‘Magic School Bus’ author Joanna Cole dies at age 75

NEW YORK — Author Joanna Cole, whose fantastical “Magic School Bus” books transported millions of young people into the outer reaches of the solar system and the deep trenches of the ocean, has died at age 75.

Scholastic announced that Ms. Cole, a resident of Sioux City, Iowa, died Sunday. The cause was idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

Starting in the 1980s, the illustrated “Magic School Bus’’ series of books, geared toward early elementary school aged kids, invited their readers to journey along with a class through the many wonders of science. Each book featured a field trip, led by the zany teacher Ms. Frizzle, that delivered the students aboard a claptrap school bus imbued with such magical powers as the ability to soar into the cosmos or shrink to molecule size.


Scientific bedlam ensued. The students hopscotched across the solar system, jousted with dinosaurs, slipped through the human digestive system.

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Ms. Frizzle always says, “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!” 

‘‘The Magic School Bus’’ was conceived in part by Scholastic senior editorial director Craig Walker. He was receiving frequent requests from teachers for books about science and thought a combination of storytelling and science would catch on.

He brought in Ms. Cole, whose humorous work such as the children’s book “Cockroaches” he had admired, and illustrator Bruce Degen. The books ended up selling tens of millions of copies and were the basis for a popular animated series on PBS, with Lily Tomlin voicing the ever loopy but inspired Ms. Frizzle and Little Richard providing the theme song. More recently, a Netflix series was created based on the books.

Plans for a live-action movie, with Elizabeth Banks as Ms. Frizzle, were announced last month.


“Joanna Cole had the perfect touch for blending science and story,” Scholastic CEO Dick Robinson said in a statement Wednesday. “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.’’

“I think for Joanna the excitement was always in the idea. What? Why? How?’’ Degen said in a statement. “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.”

Ms. Cole and Degen recently completed “The Magic School Bus Explores Human Evolution,” scheduled to come out next spring.

A lifelong fan of science, Ms. Cole was a native of Newark, N.J., and a graduate of the City College of New York.

Ms. Frizzle was based in part on a fifth grade teacher of Ms. Cole’s.


“Ms. Frizzle . . . is the weirdest teacher in school,’’ Ms. Cole said on CBS News in 1994, explaining the PBS series. “She wears very strange dresses, she wears goofy shoes and she takes her kids on class trips where no class has gone before.

“Ms. Frizzle seems weird to her students, although secretly they love and admire her. But she’s a teacher who loves science. Her enthusiasm leads the kids to love science also.’’

Ms. Cole worked as a children’s librarian and magazine editor before “The Magic School Bus.’’

She leaves by her husband, Phil; daughter Rachel Cole; sister Virginia McBride, and two grandchildren.