Hello everyone, and I’m back at it again with a new book series ranking post. In my last such post, I ranked the Big Nate book series in my own personal order of worst to best. Now, it’s time for me to head back to the first children’s book series I ever had a favorite for: Magic Tree House.
There are a lot of books in the Magic Tree House series, so I thought about exactly how I would approach this list until I decided to rank the top ten best books in the original series. And while the Merlin Missions series deserves its own list, I left it out for two reasons. The series is not yet complete, so it cannot be fairly judged in its entirety yet. And even if it was complete, I have yet to catch up on it, which would add to the unfairness. But even without the Merlin Missions series, thanks to the sheer size of the series as a whole, an honorable mentions list will be possible this time. And while it won’t be long, I’d just like to make it clear that all the books in the series are pretty much great, and I was just searching for the absolute best, so it was a rather tough list to make in general. And of course, before I begin, I would like to give a heads up to some minor spoilers to the books as usual.
With that being said, it’s time to pick up those books, point to a place and wish to go there!
#10: Tigers at Twilight
Let me just say that I fought with quite a few books that ultimately didn’t make the cut, especially at the number ten spot. But at the end of the day, I found that Tigers at Twilight ended up being the winner. I barely considered it at first, tending to focus on the books that primarily featured human characters. But upon closer inspection of the books featuring animals, I reconsidered my choices. In their continuous pursuit to free Teddy from his curse, Jack and Annie are tasked with retrieving a gift in a faraway forest. Teddy takes them to the forests of India, where among other things, they express much fear of a tiger going after them. That is until the tiger is ensnared in a poacher’s trap that Jack and Annie free the tiger from. Their fear returns when the tiger approaches them, when Teddy scares it off, despite Jack insisting that Teddy was too small a dog to do so. They then meet a hermit who provides the message of the story: that many things in life are both beautiful and frightening. Those things may seem scary enough to hurt them, but their beauty makes them worth saving. And this couldn’t be more true for an animal like the tiger.
#9: Hour of the Olympics
For me, there was no way that Hour of the Olympics wasn’t making the list. Even as a kid, the feminist subtext was a part of the book that always caught my attention. But it’s far from what puts the book on the list. In their quest to obtain the final lost work for Camelot, Morgan le Fay sends Jack and Annie back to the time of Ancient Greece. Jack is thrilled, though Annie gets increasingly upset with all the laws put in place against women of the time. Upon receiving the work, they find that it was written by a woman who hides her identity to avoid persecution. Jack is excited for the Olympics, but he wouldn’t want to see it without Annie, who cannot attend. But Annie lets him go anyway so he could at least tell her about it. Little does Jack know was that this was part of Annie’s plan to sneak into the Games. Jack ends up saving her with the woman’s story before they give all the lost works back to Morgan. She then teaches them a valuable lesson regarding the works they had saved: that history’s legends are far from being history. They will always be with us, wherever we go. It’s a story that I think women and girls can appreciate for how far we’ve gotten since that time, and a story that we can all appreciate for the efforts we’ve made in preserving as much of history as we have preserved.
#8: Dingoes at Dinnertime
In the final quest for Jack and Annie to break the spell that Teddy was under, they head to the Australian outback to get a gift from a kangaroo. After befriending a kangaroo and her young joey, complications occur involving a pack of dingoes and a wildfire that cause Jack and Annie to retreat to a cave. Little do they know is that the cave has Aboriginal art depicting the Rainbow Serpent. With not much options, Teddy manages to use the art to summon rain, putting out the wildfire and allowing Jack and Annie to get their gift from the kangaroo. And after Morgan breaks the spell, everything comes together.
Teddy was actually a boy who worked as an apprentice of Morgan’s, whose magic caused the rain to be summoned from the art and also helped Jack and Annie in the previous three books. But it was his careless actions that also accidentally turned him into a dog. Morgan then decided to put Teddy in Jack and Annie’s hands and make them reverse the spell instead of her, so that Teddy can learn much needed lessons to prevent that same carelessness. Teddy did learn those lessons in the previous three books, and through using the art to save the outback, Teddy also learns another lesson. That even if it may not look like it at first, there is value in learning about history’s legends. It builds on Hour of the Olympics in a way: preserving the legends is one thing, but taking an interest in them is another. Also, this book gave us Teddy as we know him today, who became a great character upon getting more development in the Merlin Missions series.
