

Children's Author/Illustrator Biographies

Osborne, Mary Pope
May 20, 1949 -

2005 Ludington Award Winner

Ludington Award Citation

Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2007. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2007.
Photograph provided by Random House.

A popular, prolific author for children and young adults, Mary Pope Osborne is considered a versatile writer who has contributed successfully to many of the genres encompassed by juvenile literature. Directing her books to an audience that ranges from preschool through high school, she has written picture books, realistic fiction, historical fiction, young-adult novels, nonfiction, and retellings, and has edited collections of stories, poetry, and songs. Osborne is also the creator of several series and related volumes. She is perhaps best known for writing the "Magic Tree House" books, a best-selling, multi-volume collection of time-travel fantasies for primary graders. In these works, in which brother and sister Jack and Annie enter an enchanted tree house and have adventures in the past, present, and future, Osborne blends exciting plots with historical and scientific facts while emphasizing the power of books and reading. The author also has created two additional series to accompany her "Magic Tree House" volumes. The first of these, the "Merlin Missions" series, features stories about Jack and Annie that are inspired by myths and legends and are twice as long as their counterparts in the original series. With her husband, Will, a writer who also is an actor, playwright, and theater director, Osborne created the "Magic Tree House Research Guide" series, a collection of informational books that serve as companion volumes to several of the fictional titles in the main series. In addition, Osborne is the author of three volumes in the "My America" series, historical fiction in diary form about a young girl who witnesses the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 and writes about both it and the aftermath of the Civil War; two stories about Sheriff Mo, an amiable beaver who makes friends with the raccoons, frogs, and mice in his pond community; two detective tales for early readers that feature Spider Kane, a brilliant arachnid sleuth who also is a talented jazz clarinetist; picture-book retellings from The Odyssey by the ancient Greek writer Homer; collaborations with Will Osborne on two episodes from Ovid's Metamorphoses, the adventures of Jason and his Argonauts and the slaying of the monster Medusa by the warrior Perseus; retellings of myths and legends from America, Greece, and Norway, among other international sources; and collections of mermaid tales and stories and poems from the Middle Ages.

In addition to her series books, Osborne has written several distinguished individual volumes in the genres of fiction and nonfiction. As a biographer, she has described the lives of Jesus, Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin; in her fiction, Osborne also includes real-life characters such as Plato, Squanto, William Shakespeare, and Clara Barton, in addition to Columbus and Washington. The author is well known for writing One World, Many Religions: The Ways We Worship, an informational book that explains the tenets of seven major religions--Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Taoism. Osborne brings a feminist perspective to several of her books. Her original works often depict the journeys, both physical and emotional, that are undertaken by female characters. As a reteller, Osborne has retold the familiar tales "Beauty and the Beast" and "Pandora's Box" and the less familiar German fairy tale "Undine." Her retellings of "Jack and the Beanstalk" and "The Brave Little Tailor" feature clever young women as protagonists rather than the males who appear in the traditional versions. For her collection American Tall Tales, Osborne created Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind, a composite of several characters, to supplement male figures like Paul Bunyan, Davy Crockett, and John Henry.

As a literary stylist, Osborne is noted for writing clear, lively, well-paced prose in both her stories and her informational books. She often includes forewords and afterwords in her books that provide historical context and personal information about her research and writing. As a creator of fiction, Osborne is praised for her delineation of and sensitivity to her characters as well as for her sympathetic exploration of the effects of war, racism, divorce, mental illness, and other issues on young people. As a writer of nonfiction, Osborne is commended for her scholarship and for bringing out the humanity of her subjects. Although she has been criticized for creating some books that are trite and predictable, Osborne generally is recognized as a writer of range and ability, one who truly understands children and what appeals to them. A reviewer in Publishers Weekly stated that Osborne "has great talent for presenting scientific facts and historic detail in an exciting, fast-paced format for kids," while Deborah Hopkinson of BookPage concluded, "There's definitely something magical about Mary Pope Osborne."

Born in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Osborne is the daughter of William P. Pope, a retired colonel in the United States Army, and Barnette Dickens Pope, a homemaker; the author has used her mother's maiden name as the surname for some of her characters. Osborne has a twin brother, a younger brother, and an older sister, Nancy, who collaborated with her on The Revolutionary War: A Nonfiction Companion to "Revolutionary War on Wednesday," a volume in the "Magic Tree House Research Guide" series. As a young girl, Osborne moved a great deal with her family. She lived in Salzburg, Austria, for three years as well as in Oklahoma, in Florida, and in four different army posts in Virginia and North Carolina.

