In 1984, writer Joanna Cole and artist Bruce Degen met at the New York City offices of Scholastic to discuss creating a new children’s book about science. They have since published 16 colorful, zany books featuring Ms. Frizzle and her magic school bus.
Cole died on 12 July at age 75. But the series—including an upcoming book on evolution—continues to take children and their parents on fantastic adventures that also teach them about the natural world. We asked Degen to talk about his collaborator and his role in making the beloved series.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Did you ever expect to create such a legacy?
A: The first book was a one-book contract to see if this would work. It was like the world was waiting for somebody to make this happen—kids, parents, teachers all loved it. When it happened, everybody was walking around in some kind of dream, thinking, is this real? People say, “I read these books, now I read them to my kids!” I could never have imagined it.
Q: Did the need for scientific accuracy ever get in the way of telling the story?
A: Frequently. You have to tell kids what is true, but you can’t give them all the truth—it’s too much. For example, the evolution book goes from now [back] to the beginning of the Earth. I [initially] tried to show every era, year, and life form. It was too complicated. So it has ended up as a nice, open spiral with a few representations of each era.
Q: What do you enjoy most about illustrating a science book for children?
A: Truthfully, in the beginning, it was darn hard work. All that research, all that struggling to juggle the components, all that rewriting and resketching—some book sketch dummies have five layers of rewrites and reillustrations. But working all those years with Joanna, what we got to do together … what more could you ask for?
Q: What compelled you to create your 2017 “Science not Silence” illustration?
A: When the Trump administration came in, it was fairly clear that they were going to push back on science. And there were demonstrations and parades all over. I wanted to go to the march here in New Haven, [Connecticut,] so I made a poster and put it online so people could print it out and carry it with them.
Q: Ms. Frizzle always took readers on an adventure. Why use that format?
A: What kids need is more in the way of structure than research. The solar system book took the kids on a journey from one planet to the next. It gave them a mental filing system—they could retrieve and remember information because it was given to them in a memorable trip.
Q. As a printmaker and painter, why did you choose to work on children’s books?
A: I was in art school doing very serious art, and I didn’t know what I was going to do. I said to myself, “Why did I do art in the first place?” It was fun. And I realized that, in my heart of hearts, I wanted to do children’s books because they could be funny and beautiful.