#7: Twister on Tuesday
Twister on Tuesday was a simpler yet fun entry in what I easily consider to be the best four-book arc in the original series. Jack and Annie head back in time to the American prairie in the 1870’s. They become students in a one-room schoolhouse, where they face a misunderstood bully named Jeb. Jack’s character is particularly great here in how he tries his best to befriend Jeb in spite of Jeb’s antagonistic nature. Jack fails even after he and Annie get one of the writings to save Camelot, and are ready to head home when a tornado that heads for the schoolhouse forces Jack and Annie to save the class. This finally makes Jeb see the good in Jack, which provides the book’s universal though still great message: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. And this not only applies to Jack, but to Miss Neely, the schoolteacher, as well, who tells Jack and Annie how and why she will stop at nothing to teach her students. This is reflected back to why Jeb even goes to school in the first place. Everything fits together nicely, though the other installments in its four-book arc are even better.
#6: Stage Fright on a Summer Night
Stage Fright on a Summer Night is an interesting entry in the original series for a couple of reasons. First off, it’s the start of the last four-book arc with stakes that don’t really end the series with a bang. Instead, Osborne chooses to embrace the storytelling concept that less is more, and it ends up working. Jack and Annie are tasked with finding four kinds of what Morgan refers to as “everyday magic”, sending them to Elizabethan England during the time of William Shakespeare to find the first. Annie first meets a depressed bear that is about to fight with an arena with dogs. Jack tries to get Annie’s mind off the bear, when he grabs the attention of Shakespeare, who wants him to be in his latest play. Jack is too afraid to perform, though does it anyway to keep Annie focused on the mission. Shakespeare eventually gets Jack out of his stage fright while Annie keeps trying to save the bear. And in doing so, Jack and Annie learn that all the world’s a stage, and that sometimes, all you have to do to get out of a situation is to become someone you’re not. But the second interesting part about the book is that unlike other entries in the series in which Jack and Annie meet historical figures, Osborne chooses to not reveal that it is Shakespeare until the end, instead calling him Will. And the fact that she did this as a subtle way to get her point across was really interesting.
#5: Thanksgiving on Thursday
In Jack and Annie’s continuous quest to find the four kinds of everyday magic, they are sent back to the time of the first Thanksgiving. After getting caught by Squanto and the Pilgrims, Jack and Annie fabricate a story explaining why they were there, though Jack fears of something Squanto says that might make him figure out the truth. The two then try to play their part in putting together the famed feast. The problem: they have little success compared to their other missions. The tension particularly escalates when they handle the turkey, but Priscilla, who had been assisting them the whole time, shows how she is nonetheless grateful for Jack and Annie’s contributions. While it may seem odd for Jack and Annie to fail as they do here, it’s their very failures, the gratefulness of the Pilgrims and Squanto’s statements at the end that get the book’s message across. Regardless of how you help people or how well you help them, everyone should be thankful for that help, no matter who you are or where you come from. Of course Jack and Annie could have succeeded in putting together the feast, but it would hardly be as interesting. It’s a great message in the context of the event that I think people should remember and consider when it comes to their interactions with others.
