Byron and I are on volume 52 of the Magic Tree House series. He’s pretty much refused any other nighttime reading material since we first ventured out with Jack and Annie and met some dinosaurs in book #1. We’ve since been to every continent and several eras of history, met Mozart and Lincoln and numerous other historical figures, and saved at least a dozen different animals from fire, earthquake, and landslide.
As a parent I’m excited to see my kid excited about books, and the truth is that he’s learned quite a bit about history and geography by chasing Jack and Annie around the globe. I keep finding myself referencing this book or that one when Byron learns about something new. Somebody offers him a fig, which he says he never heard of, so I remind him of Jack and Annie’s trip to ancient Baghdad. Other times he suddenly reminds me of one of their excursions — he walks on snow like the polar bear in that one that took place in the arctic. He knows about typhoons because of their adventure in Hawaii.
As a writer, I am envious of the niche Mary Pope Osborne has carved for herself. I would love to have even a series that promises such a reliable work plan every year, and such a reliable paycheck: a strategy that lets me write full time even if well shy of the Magic Treehouse dynsasty. They must be fun to research and write.
As a reader, I have come to accept that these are not literary books and shouldn’t be read as such. Jack and Annie are not exactly flat characters, but they are pretty much “anykids” who serve no purpose other than guiding readers through various history and geography lessons. The magic part of the story wavers in importance — sometimes the only magic to a story is that Jack and Annie are whisked off somewhere; other times it provides a deux ex machina to solve a problem; yet other times it is a plot device. (Really, the number of times Merlin requires a couple of muggles to get into deathly danger to acquire a rock or something is remarkable!)
I kid because I love. There’s just enough plot to engage readers, and I’ve found by talking to Byron later that he remembers the factual content better. He asks which parts are real, almost like he wants to know if he should file it away for future reference or toss it in the trash.
But I have been thinking about the cumulative effect of the series. In all 54 books there are only two black characters important to their respective books — Louis Armstrong and Pele. The Louis Armstrong book is the only one that gives a glimpse into the African American experience. The Civil War is twice represented as a horrible tragedy because it pitted white people against other white people; the substance of what the war was about is minimized. Trips to South America and Subsarahan Africa always feature animals instead of people, as do about half of their trips to Asia. I love animal stories, but the overall message is that white people are interesting and worth learning about, but once you venture beyond North America and Europe the wildlife is more compelling.
I don’t mean this as a criticism, just an observation. It’s a natural emergence from Mary Pope Osborne’s own experience and viewpoint. They reflect the mainstream white world: not aggressively racist, but benignly self-centered. It is internationalist, interested in other cultures in the Kipling tradition, but keeps them on the margins. I’d rather see a complimentary series by a different author, or multiple authors, than have her write against her own grain and do it clumsily.
There’s also a cumulative effect to how… lightly… human history is treated. I understand that she is keeping the books safe for kids by taking the serious stuff in stride, but almost can’t do it without downplaying the horrors of history. Adult characters, whether peasants or kings, seem to accept their fate and the state of the world as it is. Moreover, so do Jack and Annie, though sometimes they process events later as “sad,” and are glad things are better now. They encounter child laborers several times, and never seem to wonder at the fact that other children work instead of going to school and playing in a tree house. I was particularly off balance in the book where Jack and Annie help rescue Jewish children from occupied France. The book has more gravity than most in the series, but still felt too neat for the subject matter.
We’ve got three more books. I’m glad to be done with it and move on to other things — battling frogs or boxcar children — but I guess I’m a little bit sad too, that such a reliable routine has to end. Whatever their faults, Jack and Annie saw this kid to sleep for half a year, and are a huge part of his emergence as a reader and book lover, and have stoked his curiosity about the world.