Although moving was not traumatic for Osborne because of the close relationship that she shared with her family, other things were. She noted in School Library Journal, "I was very terrified as a child. I suffered from every possible kind of fear. I would imagine, constantly, terrible things happening to myself or my family. I was always trying to fight against that." In her writings, as she told School Library Journal, she hopes to provide young girls with "female heroes," characters she believes would have helped curb her anxieties as a child. Writing on the "Magic Tree House" Web site about her literary influences, Osborne noted, "I read all kinds of books when I was little. But I especially loved the 'Little House on the Prairie' books [by Laura Ingalls Wilder], The Little Princess [by Frances Hodgson Burnett], and the 'Uncle Wiggily Stories' [by Howard R. Garis]. I also loved a big thick book of Bible stories that was written in an old-fashioned style and took me a really long time to read." Writing on the Barnes & Noble Web site about the latter title, Egermeier's Bible Story Book by Elsie E. Egermeier, Osborne recalled, "By the time I was eleven, I'd read Egermeier's Bible stories three times. My love for old stories and Western history began with this book, as well as a thirst to learn about the different cultures and religions of the period." When asked on the "Magic Tree House" Web site if the characters in her best-known series are based on real people, Osborne replied, "My characters are a combination of real people and my imagination and research. My two brothers and I used to pretend lots of things together--that we were cowboys, soldiers, etc. That's the basis for the whole series."

When she was fifteen, Osborne's father retired from the army and moved their family to a small town in North Carolina. Osborne found that she missed the adventure and changing scenery of her early years. She found these things at the local community theater, which was located a block from her home. Osborne began to spend all of her free time in the theater; she acted in plays and also worked backstage. After graduating from high school, she decided to major in drama at the University of North Carolina--Chapel Hill. However, in her junior year, she discovered the world of mythology and became interested in studying comparative religions. She switched her major to religion and immersed herself in learning about other cultures. After receiving her bachelor's degree in 1971, Osborne traveled abroad for a year. She went back to Europe, lived in a cave in Crete for six weeks, and joined a group of young Europeans who were heading to the East. With this group, Osborne visited sixteen Asian countries, including Iraq, Iran, India, Nepal, Afghanistan, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, and Pakistan. She encountered several dangerous situations, like an earthquake in northern Afghanistan and a riot in Kabul. Osborne wrote on the Web site for the Children's Book Council that her trip "often was a horrendous journey. Throughout much of the trip, I was terrified. . . . I was constantly ill and constantly frightened." It did not help her situation that the leader of her band of travelers turned out to be, as Osborne said, "insane." When she became infected with blood poisoning in Katmandu, Osborne was forced to end her travels. In a crowded hospital ward of Nepalese women, none of whom spoke English, she discovered J. R. R. Tolkien's fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings, a book that her traveling companions had kept in their van. Osborne noted, "For two weeks, all I did was read and sleep. . . . By the time I finished the trilogy, . . . I had the emotional strength to start my long journey home." Osborne concluded, "That journey irrevocably changed me. Experience was gathered that serves as a reference point every day of my life. I encountered worlds of light and worlds of darkness--and planted seeds of the imagination that led directly to my being an author of children's books."

After returning to the United States, Osborne recovered from her illness and headed out again. She moved to Monterey, California, and worked as a medical assistant. In 1974, she moved to Washington, DC, and worked as a travel agent, specializing in tours of Russia and Eastern Europe. Osborne moved to New York City in 1975 and began to work with the Russian Travel Bureau. In 1976, she married Will Osborne, with whom she had fallen in love when she saw him in the lead role of a musical about the outlaw Jesse James. The day after their wedding, the couple took off on a theater tour. While on the road, Osborne began to write. She also worked a variety of jobs when not traveling with theatrical productions: for example, Osborne was a drama teacher at a nursing home in the Bronx and also worked with runaway teens, as a bartender, and as an assistant editor of a magazine for children. In 1979, she began the story that would become her first published book, the semi-autobiographical young-adult novel Run, Run, As Fast As You Can, which was published in 1982.

