The other day my first grader came scooting into the room on a blanket-draped Pillow Pet with an umbrella in hand. She explained that she was a merchant from Baghdad, carrying spices through the desert on the back of her camel. I initially suspected this burst of imagination came from the impossibly wholesome Bluey, only later realizing it came not from a TV show, but from a book. One from a set of 65, spanning three decades of publication across two series. One that we should all be reading with our young children.
What in the World is Magic Tree House?
The Magic Tree House books follow brother and sister Jack and Annie, from the fictional Frog Creek, Pennsylvania. A magical tree house found in the woods transports them to locations both real and fantasy at nearly any point in history, at which they have to solve a mission before returning home. What’s particularly delightful is that the author, Mary Pope Osbourne, has been churning out books in the series for over 30 years now, so we millennial parents can A) feel younger knowing that the beloved books of our childhood are still current, and B) share in the excitement for these stories with our kids.
To be honest, when my six-year-old daughter got her first set, I caught myself reading along over her shoulder and enjoying the stories just as much as she was. We eventually started a habit of reading next to each other in the 20 minutes before her bedtime. This routine has not only been a period of bonding and working on her reading skills, but it’s allowed me to remember that the Magic Tree House is a resource in a child’s reading journey.
A Wealth of Knowledge
Throughout these books the reader will learn everything from geography to nature; from historical events to cultural practices. One of the recurring elements is that Jack and Annie receive a research book for their destination. Snippets from the research book describe where and when they are, such as Machu Picchu nestled in the Andes Mountains at the height of the Incan Empire, or Brooklyn’s Coney Island in 1908.
I am often amazed at how much my daughter soaks up from the books. One day she’s quizzing me on the difference between poisonous and venomous, and the next she’s telling me how much a baby panda weighs. The books build a child’s interest in learning itself—after all, the success of a mission usually hinges on information Jack and Annie have gained along the way.
Get Ready to Travel
The Magic Tree House books are also a fantastic conduit to learn about the world we live in. I love the “Readers Message,” in which the Mary Pope Osbourne describes her travels to research the setting for a book and its importance to her. She includes wonderful details about the landmarks from real locations, making you feel transported to those places. After reading about Louis Amstrong’s early years in Good Night for Ghosts, my daughter declared that she’d really like to visit New Orleans. My husband and I listened with amusement as she listed out all the stops we’d have to make, including Bourbon Street. That trip will have to wait a few years!
A Different Perspective
Cementing this series as the complete package for a young reader are the life lessons it conveys. As a child, I never noticed the subtle morals within the stories. Coming back to them as an adult, I can see that the author crafted imperfect but relatable characters who push each other to be more thoughtful and open-minded.
For example, in A Perfect Time for Pandas, Jack and Annie are visiting a restaurant in Southwest China, making fun of items off the menu like fried stinky tofu and green bean jelly. They kids are laughing loudly, leading to this scene:
“Jack saw the waiter frowning at them from across the garden.
‘Shh… we’re being rude.’
‘Sorry, sorry,’ Annie whispered. ‘We have funny-sounding food at home, too, like hot dogs.’”
In a few sentences the reader witnesses the characters recognize their offense, apologize, and adapt their perspective. Then there are other instances in which their perspective is superior, such as in A Big Day for Baseball, where we see Jack and Annie’s disbelief at the hatred Jackie Robinson faces because of his skin color. And, throughout the series, Annie is repeatedly shocked at previous time periods’ lack of interest in educating women. Her character has some great retorts to anyone who underestimates her, including a heated debate with Aristotle over how the solar system works.
The Perfect Gift
With the dozens of topics covered, these books are perfect for fueling a child’s passion (for my child it’s tigers, all day, every day), and introducing them to different countries and cultures. I find it particularly helpful that the author gradually wrote the books in increasing length, complexity, and maturity of subject matter. So, while a six-year-old might feel comfortable reading the 60-page Dinosaurs Before Dark, it may be another few years until they are ready to start World at War, 1944, in which they’re better able to take in 200 pages depicting the sorrows of war.