Prolific, award-winning children’s book author Joanna Cole, widely recognized for her nonfiction, and especially for being the creator of Ms. Frizzle, the intrepid and enthusiastic captain of the wildly popular Magic School Bus series, died on July 12 of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis in Sioux City, Ia. She was 75.
Joanna Cole was born August 11, 1944 in Newark, N.J. As early as grade school—a period she said was particularly influential for her—Cole was already enamored of writing and science, the two passions that propelled her career. “I discovered in fifth grade what I liked to do; write reports and stories, make them interesting and/or funny and draw pictures to go along with the words,” she had been known to say. And except for the illustrations, she would keep at her favorite pursuits to eventually create more than 250 books for young readers.
Cole attended the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Indiana University Bloomington and received her B.A. in psychology from City College of New York in 1967. Shortly after graduation, she worked as an elementary school librarian in the New York City schools. By 1968, she was writing professionally, as a letters correspondent for Newsweek magazine. But it was her experience working with elementary students that inspired her to try writing a children’s book.
Cole had been intrigued by an article on cockroaches that she read in the Wall Street Journal. As she hadn’t seen any books for kids on the subject, she wrote one. After an early rejection from one publisher, Cole submitted her manuscript to editor Connie Epstein at Morrow Junior Books, and she was on her way to publishing her first children’s title, Cockroaches, illustrated by Jean Zallinger, in 1971.
With Epstein’s guidance, Cole sharpened her skill at presenting well-researched and accessible science information for kids. She largely focused on life science and animal books including such titles as My Puppy Is Born (Morrow, 1973) and A Chick Hatches (Morrow, 1976). She additionally wrote a number of humorous picture books and other fiction that was well received by critics and readers. Though her writing career had blossomed and Cole was publishing multiple books each year during the 1970s, she also held positions as associate editor of Scholastic’s See-Saw Book Club from 1971 to 1973, and then as a senior children’s book editor at Doubleday from 1973 to 1980. In 1980, Cole became a full-time writer.
The series that would bring Cole the most attention first rolled into view in 1986 when Scholastic published The Magic School Bus at the Waterworks, illustrated by Bruce Degen. The books blend science, humor, and adventure as eccentric Ms. Frizzle—inspired by Cole’s favorite elementary school science teacher—and her class take field trips that include tunneling deep inside the Earth, blasting into space, or shrinking to go inside the human body. The book series consists of 13 core titles with many additional tie-ins, and boasts more than 93 million copies in print.
In 1994, Scholastic Entertainment teamed with the National Science Foundation, Microsoft, U.S. Department of Energy, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York to adapt the books for an animated TV program with Lily Tomlin voicing Ms. Frizzle. The show was originally broadcast on PBS and moved to various other networks as it became the longest running science series on television, airing for 18 consecutive years in more than 100 countries. More recently, The Magic School Bus: Rides Again series, featuring the voice of Kate McKinnon as Ms. Frizzle’s sister Fiona, launched on Netflix in 2017. The first of four Magic School Bus specials will air this August and a feature film is in development with Universal Pictures.
As the Magic School Bus books steadily grew more popular, Cole also turned her attention to more fiction and to parenting and child development titles including I’m a Big Brother (Morrow, 1997), The Gator Girls, with Stephanie Calmenson, illus. by Lynn Munsinger (Morrow, 1995), and My Big Girl Potty, illus. by Maxie Chambliss (Morrow, 2000).
A new book, The Magic School Bus Explores Human Evolution, completed prior to Cole’s death, is due out from Scholastic next spring.
“Joanna Cole had the perfect touch for blending science and story,” Dick Robinson, chairman, president, and CEO of Scholastic, said in a statement. “Joanna’s books, packed with equal parts humor and information, made science both easy to understand and fun for the hundreds of millions of children around the world who read her books and watched the award-winning television series. Her Ms. Frizzle led a group of eager and curious students on countless adventurous trips on The Magic School Bus—into the human body, hurricanes, the solar system, and everywhere imaginable. Her spirited work will live on as The Magic School Bus continues to be discovered by new readers and viewers.”
Illustrator Bruce Degen, Cole’s longtime friend and creative partner on the Magic School Bus, offered this remembrance: “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. We met in 1984 in the office of the much missed Craig Walker, the brilliant editor who asked us to work together. We did not know each other. In the world of children's books it is not often necessary for illustrator and writer to actually meet, but there were conundrums with MSB. Every page was so complicated we had to make decisions: how to make it work. Could it work? And we did. Together. And we became friends. What Joanna has meant to the world, what there is in the world because of her, is well known. What she meant to me I can’t describe. Everyone who knew her, worked with her, loved her, knows what a loss it is.”
Children’s author Stephanie Calmenson, a close friend and longtime colleague and collaborator of Cole’s, shared this anecdote about the popular Clown-Around picture books featuring “a loving and, of course, very funny family.” They worked on the series together when Calmenson was heading Parents Magazine Press’s Read-Aloud Book Club.
"Our favorite story from our Clown-Around days came over lunch at Le Cheval Blanc, a restaurant on East 45th Street. Back then, most of the diners were men in suits, who seemed to be making very important deals. We ordered lunch and, over vichyssoise we began to talk about the plot for Get Well, Clown-Arounds. Grandma Clown-Around has to come and take care of the family. Well, there must have been a lull in the conversations around us because even though Joanna was quite soft-spoken, everyone heard her loud and clear when she announced, “Grandma’s house will be a pink teacup!” It was like the old E.F. Hutton commercial with everyone stopping and staring. They clearly thought we were nuts.”
“Little did they know this was the woman who would go on to create the Magic School Bus books, teaching their children and their children’s children to love science. And, of course, the children would love Grandma Clown-Around’s pink teacup house too.”