#4: Revolutionary War on Wednesday
As Jack and Annie continue to get the four writings needed to save Camelot, they head back in time to George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River. They intrude in Washington’s mission and are mostly unwelcome, until one of the captains gives Jack a letter with the words of Thomas Payne to send his family in the event that the mission fails. As Washington’s mission continues, Jack and Annie’s mission pretty much ends there. That is until Annie takes up the opportunity to participate in the crossing to Jack’s dismay. Distracted, Washington gets discouraged to continue the crossing, until Jack uses the letter to re-inspire Washington to march on. The message becomes clear: for all the more harder a task becomes, you will succeed just as greatly, but only if you stick to your convictions. Osborne adds something new to Payne’s already great words, seamlessly fitting Jack and Annie into the event without changing what happened. And the story can apply to anyone facing a seemingly insurmountable situation who faces the choice between giving up or striving to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
#3: Earthquake in the Early Morning
In this great conclusion to the four-book arc of the original series I look highly upon, Jack and Annie head to the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to retrieve the final writing to save Camelot. Osborne wastes no time in making the actual earthquake happen as Jack and Annie spend the majority of the story trying to bring hope to the city. Jack tries to save books that were lost due to mistakes made, only to fail, which tears him apart. But then they meet a woman and two boys who lost their home in the disaster, yet give Jack and Annie a board with a hopeful message. A photographer takes a picture of them holding the board, and they eventually learn that his photo did bring hope to the city. Later, Morgan takes Jack and Annie to Camelot for the first time, in which they give all the writings to King Arthur to inspire that same hope in him. This presents a valuable message for those who may be facing a lot in their lives. That even during your darkest times, you can still have hope, and if even a king can get back that hope, so can you. Osborne also chooses to ease us into King Arthur’s introduction by not revealing his identity right away, a similar approach she used with Shakespeare in the next book. Because surely, he was no longer King Arthur as Camelot knew him until Jack and Annie came along.
#2: Tonight on the Titanic
When looking back at Tonight on the Titanic, it completely slipped my mind that Osborne was reluctant to explore the Titanic disaster in her series, until fan demand made her change her mind:
At first, I thought the story was so sad. However, as more and more requests came in, I began to think about it, for I take the suggestions of kids very seriously. So I tried to think of a way that Jack and Annie might actually be helpful in the midst of such a tragedy.
And she was glad that she did. Osborne doesn’t forget why she made the book when writing her story, making tragedy the underlying theme. It was the first book in which Jack and Annie try to break the spell Teddy’s under, attempting to save as many people as they can while they try to receive a gift from a ship lost at sea. While they do eventually save a couple people, they find that most of the passengers are too optimistic to be saved. And while they succeed in what they went there for, they are saddened at the fact that they couldn’t save everyone, even though they already knew they largely couldn’t do much. That’s when they realize the book’s message: that there’s nothing we can do to stop tragic events. But that doesn’t stop us from trying to imagine that things turned out differently than they did. Osborne must have ultimately decided to write the story once she saw it that way, and she did a great job at making it clear.
And before we get to number one, here are the…
#5: Pirates Past Noon
Ah, back when things were simpler (but still fun), weren’t they? I knew I had to put the conclusion to the original four-book arc here. It’s notable for having the first appearance of Morgan, and explaining the fundamentals of Magic Tree House lore. It would set the stage for the rest of the series in which Morgan would send them on missions, rather than Jack and Annie doing random stuff in random time periods. And of course, there’s that wonderful message that treasure is more than just a chest. That there is treasure everywhere you look.
#4: Midnight On The Moon
Five words: they went to the future! The future! The future, while technically a time period, is a shaky topic to explore in historical fiction, because much of it is largely up to the imagination of the writer and thus puts into question how much of it has any educational value by that point. But Osborne largely avoids projections of what things could look like and sticks to what will definitely stay fact by then: the Moon, which never changes, and turns it into more of an astronomy lesson. It’s also the conclusion to a four-book arc involving a spell Morgan was under (though Merlin’s actions are questionable), and has a subtly delivered message that the universe is filled with wonder.
#3: Polar Bears Past Bedtime
The book that made Jack and Annie Master Librarians definitely deserves a mention. Part of its charm is that its plot is driven by self-discovery. Morgan sends Jack and Annie to the Arctic, where she sends a seal hunter to help them figure out the final riddle in their quest. He gives them a hint involving polar bear masks and local beliefs that help them avoid cracking ice. And when they figure out the riddle, they learn that the seal hunter knew the answer the whole time, but wanted them to figure it out themselves. But then the two have to solve another riddle using the previous riddles to get home, with the lack of warm clothes adding to the tension. And that’s when they realize the lesson, which is basically a simpler version of the lesson from Stage Fright on a Summer Night: when you see yourself as something you’re not, you become more courageous.
