Meet the Author of the Magic School Bus

Joanna Cole will read from her latest “The Magic School Bus” at the N.C. Coastal Federation’s ice cream social Saturday. Photo source: Shanghai Family

WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH — “We’re being frizzled again!” said Arnold, riding a heat wave head-first towards the Earth. The character from the children book series, The Magic School Bus, is on yet another wild field trip with his whacky science teacher, this time learning about climate change. For those who have grown up with Ms. Frizzle, this Saturday is your chance to meet the woman behind the famous fictional teacher and hear about her last book.

Join Joanna Cole, the author of The Magic School Bus series, and the N.C. Coastal Federation for an ice cream social on Saturday at the Fred and Alice Stanback Coastal Education Center on Wrightsville Beach. Fans are encouraged to dress up as the characters and bring their favorite book from the series or buy one at the event for Cole to sign.

The Magic School Bus is a series of children’s books about science. The award-winning series has been published around the world in several languages with over 58 million books in print.

“Although people consider these books factual books, I consider them more conceptual books,” said Cole. “They’re about how the world works.”

Kids don’t have to be interested in the water cycle to have fun reading about the adventures that Ms. Fizzle, the science teacher, takes her students on to learn about science. In a bit of role reversal, it is the teacher who wants to go out of the classroom and the students who would rather stay inside taking spelling tests where it’s safe.

“Her enthusiasm carries the class to where no class has gone before!” said Cole. That is, to the bottom of the ocean and to the far reaches of the solar system and now around the world to witness the effects of global warming.

The Magic School Bus book series is read by children from around the world. Joanna Cole and her illustrator Bruce Degen pose with a group of school children in China.  Photo sources: Shanghai Family

Her latest book, The Magic School Bus and the Climate Challenge, is the most politically-sensitive subject that the series has touched on to date, and her next book is about evolution.

In The Magic School Bus and the Climate Challenge, Ms. Frizzle drives a flying school bus to the Arctic and then around the world to see how the planet is changing. They’ll go high into the atmosphere to see carbon dioxide molecules and slide down a sunbeam to the Earth as they learn about the greenhouse effect. By the end of book, kids will learn about fossil fuels, alternative energies and, of course, what they can do to help.“The Magic School Bus series, we consider it to be a contribution to science literacy,” said Cole. “We didn’t want to avoid a subject because some people were denying that it was factual.”

Cole, the illustrator Bruce Degen and the publishers at Scholastic weren’t afraid of a little controversy. In fact, Cole said, “We wanted to write about something that was controversial.”

“I said to my editor, ‘Global warming is not really controversial and by the time this book comes out it won’t be a controversy anymore.’ Well I was wrong about that,” said Cole.

The book was published in 2010, and Cole believes now that climate change has become “undeniable in people’s everyday experience,” there is greater awareness of its urgency.

“Kids are no exception,” she said. “Kids should know about it and talk about it and they should talk to their elders about it. They can be a real influence because it’s their world that’s being changed.”

Scattered throughout the books are boxes labeled “kids can…” that suggest how kids can make a difference by conserving and recycling and others labeled “a little can do a lot” with interesting facts, like “If your town recycled 2,000 pounds of aluminum cans, it would save enough energy to heat the typical home for 10 years.” At the end of the book, the students are writing letters to their Congress people, inspiring their school and involving their town.

Here are two pages in The Magic School Bus and the Climate Challenge where the fictional class learns about the greenhouse effect by traveling on sunbeams and heat waves. Photo: Tess Malijenovsky

“Will the Earth really be okay, Ms. Frizzle?” Asks the class at the end of the book.

“I hope so,” said the Friz. “Our only chance is to work together – every person, every city, every country.”

“When you’re writing about climate change it’s pretty hard to be funny,” Cole said. Yet Cole manages to tell the multi-faceted nature of the climate challenge in a light and humorous tone and in a fun and easy read.

Joanna Cole believes kids are no exception to the discussion on climate change. Photo source: Five On the Fly

For each Magic School Bus book that Cole writes, she spends about six months reading scholarly articles, journals and books about the subject. When the manuscript is complete and after all the illustrations are drawn, the book is sent to an expert on the subject for feedback.

When astronomers decided that Pluto would no longer be considered a planet, The Magic School Bus Lost in the Solar System had been out for several years, and Ms. Frizzle had visited Pluto-the-planet in the book. Cole and Degen later changed the story and illustrations to reflect the updated information.“We’re sticklers for accuracy,” said Cole of herself and the illustrator, Degen. “We even keep up with the information and make corrections as the years go by.”

The book series attracts a much larger age range than one would think. Cole says that she originally intended to target third graders. But since the first one was published in 1986, she’s learned that children as young as 3-years-old to college students and professors read her books.

“It’s not surprising to me that adults would learn things from not only The Magic School Bus but any good children’s science book,” Cole said.

Cole had been publishing children’s books for 16 years before she wrote the first Magic School Bus book. Her first book was about cockroaches because she loved catching and inspecting insects as a child.

“I loved science as a child and I had a wonderful science teacher named Ms. Bear,” Cole said.

Cole modeled Ms. Frizzle after her seventh grade science teacher and Degen made her look like his geometry teacher. Cole said that Ms. Bear wasn’t quite as “nutty” as Ms. Frizzle, but like the fictional character she had a great enthusiasm for her subject.

You can learn more about Cole’s writing process and listen to her read from The Magic School Bus and the Climate Challenge this Saturday from 4 to 6 p.m. at the education center on Wrightsville Beach. More details about the price of the event can be found here.


First published by Coastal Review Online on 6/3/2014 here.