Since 1992, young readers have been learning to love books from Mary Pope Osborne and Salvatore Murdocca’s Magic Tree House series, following the illustrated adventures of Jack and Annie in clear, simple prose. Now, the classic tales are being reimagined in graphic novel form by Jenny Laird and Kelly and Nichole Matthews. But can this update live up to the original?
Magic Tree House: Dinosaurs Before Dark
Mary Pope-Osborne and Jenny Laird (writing and adaptation), Kelly and Nichole Matthews (art)
Random House Graphic
May 4, 2021
The Magic Tree House books were the first chapter books I ever read as a child. I remember resisting even trying them for a long time because the pictures weren’t in color, but once I got started, taking Dinosaurs Before Dark off my first grade teacher’s bookshelf, I was hooked. I read every Magic Tree House book I could get my hands on at my elementary school library. I loved how they combined real historical facts with fantastical stories of traveling through time and space by reading a book.
Kelly and Nichole Matthews’s art on this book is absolutely phenomenal. The colors are bright and lush, the grassy landscapes almost reminiscent of Studio Ghibli scenery. The artists use colored lines and watercolor-textured brushes to create clean, crisp art that still has a storybook feel to it. The character designs from the original series aren’t so much modernized as they are stylized, more sleek and simple than in the prose books, but still wearing the same simple jeans and t-shirts they’ve always worn. It works very well. I like Annie’s bouncy little braids. The teleportation scenes are appropriately visually dramatic.
As an adaptation, I believe this graphic novel is very faithful to the source material. Jenny Laird successfully translates all of the most important information from the prose to a graphic novel format. I was pleased that the iconic repeated refrain from the original series (“The tree house started to spin. It spun faster and faster and faster. Then everything was still. Absolutely still.”) made it in unchanged, but also that the little details I remember from my childhood appeared in pictures here. This 180-page graphic novel is briskly paced and can keep readers engaged and interested all the way through.
I’m not up to date on paleontology news so I don’t know if the dinosaur facts are outdated now, but there was enough interesting information that I can see these kids wanting to research further after reading this book.
So many graphic novelizations of prose books fall flat somewhere, either with art not suited to the subject matter, or awkward lettering choices, or clunky adaptational changes, it was frankly a relief that a book I have such fond memories of was done justice in this format. I’d give the graphic novel of Magic Tree House: Dinosaurs Before Dark to my eight-year-old sister, and I hope she’d enjoy it just as much as I enjoyed reading the original when I was her age.