Have you had a chance to check out Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House: Dinosaurs Before Dark, adapted by Jenny Laird, and illustrated by sisters Kelly and Nichole Matthews?

It’s the first book in a new line of graphic novel adaptations of the bestselling prose series from Random House Graphic.

The Beat got the opportunity to chat with series creator Osborne and graphic novel illustrators Kelly and Nicole over email to find out all about their favorite books of all time, to learn how drawing dinosaurs compares with drawing non-extinct animals, and find out what goes into the perfect illustrated map!

AVERY KAPLAN: There have been many entries (106!) in the Magic Tree House series since the first entry, Dinosaurs Before Dark, was published in 1992. Why did you choose to begin with dinosaurs?

MARY POPE OSBORNE: I wanted to start the series with a subject that was hugely popular with kids. At the time, dinosaurs seemed like best choice. And it continues to be the most popular book of the whole series.

KAPLAN: Did you ever imagine that Dinosaurs Before Dark would become a graphic novel? What was it like to see the story brought to life by Kelly & Nichole?

OSBORNE: When I started the series, graphic novels hardly existed. Once they became a popular genre, I held out, wanting kids to read “real” books. But one day, I read a study that said graphic novels really help a lot of children learn to read. Since literacy is my mission, it seemed worth a try. It took a while to find the perfect illustrators, but I couldn’t be happier with illustrators Kelly & Nichole Matthews and the books’ adapter Jenny Laird. The three creators beautifully capture the spirit of the series!

KAPLAN: In addition to being adapting into a graphic novel, Magic Tree House has also received musical theater adaptations and an animated series is in development. Why is it so important to share the joys of reading through other mediums?

OSBORNE: Our musical team (Will Osborne, Randy Courts, and Jenny Laird) have taken my stories and made them better than the originals. I love their music and I love seeing children and young adults perform in the shows.  Singing, dancing and role-playing provide a magnificent way for kids to use their talents and imaginations.

Mary Pope Osborne. Photo credit: Elena Seibert.

KAPLAN: Possibly the most magical part of the Magic Tree House is the books! What is your favorite book of all time? Do you remember which book first kindled your love of reading?

OSBORNE: I had several favorite books growing up – Uncle Wiggly books, the Little House on the Prairie books, Nancy Drew mysteries, and a big book of Bible Stories. All of these and others kindled my love of reading and helped me develop a self. Books still do that for me today. I’m actually addicted to books. I probably have at least 2000 of them. At least ten or twenty are stacked on a nightstand at any time. Even when I travel, I take a small number to keep by the hotel bed.

KELLY & NICHOLE: Fav book of all time (for both of us) is Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones! We reread our copy so much the cover fell off, haha.

Of the MTH series itself, it’s a tie between Night of the Ninjas and Blizzard of the Blue Moon (because of ninjas and unicorns, respectively).

The very FIRST book we can both recall wasn’t a book book per say, but our mom always joked we taught ourselves how to read via Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest series, which in turn led to other fantasy series like Where the Wild Things Are, My Father’s Dragon, Dragonriders of Pern, etc.

KAPLAN: Can you tell us how you came to be involved in this project? 

KELLY & NICHOLE: Short answer, they asked us if we were available and we said yes. Long answer, we were put in touch with our wonderful editor April, by a mutual friend of ours to see if we were interested in a children’s graphic novel project. We thought it sounded like a great idea, did some tests for the series, and the rest is history!

KAPLAN: I was wondering if you could share some of your visual inspirations with us! Do I detect the influence of video games in the Frog Creek map?

KELLY & NICHOLE: In general, we like to make pinterest boards for various projects, and we’ll fill them with anything that gives us the ‘vibe’ we’d like to go for. With MTH, it’s mostly the original books covers, as well as screenshots from Ghibli movies like Totoro, or Howl’s Moving Castle. We also watched the 2011 anime movie adaptation, which was a real delight! We’ve been collecting the books we’ll be working on for reference as well, to get some more information from the original source that might not have been carried over in the (excellent) adaptations by Jenny.

For the map, the original idea was for it to resemble something a child could draw on and color, like a placemat at a restaurant. Everything is named in bold lettering, and the architecture and perspective of the town itself was simplified because of that. Later it was decided they wanted a 3/4 view of the whole town.

I wish we had thought to look at video game maps when we were designing it! That would have made the job easier. We looked at isometric art styles to help with the 3/4 view, and after much struggle (we’d never drawn this style before) we got it to look how everyone wanted. The map was definitely the hardest part.

KAPLAN: What’s it like drawing dinosaurs? Are extinct animals harder to draw than living ones? Where did you look for inspiration? 

KELLY & NICHOLE: We LOVE drawing dinosaurs! It’s a shame we don’t get to draw more of them. It’s a lot of fun to bring our interpretation for what they might look like, and pull color palates from existing birds to give them a little more validity (like a vulture for the T-Rex, and a green parrot for Henry).

Between dinosaurs and existing animals, however… I think dinosaurs are easier actually! With existing animals it’s easier to get it ‘wrong’ with how people expect them to look, and we’ll both struggle sometimes with getting certain animals (like horses) to look right. Dinosaurs on the other hand, may have the challenge of not having of real life reference for drawing, but there are hundreds of models, 3D recreations, and toys to choose from for reference! And we like the fact that we can give them our own spin on how they might have looked physically (like feathers, spikes, etc).

KAPLAN: Is there anything else you’d like me to include?

OSBORNE: I’m stunned by the beauty of these graphic novels – the colors are so vibrant. Sometimes the full-page art makes me gasp, such as the first sighting of the tree house, the huge flying reptile that saves Jack’s life, and the mysterious medieval knight who appears on horseback.

KELLY & NICHOLE: If you liked Dinosaurs Before Dark check out the next book in the series, The Knight at Dawn, coming this Fall!

Magic Tree House: Dinosaurs Before Dark is available at your local bookstore and public library now, and Magic Tree House: The Knight at Dawn will be available September 21st, 2021.