Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Magic Treehouse Books

My kids just adore the Magic Treehouse series of books. I really don't like them. I know all the schoolteachers are just thrilled with them, but I'm a lot less than thrilled.

They're not bad books-- which is why we have not restricted the kids from reading them-- they're just very, very poorly written, and they have extremely boring plots. For an example of the poor quality of their writing, take the glaring use of sentence fragments. Sentence fragments are fine for spoken-word or informal applications (I use them all the time on my blog) but I just don't think they're appropriate for literature, even cheap children's serial literature. There are tons of books out there that, in addition to having first-class illustrations and writing, somehow manage to use complete sentences. One wonders whether the author, Mary Pope Osborne, made a deliberate stylistic choice to use sentence fragments frequently, or whether she actually did not study English grammar before deciding to write books for the edification of children. Either way, I'm not much impressed.

For those unfamiliar with the series, all the books have pretty much the same plot:
  • Jack and Annie (brother and sister) find the magic treehouse, which is the property of Morgan le Fay.
  • Jack and Annie use books and library cards found therein to transport themselves to another time and place.
  • Jack and Annie perform a vital task in that time and place, which usually involves 50% learning about the time and place and 50% imposing modern value judgments on it. In the later books, those drop to 33.3% each, with the remaining action involving some sort of complicated four-book subplot that usually has to do with Merlin or some other character.
  • Jack and Annie go home via the magic treehouse.
The way Osborne co-opts characters like Morgan le Fay and Merlin really grates on me. Osborne certainly isn't the first person to adopt characters from much better literature, but her version reads more like amateur fan fiction than, say, Marion Zimmer Bradley-style or J.K. Rowling-style character adoption (I mention these authors because they both adopted the characters of Merlin and Morgan). After reading these books, I wonder if my kids will ever really be able to appreciate the original versions of these characters.

These books basically fill the same role for children that historical romance novels fill for adult women. They are mostly-harmless, poor-quality fluff that leave the reader with the mistaken impression that they've learned something about the history and culture of another age and place.