#2: Dinosaurs Before Dark
You thought the original book was going to take the number one spot in either list, did you? Well, it actually wasn’t that hard to keep it away because the series generally got better as it progressed. But that doesn’t mean the series didn’t already start off great with Dinosaurs Before Dark; after all, it was the book that started it all. It’s a classic story of how two kids having fun in the woods turned from a game to a very real and very frightening adventure. And when they get back to the present, they ponder on their future with the magical tree house they just found, and their decision provides the book’s message while setting the stage for the rest of the series. That no matter how dangerous things get, every trip is an adventure that is worth going back for. And that’s what Jack, Annie and all of us have been doing time and time again since.
#1: High Tide in Hawaii
Remember what I said about the less-is-more aspect of the final four-book arc of the series? Well, High Tide in Hawaii really brings all of that to a close in the best way possible. Jack and Annie head back to ancient Hawaii to find the final kind of everyday magic. They befriend two kids who show them their way of life, though things get shaky when Jack is learning to surf. That all gets thrown out the window when Jack realizes a tsunami is coming. How Jack and Annie solve the riddle ends up being so great, really driving the book’s message home as well as those of the previous three books. That magic is not always literal. It exists in even the most subtle aspects of life. It’s just up to you to really find them. It provides a fantastic conclusion to the original series while cleverly setting up Christmas in Camelot, a masterpiece in its own right to the point that it’s the source material for the upcoming film adaptation.
And the number one choice is…
#1: Civil War On Sunday
For me, it was no debate. The back cover says it all: “It is their hardest journey in time yet—and the one that will make the most difference to their own lives!” And boy, did that back cover mean it. Of all the entries in the original series, Civil War on Sunday had to be the one that affected Jack and Annie the most. They get a grasp on reality. They meet people that mean a lot to them. They struggle to find meaning in dark times. And in the end, that’s exactly what they get. Jack and Annie head back in time to the American Civil War, and Jack, while aware that war was bad, also sees some fun in it. That begins to change when they come across a field hospital with injured soldiers, an image Jack can’t swallow. As Annie tries to help the soldiers, a nurse gives Jack the first of four writings needed to save Camelot, which is a list of tasks to follow. Jack believes they could go home when Annie insists that they keep helping the soldiers. That’s when Jack finds that he is following the tasks on the list, as they realize they should.
What ensues is a grim yet enlightening journey into the truth about war: it’s not a game, and it’s not about fame and glory. It’s about tragedy and sorrow, and remembering that love and family are what’s really important. It gets depressing for the two kids – even Annie’s spirits eventually get crushed. But through a particular figure they meet, they learn that war doesn’t always take away everyone we love. That some of our loved ones do come home and are able to focus on those things that are really important. And those things get reflected back into Jack and Annie in such a fantastic way. The Civil War, which was definitely one of our more meaningless wars, was the perfect way for Osborne to explore the reality of war for children that may have a muddled view of it like Jack did. And in my opinion, that is what easily makes Civil War on Sunday the best book in the original series.
Again, as Mary Pope Osborne is such a great writer, making this list was not easy. I get it if your list is largely different if not completely different from mine because of that, but regardless of the order, I nonetheless hope that you can agree with many of my thoughts. With all the book reviews I have written, I’ve thought about how I could make good use of them. Which is why I’m probably going to make a Goodreads account for all these reviews, with the reviews obviously edited accordingly. I’ll also gradually add my reviews of the remaining books in the series that I have read, as well as my review of Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Double Down to spare the blog of any farther criticism of that series, as I still really want to talk about it. You’ll get the heads up that I made the account after I add my Goodreads widget on the sidebar of the blog, which will be a nice neat update for the site.
Until we see that tree house in the woods again, folks.