Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen Interview Transcript
Learn how the creators of The Magic School Bus came up with the idea for the series, who inspired the character of Ms. Frizzle, and their advice to young writers and artists.
PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5
Author Joanna Cole and illustrator Bruce Degen, creators of The Magic School Bus series, were interviewed by Scholastic students.
What gave you the idea for the Magic School Bus?
Joanna: The original concept of a teacher going on a class trip came from my editor at Scholastic, Craig Walker. He wanted to do a book that combined science and fiction. I came up with the idea of the Ms. Frizzle character, and the classroom is based on my experience in elementary school.
Bruce: I was asked to come to Scholastic and look at the manuscript that Joanna had written. The editor told me, "It's the most difficult project you're ever going to do in your life. It's going to involve a lot of research, and we don't know how it's going to fit on the page." The Magic School Bus was that complicated. Usually an author and an artist don't have to actually meet, but our editor thought it would be a good idea in solving some problems organizing the book. That was the first time Joanna and I met, and it's led to us actually becoming good friends.
How do you decide which subject to do next?
Bruce: I have to do whatever Joanna says because she writes the book first! We really have a conference with our editor and talk about what might be interesting. One time Joanna and I were flying to Denver from New York because we were going to a children's book conference, and we came up with a list of 51 possible topics.
Joanna: We often get ideas from kids when they write us letters. I just got one that asked for a book about monkeys.
How long does it take to make a Magic School Bus book?
Joanna: It usually takes me a year altogether. I spend six months reading and another six months writing.
Bruce: My part of the project takes about six months — it takes a long time to do the sketches and get everything started, and then that all goes to several people who are experts who offer their suggestions. One of the biggest jobs is organizing everything on the page to make it clear and to show the major ideas. You can't always tell how the story is working until you see the pages pictured, so sometimes we make changes once the book is illustrated.
How do you do research for the Magic School Bus books?
Joanna: I read 50 or 100 books and a lot of journal articles about a subject, and then I ask expert consultants about the subject. I become very smart about it. I visit the places the books focus on, but mostly I like to collect everything I can about the subject. As I start writing, I keep rereading the books and articles. My love in life is to research something and find the words to make it very clear to my readers.
Bruce: I always try to do some research in the field. For example, for The Magic School Bus Inside a Beehive, one of our neighbors actually took Joanna and me to his beehive and took it apart and showed us all the parts of the cone — where the bees work, where they store the honey, where they raise their young. It was fascinating to see for the first time how a beehive worked.
What is your favorite book out of all the Magic School Bus books?
Joanna: The Magic School Bus in the Time of the Dinosaurs. I wrote a children's book about dinosaurs in 1972, and I'd been wanting to do another dinosaur book for a long time. It was fun for me to learn everything that scientists had found out in the 22 years since I wrote the first book.
Bruce: My favorite book is The Magic School Bus on the Ocean Floor because I got to visit five major aquariums in the U.S., and I went snorkeling at a coral reef in Puerto Rico as part of the research.
Joanna, how did you come up with the name Ms. Frizzle for the teacher?
When I was writing the first book I was sitting in my home office; outside it was drizzling, and at the time I had a perm so my hair was very frizzy. I couldn't think of what to name the teacher, so I combined the rain outside with my hair and got "Ms. Frizzle."
Is Ms. Frizzle based on someone you know?
Bruce: Ms. Frizzle is based on a teacher Joanna had for the way she acts and a teacher I had for the way she looks. The teacher I had was Ms. Isaacs, my high school geometry teacher. I usually didn't like math, but she was able to let us see what was exciting about the logic in math, and so I loved it too.
Joanna: She's also based on me, because you know Ms. Frizzle loves to explain science, and that's what I do when I write my books.
Bruce, where do you come up with Ms. Frizzle's wacky outfits?
Sometimes we just sit around and make up lists of the craziest ideas we could have for the pictures on Ms. Frizzle's dress. Usually we put a hint of the next book on the last page that Ms. Frizzle's dress is shown. For example, at the end of the Ocean book, she has dinosaurs on her dress, because the next book was to be the Magic School Bus in the Time of the Dinosaurs. Other times her dress reflects something that's happening in the story; for example, in The Magic School Bus Explores the Senses, when Ms. Frizzle is leaving school at the end of the day, we made her dress with clocks on it that all say three o'clock, and we put sundials on her shoes.
How did you decide what the children in the class would be like? Are the kids in Ms. Frizzle's class modeled after students you've known or taught?
Bruce: The children are all based on the class pictures my two sons used to bring home from elementary school in first and second grade. I just looked at those kids all lined up with their teacher and I said, "Aha, that's Wanda, that's Dorothy." I would choose children that were our neighbors and base the children in the books on them. Arnold was modeled on one of my son's best friends, and when I told him years later that this character was based on him, he was very surprised!