In Run, Run, As Fast As You Can, eleven-year-old Hallie Pines, a girl from a military family, moves to Virginia when her father retires. Hallie wants to join the three most popular girls at her new school; at first, the girls encourage her, but then they reject her cruelly. For comfort, Hallie turns to her eight-year-old brother Mickey, but soon discovers that he has terminal cancer. By facing the clique's rejection of her as well as her brother's death, Hallie is forced to reexamine her values. Writing in Horn Book, Karen M. Klockner commented that Osborne "writes naturally about the interaction among children and of children with adults." Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, Judith Elkin said, "The portrait of a girl caught up in the difficult age between childhood and adolescence . . . is well drawn," while Margery Fisher of Growing Point concluded that the work "has a candour and directness which are refreshing."

Osborne's second novel for young people, Love Always, Blue, is a work that addresses the difficulties that children experience when their parents separate; it also deals with the subject of mental illness. Fourteen-year-old Blue Murray is a girl who lives with her mother, an upwardly mobile socialite, in North Carolina while her father, an aspiring playwright, lives in New York City's Greenwich Village. Blue blames her mom for the separation, discounting her explanation that her husband was extremely hard to live with. After a series of encounters with her mother, Blue is allowed to visit her dad in New York. During their time together, Dad's emotional problems come to the fore, and Blue finds it hard to deal with his depression. Although she meets a nice young man and likes being in the Village, Blue decides to go home early, and her father agrees to get therapy. Writing in School Library Journal, Denise L. Moll commented, "This one is much better than many in the plethora of dealing-with-divorce titles." Although she called the structure of Osborne's story weak, Zena Sutherland of Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books dubbed Love Always, Blue "perceptive in its delineation of the complexity of human relationships." Ilene Cooper of Booklist deemed the novel "an engrossing story of family relationships that will give young people a perception about adult depression." Osborne also is the creator of two additional contemporary YA novels, Best Wishes, Joe Brady, the story of the romance between eighteen-year-old Sunny Dickens and the title character, a former soap-opera actor who is starring in a dinner theater production in her North Carolina hometown, and Last One Home, which describes twelve-year-old Bailey's struggles following her parents' divorce, her father's projected remarriage, and her brother's departure for the service.

In 1992, Osborne produced the first of her "Magic Tree House" books, Dinosaurs before Dark. The volume introduces eight-year-old Jack, an inquisitive boy who also is a careful planner and researcher, and seven-year-old Annie, who is intrepid and impetuous. The siblings live in the fictional town of Frog Creek, Pennsylvania. One day, the pair go out into the woods near their home and discover a tree house filled with books. The tree house belongs to Morgan le Fay, a sorceress who is the fairy sister of King Arthur and who, in the "Magic Tree House" series, is the head librarian of Camelot. Jack and Annie find that by reading one of le Fay's books, looking at an illustration, and making a wish, they can be transported to the time and place that the page depicts. The children travel to a wide variety of periods and locations, including prehistory in the initial story. In subsequent volumes, Jack and Annie go to such places as medieval and Elizabethan England; ancient Egypt, Greece, Ireland, and Rome; the Old West; feudal Japan; America during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars; the ocean; and outer space. Accompanied on some of their adventures by Teddy, an enchanted dog who actually is a magician, Jack and Annie are given various assignments to complete by Morgan le Fay; these assignments, often riddles that the children must decipher, include quests to find books from ancient libraries so that they can be preserved in Camelot. Through their adventures, which often involving helping other people or animals, the siblings meet such individuals as knights, ninjas, mummies, pirates, cowboys, Vikings, and cave people; in addition, they interact with well-known historical figures, such as nurse Clara Barton in Civil War on Sunday and playwright William Shakespeare in Stage Fright on a Summer Night. Characteristically, Jack and Annie find themselves in precarious situations, although some of them have humor or panache. The duo face a saber-toothed tiger, a hungry shark, an African gorilla, an Indian tiger, and vampire bats. In addition, the siblings find themselves in Pompeii before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, in San Francisco during the Great Earthquake, and on the Titanic during its fateful voyage. No matter what they confront, the children, who each grow a year older over the course of the series, conquer their fears, act bravely, learn from their experiences (Jack always takes copious notes), and return home safely in time for dinner.

