12 Magical Facts About ‘The Magic School Bus’
By Mark Mancini
Who wouldn’t want a teacher like Ms. Frizzle? Brought to life by children’s author Joanna Cole—who died on July 12, 2020, at 75 years old—and illustrator Bruce Degen, Ms. Frizzle and her trusty vehicle transported kids and kids-at-heart into the wonderful world of science. Take a ride down memory lane with these fun facts about The Magic School Bus.
1. An editor’s love of field trips inspired the premise of The Magic School Bus.
By the 1980s, educational children’s books had come a long way. Whimsical wordsmiths like Dr. Seuss and Beverly Cleary had produced energizing page-turners that kids actually wanted to read.
Still, certain subjects remained largely ignored. Tales like Ramona Quimby, Age 8 were helpful for English teachers, but science instructors were still left without entertaining reads for their students. Eventually, educators started asking publishers to fill the void.
“In the 1980s, during the great era for picture book sales, we kept getting requests from teachers who were interested in seeing more [picture] books in the science category,” Craig Walker, the late former vice president of Scholastic, Inc., told Publisher’s Weekly in 2006. “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. The Magic School Bus’s teacher, 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 red-headed protagonist.
Walker modeled Ms. Frizzle after a beloved, eccentric second-grade teacher from his childhood school. Degen and Cole have also each cited a teacher from their respective childhoods as inspiring some of Ms. Frizzle’s numerous quirks. “Ms. Frizzle is based on my junior high school science teacher, who was always running ahead,” Cole said in a 2007 interview with TeachingBooks.net. “She didn’t stop to make sure that we understood everything. She just went on. And I loved her for that.”
The name Frizzle itself was also a portmanteau of frizz and drizzle, which Cole reportedly came up with on a rainy day.
3. Joanna Cole procrastinated before writing the first Magic School Bus 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. She also knew she’d have to boil down complicated ideas into terms any child could understand—without boring her young readers. “I was very nervous about it, because I didn’t know if I could do this—to combine all these things,” Cole admitted. “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 envisioning the Magic School Bus students, Bruce Degen used his kids’ 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 them into a caricature. The illustrator believes 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,” Degen revealed. The 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 in The Magic School Bus books, is a Jackson’s chameleon.
This three-horned creature 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 reportedly the weirdest-looking one he’d ever seen.
6. Little Richard sang the Magic School Bus 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 Award for voicing Ms. Frizzle in The Magic School Bus cartoon.
Lily Tomlin became the voice of Ms. Frizzle in 1994, but has said some kids don’t believe it. “[These kids] didn’t believe I’m Ms. Frizzle, so Ms. Frizzle would say something and then they’d turn real fast to me and say, ‘You say it!’ I had to audition for Ms. Frizzle,” Tomlin said in a 2014 interview. At the 1995 Daytime Emmy Awards ceremony, she won the Outstanding Performer in an Animated Program category.
8. Ms. Frizzle has spoken out about climate change in The Magic School Bus.
The Magic School Bus and the Climate Challenge, released in 2010, explained the scientific facts of climate change in a kid-friendly way, to the chagrin of some parents. Cole felt 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,” she argued. “They can be a real influence because it’s their world that’s being changed.”
9. Writing a new Magic School Bus book was a year-long process.
Cole typically spent six months researching the topic of a given installment. Afterwards, she’d spend another six months putting the actual book together, with Degen illustrating it throughout this same period.
10. Non-science entries in the Magic School Bus series use a different artistic style.
Eventually, Ms. Frizzle decided to branch out into the realm of social studies. 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 used a darker sort of paint called gouache in place of his standard watercolor.
11. NASDAQ helped celebrate The Magic School Bus’s 25th anniversary.
To commemorate a quarter century’s worth of adventures, an actress dressed as Ms. Frizzle rang the final stock market closing bell at the NASDAQ MarketSite in Times Square on October 17, 2011.
12. A Magic School Bus reboot was released in 2017.
Lily Tomlin once again brought Ms. Frizzle to life in The Magic School Bus Rides Again. The reboot featured Fiona Frizzle (voiced by Kate McKinnon), the younger sister of Ms. Frizzle (now Professor Fizzle), who wields the keys to the legendary bus. It first appeared in Netflix queues in 2017, and was canceled after just two seasons (although three 45-minute specials aired in 2020).
The show, which had a theme song done by Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton, was originally meant to be a computer-animated series titled The Magic School Bus 360° and was scheduled for a 2016 release.
A version of this article was originally published in 2015; it has been updated in 2023.