Joanna: Arnold is probably the most developed of the characters, and he sort of happened. In the first book I wrote a word balloon for Ms. Frizzle that said: "Are you listening, Arnold?" It was just a name that popped into my head. Gradually, every time Arnold spoke, his personality got clearer. I didn't think he would become so prominent, but we got a lot of mail from kids asking about him, so we decided to keep him and make him prominent.
Joanna, how come you make Arnold so scared all the time?
Joanna: Arnold expresses a part of myself because I am not a very adventurous person. I like to stay home and read and write books.
Which student in Ms. Frizzle's class were you most like as a kid?
Joanna: I was most like Dorothy Ann. I liked to do the experiments. I liked to learn things and tell people about it.
Bruce: I was most like Carlos. I am the one with the bad jokes in the back of the room.
Are you going to add any new characters to the series?
Joanna: In the new book about the senses, we added a character named Mr. Wilde, who is the new assistant principal.
Bruce: And we also introduce Ms. Frizzle's mother. She's an older woman with pink hair. And although Ms. Frizzle wears very colorful outfits, her mother's outfit is in crazy black and white patterns.
What kind of lizard is Liz, and why did you choose that type of lizard?
Bruce: Liz is a Jackson chameleon, which comes from Madagascar. When Joanna wrote the first book and told me about the character of Liz the Lizard, she didn't say what kind of lizard it was. So I started looking at a lot of pictures of lizards, and decided that this was the weirdest-looking one I'd ever seen.
Joanna, why did you choose a lizard as Ms. Frizzle's pet, instead of a dog or a cat or a bird or a fish?
Joanna: When I was writing the first book, I wrote "Ms. Frizzle was feeding the class lizard" and I made her say in her word balloon, "Down Liz!" I thought it would be funny if the lizard were just lying there, not trying to get out and Ms. Frizzle said, "Down, Liz!" Then, Bruce drew the picture of Liz, and she was so cute that lots of readers said they liked her, so we kept her in all the books.
We really like Liz. Do either of you have a pet lizard or did you have one in your science class in elementary school?
Joanna: I used to have a pet lizard named Izard. My daughter has an iguana named Rocky.
Bruce: When I was a kid, I went to the circus and there they were selling lizards in little cardboard boxes. I got one — it was an Anole chameleon that changed color. I took it home and loved it and fed it live insects, which my mother hated.
Joanna, when did you realize you wanted to be an author?
Joanna: My favorite subjects in school were English and science, but I never thought about being a writer. When I came to New York, I started working for Newsweek magazine answering letters to the editor. I didn't think of it as a writing job, but it was. Then I became a teacher for a year, but it wasn't the best job for me. I went back to Newsweek, and I met other writers, and then I realized I could write. I love children and science, so I decided to write children's books.
I wrote my first book about insects. Since I lived in New York, I wrote about the insects all around me — cockroaches. People often ask me how I broke into the writing field, and I tell them I'm not the greatest example since I wrote about a subject everyone loathed! After that book, I didn't even think of writing more, but my editor encouraged me, and I kept on.
I believe that people who write children's books write them from a place inside them that is still childlike. I write my books from my own childlike interest in science. I ask myself if a kid would understand the topic, and I have an intuitive sense of whether a child would understand. But mostly I write for myself. I love working with illustrators because they make what I see in my mind concrete.
Joanna, who was a role model to you when you were younger?
Joanna: My father was a role model for me because he was a housepainter and he taught me how to work hard. He was also very curious about the world, and I inherited that from him.
Was science very fun for you when you were in school?
Joanna: Science was one of my favorite subjects, and science books were very important to me. I always read a lot of science books for pleasure Then when I grew up, it seemed natural for me to write science books for children.
Bruce: I was in an honors biology class in high school, and we all had to do our own experiments at home. I got a jar from a laboratory that was full of wingless fruit flies that were going to be in my experiment. But the top came off and they got out in my living room. Since they had no wings, they couldn't fly away, so they just hopped around the room for a long time. Instead I did an experiment with tadpoles. I fed them thyroxin and timed how they matured more quickly with that enzyme. They did not jump out of the tank. My mother made sure I kept the top on them!
Bruce, did you draw a lot as a child? Who encouraged you to illustrate children's books?
Bruce: I always, always drew, as early as I can remember. I went to a special high school for art — LaGuardia High School. You had to take a test to get in. I graduated and went to Cooper Union and got a Bachelor's degree in art, and then I went to the Pratt Institute and got a Master of Fine Arts. My family was very supportive and liked my artwork, but I never knew I was going to illustrate children's books. I worked in an advertising agency; I painted scenery for the opera; I was a painter and a printmaker; but I got to a point where I decided there was something missing — and that was humor! When you go to a gallery, very rarely do you walk around and see people chuckling and having a good time. I decided to do children's books because they could make you laugh. One day, I realized that was what I really loved to do, and that is all that I do now — write children's books.
Bruce, what medium do you use to draw the illustrations?
Bruce: After I have my pencil sketches all set out the way I want them, I trace onto good watercolor paper. I use black ink and pen and then I color in with watercolors. I add color pencils for shading.