The "Magic Tree House" series, which has sold more than twelve million copies, is extremely popular with both children and adults. Children enjoy the exciting stories--for example, approximately two thousand young readers are enrolled in the "Magic Tree House" Fan Club--while teachers often use the books as supplementary reading in their classrooms. In assessing the series, critics have commented on the quick pacing, cliffhanger-style chapter endings, and realistic dialogue as well as on Osborne's consistent creativity and integration of knowledge and imagination. Praising the books as successful combinations of fun, learning, and adventure, reviewers have pointed out that the series excels in inspiring children to read by providing early primary graders with high-quality chapter books that they can absorb easily. By joining Jack and Annie in the Magic Tree House, children learn that books can transport them anywhere, from ancient history to the far-flung future. In addition, the series is noted for teaching children about history and geography and for introducing them to new facts and vocabulary words. Young readers also learn about research and note-taking skills, as modeled by Jack; about other cultures; and about the value of literature, community, and the natural world. Although some critics have accused the series of being contrived, most consider it to be both educational and entertaining, a valuable way for children to delight in learning. Writing in The Continuum Encyclopedia of Children's Literature, Mary Ariail Broughton stated, "The books in this collection, although fiction, contain a lot of factual information, making them useful and enjoyable supplements for thematic studies." Writing in Children's Literature, Lois Rubin Gross explained that the series "provides nicely paced excitement for young readers."

Published in 1996, One World, Many Religions: The Ways We Worship is considered one of Osborne's most accomplished nonfiction titles. In this work, the author uses essay-styled chapters to describe the history, beliefs, traditions, and rituals of the faiths that she represents. Calling the work an "excellent source for religious shelves," Ilene Cooper of Booklist reported that Osborne "covers the world's major religions, introducing them in a way that will appeal to young readers." Elizabeth Bush of Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books reflected, "This exceptionally handsome overview offers middle graders a thoughtful overview of world religions." A critic in Newsweek concluded, "Osborne's clear, precise style serves her subject very well. This book has an unforced dignity that's rare in children's literature." Writing in BookPage, Alice Cary called One World, Many Religions "a superb new book. . . . Osborne's writing is lucid and informative--full of dignity and respect, managing to strike just the right tone without talking down to young readers or going over their heads." Cary concluded, "Whether you're an atheist, Muslim, Baptist, or anything else, my guess is you'll find the volume not only interesting, but fair to all, with neither biases nor judgments." In 2002, One World, Many Religions was reissued in a revised edition in which Osborne expands on her discussion of Islam.

Osborne frequently mixes fiction and historical fact in her works. With Adaline Falling Star, a novel for middle graders published in 2000, she was praised for doing so in a particularly memorable way. In this work, the author takes little-known figure Adaline Falling Star Carson, the real daughter of famed frontier scout Kit Carson and his Arapaho wife Singing Wind, and creates a story about her early life. After the death of her mother, eleven-year-old Adaline is sent by her father to live with his cousins in St. Louis so that he can join John Fremont's expedition through the Rocky Mountains. In St. Louis, Adaline is viewed as a half-breed, a savage who is expected to work as a servant. After being mistreated by her cousins, she pretends to be mute. Adaline's only friend in St. Louis is Caddie, an African girl who works in the kitchen and helps her to escape from her cousins. When Adaline learns that the Fremont expedition is over, she heads to Colorado. On her journey, she meets danger and becomes injured but also makes friends with a stray dog that she feels embodies her mother's spirit. Disguised as a boy, Adaline finds work on a steamboat before being reunited with her father. Compared to Mark Twain's novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Adaline Falling Star generally is considered one of Osborne's most effective works. A reviewer in Horn Book observed that in Adaline Falling Star Osborne "puts memorable faces on the noble, the well intentioned, and the deceived, all of whom shaped our country's history." Marie Orlando of School Library Journal noted, "While this touching and exciting novel will absorb readers from beginning to end, it is the unique writing style that makes it truly extraordinary." A writer in Publishers Weekly concluded, "Osborne strikes out in a new direction in this assured novel. . . . Adaline possesses a wisdom marked by an often heartbreaking sense of humor."

In her collection American Tall Tales, Osborne introduced readers to Mose Humphreys, a fireman who lived in the 1840s and is often considered America's first urban folk hero. In New York's Bravest, published in 2002, she revises her initial account of Mose in a picture-book retelling. In the book, dedicated to the New York City firefighters who gave their lives on September 11, 2001, Osborne draws on both legends and published accounts to create her version of the larger-than-life volunteer fireman. Eight-foot-tall Mose is bigger, stronger, and more courageous than any of his counterparts. One day, he disappears in a hotel fire near the Hudson River and is never seen again. Subsequent rumors place Mose in various locations until he becomes mythic--the very spirit of New York. Writing in Booklist, Stephanie Zvirin and Beth Leistensnider claimed readers receive a glimpse "of the courage, selflessness, determination, and danger" contained in the life of a firefighter. A critic in Kirkus Reviews said that New York's Bravest is a "stirring picture-book tribute to the 343 firefighters who died on that terrible day." A commentator in Publishers Weekly concluded, "Past and present combine to stirring effect in this tall tale with real-world reverberations."

