Joanna Cole, who combined wacky humor and plainspoken science in The Magic School Bus book series, has died at the age of 75.
Her publisher Scholastic announced that she died last Sunday, July 12th. According to the New York Times, the cause was idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a disease that leads to irreversible lung scarring.
Cole grew up in Newark, New Jersey, and graduated from City College of New York. She spent time as an elementary school teacher, a librarian, and an editor for magazines and children’s books. Her authorial debut was called “Cockroaches”, and she later said it was inspired by her “low-budget New York apartment.”
Her humor and inventiveness attracted Scholastic senior editorial director Craig Walker. Walker had been hearing from teachers that they wanted more books about science. He thought the best way to meet that demand was by combining learning and storytelling, and he selected Cole and illustrator Bruce Degan to bring this concept to life.
For her part, Cole had two amazing ideas that paved the way for all the resulting success. The first was the magic school bus itself, which could transport the kids underneath the oceans, back to the Cretaceous period, or inside the human body. And the second, of course, was Ms. Frizzle, aka “The Frizz,” loosely based on her real-life 5th grade science teacher. The genius of Ms. Frizzle is that she is the story’s antagonist, a benign villain, who embarrasses the children with her abnormal behavior, and risks their lives with her adventurous field trips. She’s fun and funny, and as good at explaining science as any real teacher could be. Scholastic published the first book in 1986.
Since then, The Magic School Bus series has sold tens of millions of copies. In 1994 an animated TV show premiered, with Lily Tomlin giving voice to Ms. Frizzle. In 2017 it was rebooted as a Netflix series, and production has begun on a live-action hybrid film starring Elizabeth Banks as The Frizz.
In a statement, longtime collaborator Degan spoke about Cole’s “rare sense of what could be humorous.” He said,
“I think for Joanna the excitement was always in the idea. What? Why? How? And with The Magic School Bus it was how to explain it so that it is accurate and in a form that a kid can understand and use. And you can actually joke around while you are learning. She had a rare sense of what could be humorous.”
Before her death, Cole and Degan collaborated on one last book together: The Magic School Bus Explores Human Evolution. It will be published by Scholastic in the spring of 2021.