Joanna, how did you get the idea to use notepaper to show the students' work and to write extra notes?
Joanna: When I was writing the first book, I tried to put everything in the text. I tried to put the story, the jokes, and the information all in regular paragraphs. But then there were too many words. I put some of the jokes in word balloons, but there was still too much. Finally, I got the idea of putting the information in school reports. For the first book I wrote the school reports on little pieces of lined paper. It was fun!
What is your favorite part of being a writer or illustrator?
Bruce: My favorite part is when we speak to children, parents, and teachers and they tell us that sharing our books have been a very happy part of their lives. There is nothing like the feeling you get when you know that what you have done has been a good part of other people's lives.
Do you write or illustrate any books that are not part of the Magic School Bus series?
Joanna: I have a series of books on animal bodies and how they function: A Snake's Body, A Cat's Body, A Frog's Body, etc. I also have a little line of child development books: How You Were Born, The New Baby in Your House, and How I Was Adopted: Samantha's Story. I have a whole lot of anthologies that I've done with Stephanie Calmenson: Give a Dog a Bone: Stories, Poems, Jokes, and Riddles About Dogs, Crazy Eights and Other Card Games, and Yours Till Banana Splits: 201 Autograph Rhymes. Last but not least, I've started a series of novels with Stephanie — The Gator Girls, about two alligators who are best friends — Allie Gator and Amy Gator.
Bruce: I've illustrated a series for younger readers that is very popular about a little bear called Jesse Bear. I've also written and illustrated several books. One that people may know is called Jamberry, and another that just came out this year is called Sail Away Home.
What gave you the idea to make The Magic School Bus into a TV show?
Joanna: It wasn't our idea. It was Scholastic's idea and the National Science Foundation decided to give most of the money to develop the show. It was on PBS for several years and this year it moved to Fox TV.
Bruce: It was the first animated children's show on PBS.
What hobbies do you enjoy in your free time?
Joanna: I have a big garden, and I grow flowers and vegetables. I go snow-shoeing in the winter. I sometimes go sailing with my husband. My main hobby is reading. I like to read mysteries, science fiction, and just fiction in general. I also read biographies of scientists. I spend four or five hours a day reading. I also study yoga and do aerobics. Anything for a quiet life. I'm like Arnold. Arnold had that philosophy, and then he got Ms. Frizzle for a teacher!
Bruce: For the past year and a half, one of my hobbies has been working on the design of the renovation of my new farmhouse. We took an 1830s farmhouse in Connecticut, renovated it, and added a big section. We just moved in two months ago, and it's taken a lot of work. My wife and I like to garden — we went from living in New York City in an apartment with a couple of flower pots on the balcony to here, where my wife is president of the gardening society. I also like to take walks with my dog, Bailey, a chocolate Labrador.
Will you be coming out with any new Magic School Bus books soon?
Joanna: There's one that just came out: The Magic School Bus Explores the Senses. This book was a lot of fun because we have the bus going into someone's eye, into someone's ear, and into someone's nose. The thing is, the nose is a dog's nose. What's cute is that Bruce drew himself walking his own dog, Bailey.
Bruce: And what's really great is that they go inside Ms. Frizzle's mouth and into her tongue because the class has shrunk and they're on a slice of pizza and Ms. Frizzle is hungry. And the kids say, "We've been chewed out by teachers before, but this is ridiculous!" When they go into her taste buds, someone says, "This will give us a taste of excitement." And Arnold thinks: "I prefer the taste of chocolate, myself."
Do you have a mailing address to which kids can send their letters?
Joanna: Kids can send letter to us to Scholastic Inc. at 555 Broadway New York, NY 10012.
What advice would you give to young artists and writers?
Bruce: The main thing is that if it's important to you, you have to keep doing it and don't take no for an answer. Don't be discouraged by someone else's opinions. If it's really important to you, you'll do it. But you have to do it a lot and get good at it.
Joanna: First of all, as a child I never thought that I'd be published. I enjoyed writing, and I just wrote for the sheer fun of it. I think that's very important — not to be always looking at what the outside world will say about you. But perhaps more important than writing is reading. Practicing writing is good but we all learn to be writers from the books we read as kids. Reading gives you a very solid feel for the language, and an understanding of how to write. When you start to write, you can use that understanding to express what you're trying to say. You should also understand how wonderful it is to be a reader who finds a book she loves. I have certain favorite authors whom I love to read. Whenever one of their new books comes out I run out and get it and read it, and I'm so excited. I get mail from kids asking when my next book is coming out, and I can understand how they feel because that's how I feel when one of my favorite authors writes a new book.
Joanna and Bruce, do you have any final words for the audience?
Bruce: We'd like to say thank you to all of the people who showed such incredible enthusiasm when the Magic School Bus came out. We thought it was fun and a fresh idea to make science fun for kids, but we never expected the huge response that the books have gotten. It has changed our lives very much.