In assessing her career, Osborne once wrote, "I feel that the years I spent traveling in Asia, the different jobs I've held, the theater career of my husband, our life in New York among a small community of writers, actors, musicians, and artists, my Southern military background, my family, my editor, my work with runaway teenagers, and my interests in philosophy and mythology have all informed and shaped my work." A visiting lecturer at schools and libraries, she often asks children, teachers, and librarians for their input on the "Magic Tree House" series; for example, they have helped her to decide on titles for her books and have made suggestions as to where Jack and Annie should go next. In a brief autobiography posted on the "KidsReads.com" Web site, Osborne talked about the "Magic Tree House" series and its effect on her: "The contact I now have with children has brought overwhelming joy into my life. I love the letters I get from them and I love reading countless 'Magic Tree House' stories that they've written. 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 fellow authors, is true magic." When asked by Deborah Hopkinson of BookPage if she thinks that she will ever tire of writing the "Magic Tree House" books, Osborne replied, "How could I? I get to throw myself into every single subject. Besides I have an incredible audience. . . . How could I disappoint them?"

Born May 20, 1949, in Fort Sill, OK; daughter of William P. (a colonel in the U.S. Army) and Barnette (a homemaker; maiden name, Dickens) Pope; married Will Osborne (an actor, author, playwright, and theater director), May 16, 1976. Education: University of North Carolina--Chapel Hill, B.A., 1971. Avocational Interests: Reading, gardening, traveling, taking long drives, making bread and soup, playing with her Norfolk terrier Bailey. Memberships: Authors Guild (elected council member; chairman of Children's Book Committee; president, 1993-97 and 1997-2001), Authors Guild Foundation (elected president and vice-president), Authors League Fund (board of directors), Authors Registry (founding director), Authors League of America, PEN International. Addresses: Homeoffice: Northwest Connecticut. Agent: c/o Author Mail, Random House, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.

Annual Award, Woodward Park School (Brooklyn, NY), and Children's Choice selection, International Reading Association/Children's Book Council (IRA/CBC), both 1983, and Most Popular Children's Novel of the Northern Territory of Australia citation, 1986, all for Run, Run, As Fast As You Can; Children's Book of the Year list, Child Study Association of America, 1986, for Last One Home; Pick of the List, American Bookseller, 1986, for Mo to the Rescue; "Outstanding and Worthy of Note" citation, Virginia Library Association, 1990, for The Many Lives of Benjamin Franklin; Pick of the List, American Bookseller, and Best Books of the Year, Parents' Magazine, both 1991, both for Moonhorse; Best Books of the Year list, School Library Journal, Blue Ribbon Book, Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, and Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies, National Council for the Social Studies/Children's Book Council (NCSS/CBC), all 1991, and Utah Children's Book Award, 1993, all for American Tall Tales; Best Books of the Year list, Bank Street College, 1992, for both Spider Kane and the Mystery under the May-Apple and Dinosaurs before Dark, which also won the Diamond State (Delaware) Reading Association Award; Edgar Award finalist for Best Juvenile Mystery, Mystery Writers of America, 1993, for Spider Kane and the Mystery at Jumbo Nightcrawler's; Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies, NCSS/CBC, 1993, for Mermaid Tales from around the World; Distinguished Alumni Award, University of North Carolina--Chapel Hill, 1994; Orbis Pictus Honor Award, National Council of Teachers of English, 1996, for One World, Many Religions: The Ways We Worship; Distinguished Contribution to the Arts, New York Carolina Club; named one of Top 100 Authors, Educational Paperback Association; Children's Choice selection, IRA/CBC, for Standing in the Light: The Captive Diary of Catharine Carey Logan, Delaware Valley, Pennsylvania, 1763; Children's Choice Award, Association of Booksellers for Children, for Dolphins at Daybreak and Midnight on the Moon.

Author, editor, and lecturer. Scholastic News Trails magazine, New York, NY, assistant editor, 1973-79. Worked variously as a medical assistant in Monterey, CA; as a window dresser in Carmel, CA; as a travel agent in Washington, DC, and New York, NY; as an acting teacher in the Bronx, NY; and as a bartender and waitress in New York, NY.

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