12 Magical Facts About The Magic School Bus
Who wouldn’t want a teacher like Ms. Frizzle? She’s funny, optimistic, and head-over-heels in love with everything science-related. Plus, she drives a pretty sweet vehicle. So fasten your seatbelts and let’s all take a magical ride down memory lane.
1. An Editor’s Love of Field Trips Inspired the Whole Premise.
By the 1980s, educational children’s books had come a long way. Gone were the simplistic Dick and Jane stories of yesteryear; brilliant wordsmiths like Dr. Seuss and Beverly Cleary had long since replaced them with fun, energized page-turners that kids actually wanted to read.
However, certain subjects were largely ignored. The Cat in the Hat and Ramona Quimby, Age 8 were a godsend to English teachers, but nothing comparable could really be used in science classes. Eventually, masses of educators started asking publishers to fill this void.
Enter Craig Walker, the late former vice president of Scholastic, Inc. As he told Publisher’s Weekly in 2006, “We kept getting requests from teachers who were interested in seeing more [picture] books in the science category. So we had the breakthrough idea of putting curriculum science inside a story.” One day, inspiration struck when Walker remembered how much he’d enjoyed school trips as a boy. “I thought about doing books about kids going on field trips to places they really couldn’t: through a water system, to the bottom of the ocean, inside the earth.”
2. Ms. Frizzle Is a Composite of Several Real-Life People.
To helm his new franchise, Walker hired offbeat illustrator Bruce Degen and science/humor writer Joanna Cole. Their first installment, The Magic School Bus At the Waterworks, was released in 1986. Readers from around the world fell in love with both the book and its peculiar, red-headed protagonist.
According to Walker, she was modeled after “an eccentric second-grade teacher in my school who everyone thought was the best. She brought everything imaginable into the classroom—even a teepee—and had every corner, ledge, and windowsill filled with things.”
The name “Frizzle” itself was a portmanteau of “frizz” and “drizzle” that Cole came up with on a rainy day (“at the time, I had a perm,” says Cole). “She’s also based on me, because you know Ms. Frizzle loves to explain things and that’s what I do when I write my books,” adds the author. In addition, Degen and Cole have each cited a teacher from their respective childhoods as inspiring some of Ms. Frizzle’s numerous quirks.
3. Joanna Cole Really Procrastinated Before Writing that First Book.
The Magic School Bus at the Waterworks was a difficult juggling act. Cole knew from the start that her story needed to be funny and informative in equal measure. Also, she knew she'd have to boil down complicated ideas into terms that any child could understand—without boring her young readers. “I was very nervous about it,” Cole admitted, "because I didn't know if I could do this—to combine all these things. So, I cleaned out my closets, and I washed things. I mean, the kinds of things I never do. And one day I just said to myself, 'You have to write today. You have to sit down.' And so I wrote."
Right off the bat, her opening paragraph captured the tone she was going for. “I knew I had a teacher, and I knew I had a class, and I knew they were going to take these school trips that were going to be wacky, but I didn’t know what the teacher was going to be like. So, I wrote these words: ‘Our class really has bad luck. This year, we got Ms. Frizzle, the strangest teacher in school. We don’t mind her strange dresses or her strange shoes. It’s the way she acts that really gets us.’” Using those lines as her guide, Cole fleshed out Ms. Frizzle's character and the journey that was about to unfold.
4. While Designing the Students, Degen Used His Children’s Class Photos.
Degen would sift through old, elementary school picture day portraits. Then he’d pick out a kid whose outfit and hairdo he liked and convert him or her into a caricature. The illustrator believes that most of those selected children “are in the class and … don’t know it.” Still, at least one was notified.
Nervous and bespectacled Arnold was, in fact, based on a good friend of Degen’s son. “I didn’t tell him until he was 16 years old,” revealed Degen. This news didn’t go over too well. “He said, ‘I don’t look like Arnold!’ I said, ‘Well, that day, you were wearing … that white and yellow striped polo shirt. And you had that blondish, curly hair; and that was you. You were Arnold.’”
5. Liz, Ms. Frizzle’s Beloved Pet, is a Jackson’s Chameleon.
This three-horned critter resembles a curly-tailed Triceratops. Native to eastern Africa, the animal now roams the Hawaiian islands as well (thanks to careless pet owners). Originally, it was Cole who hatched the idea of giving Frizzle a lizard sidekick. Degen then chose this particular species because it was “the weirdest-looking one” he’d ever seen.
6. Little Richard Sang the TV Show’s Theme Song.
Launched in 1994, the PBS series lasted for four seasons and 52 episodes. The hard-rocking intro was penned by lyricist Peter Lurye and sung by 1950s icon Little Richard, who is perhaps best-known for his 1955 mega-hit, "Tutti Frutti."
7. LILY TOMLIN WON A DAYTIME EMMY FOR VOICING MS. FRIZZLE.
Lily Tomlin has been the voice of Ms. Frizzle since 1994. “Kids never believe I’m Ms. Frizzle because she kinda looks like Bette Middler,” jokes Tomlin. At the 1995 Daytime Emmy Awards ceremony, she won the Outstanding Performer in an Animated Program category.
8. Ms. Frizzle Has Spoken Out About Global Warming.
Released in 2010, The Magic School Bus and the Climate Challenge touched on this hot-button issue, to the chagrin of some parents. Cole felt that the book was both timely and necessary. “Kids should know about [global warming] and talk about it and they should talk to their elders about it,” Cole argued. “They can be a real influence because it’s their world that’s being changed.”
9. Writing a New Book is a Year-Long Process.
Ordinarily, Cole spends six months researching the topic of a given installment. Afterwards, she’ll spend another six months putting the actual book together, with Degen illustrating it throughout this same period.
10. Non-Science Entries in the Series Use a Different Artistic Style.
Eventually, Ms. Frizzle decided to branch out into the realm of social studies. “After many science adventures … we started to think that it might be fun to take Ms. Frizzle in a different direction and go into the study of cultures and world history,” Degen says in the interview above. Those books find Frizzle going on vacation, far away from her students and bus. To help set them further apart from the scientifically-inclined stories, Degen uses a darker sort of paint called “gouache” in place of his standard watercolor.
11. NASDAQ Helped Celebrate The Magic School Bus’ 25th Anniversary.
12. Netflix Will Be Releasing All-New Episodes Next Year.
A computer-animated reboot entitled Magic School Bus 360 will be popping up in your queue at some point in 2016. Netflix’s chief content officer Ted Sarandos promises that the bus will be fitted with massive upgrades. Meanwhile, the students will utilize “the latest tech innovations such as robotics, wearables, and camera technology.”