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Transcript from a video with Bruce Degen

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Bruce Degen

Painting privileges

It got to the point where I was in the sixth grade of my little, redbrick schoolhouse in Brooklyn. I didn't even have to sit down and do work like a normal kid. I was painting in the back of the room all the time, and my teacher was terrific. She made this big show all over the lobby of the school of my artwork. And I got out of things like spelling tests and all these things, because I was painting.

So, I always knew that artwork would be something I would always be doing.

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Chuckling outside of the gallery

I got a bachelor's degree in art, and I got a master's degree in fine arts from Pratt Institute, with a major in printmaking and a minor in painting. And you would think that I would know what I was doing… But it was the seventies when I got my master's degree, and people were doing things like painting themselves and rolling around on canvas. I didn't really see myself doing this. It wasn't my world, and I got to the point where I really had to say, "What am I going to do? I have always seen myself as being an artist, but this gallery scene, the fine arts that I am involved with, just doesn't seem to be the route I would be going in." I had to examine why I always wanted to pick up that pencil and draw.

I realized that ever since I was a little kid, that's what I used to do. And what were those sixth-grade paintings? They were story illustrations. Each one told a story. They were characters. They were fun. They were humorous. And I realized that I wanted to do artwork that was fun to do. You don't see many people walking around a gallery and chuckling. And I realized that I wanted a chuckle.

You can do a painting, and it might end up being on somebody's wall, but if you do a book, it goes out to the world. It goes out in multiple copies; it's printed. It's in libraries. It's in homes. Somebody can have it here and there and everywhere. And very often, when I'm in a bookstore a family will come in and say, "Oh, we've just been reading your book, and we read it every night."

There's nothing like that. There's nothing like the fact that you've actually become part of somebody's family life.

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Oneberry, twoberry, hatberry, shoeberry

When I was a kid living in the city, the city was fun. It was paved. The tree that grew in Brooklyn – the one tree – was in front of my house. But in the summertime, we used to go to upstate New York, and the world was just completely the opposite. It was green. It was soft. You could walk around in bare feet, and we used to go out and pick lots of berries that grew wild. I always thought of the world as being particularly generous and joyful. And when I was searching my memories, trying to write a book for very young children about being joyful, that popped right up.

So, I wrote this whole story about berries, and it turned out that I was writing too much. And a very good editor said to me, "Why don't you just focus on the berries?" I took the names of the berries, and I just started making silly rhymes that go along with the name of the berries: oneberry, twoberry, hatberry, shoeberry, canoeberry. And I wrote this nonsense poem, which was a lot of fun. The writing comes first. Then I had to illustrate this nonsense poem, and the illustrations give it kind of a rationale. You take a nonsense poem and you illustrate it, and it seems like, "Oh, yeah. That could happen."

And so it became Jamberry.

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About Joanna Cole

Joanna is a really good writer. Sometimes I use her as a paradigm. When I'm reading something else, I'll say, "How would Joanna say this?"

Our point is that we have to be very clear – very, very clear. We don't want the children to have a fuzzy idea, having read something in one of our books. We want them to feel that they understand what's going on, and so you have to say things that are clear. And you have to say things that are truthful. Sometimes you can't tell the whole truth because it's too complicated; but the part you're telling has to be truthful.

So, I really admire her ability to do that and to organize the story and make it all go. I really am trailing behind. I just draw the pictures.

She really writes. She gives me a dummy. A lot of people ask us if I write the words in the word balloons, because they're hand-lettered. No. The writing is done by the writer. The art is done by the artist. She gives me pages that have the text, the reports and the word balloons on a blank piece of paper, and I have to organize how it's all going to look. And I can make suggestions. I've made suggestions to change reports. I've made suggestions on how to illustrate reports. I've made suggestions on changing some of the word balloons and jokes; but, really, she's the writer, and I'm the artist. And the writing comes first.

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You're not Arnold, but he looks like you

In the class, there are about 20 kids now. On the TV show, they've selected eight. That's all there are, because you can't pay attention to more than that. But Joanna would make up a name, and then I would make up a kid to go with it. I would take my kid's school pictures from elementary school, and I would pick out kids and what they were wearing. It was picture day and I'd draw what they were wearing to school. Some of those kids are in the class, and they don't know it, although one of my son's best friends is Arnold. He was the model for Arnold, and I didn't tell him until he was 16 years old, which was a mistake. He said, "I don't look like Arnold!"

And I said, "Well, that day, you were wearing that shirt to school – that white-and-yellow, striped polo shirt. And you have that blondish, curly hair; and that was you. You were Arnold." I said, "You're not like Arnold, but he looks like you."

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Ms. Frizzle's Adventures

After many science adventures and all those TV shows and all those TV plots – 52 different science explorations – 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. So we thought, "What if she breaks the mold a little bit and doesn't go with the school bus, but she's taking off from school, and she's going off on a vacation, and she has her own adventures?" We did this because we wanted to try to make it not confusing with the science series in many ways.

Another thing we did was to give it a 9-by-12 vertical size to make it different from the horizontal size of the science books, and I changed the style of painting. All the original science books are in watercolor with a pen-and-ink line. Watercolor is a transparent, washy color. For the social studies series that we're doing, I'm using something called gouache. Gouache is like poster paint that you had in elementary school. See? I'm back in elementary school. That's what I used for all my sixth-grade paintings. It's opaque. It's thick. It's very bright, flat color; and so it has a whole different look.

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"You know you’ve read a good book when you turn the last page and feel a little as if you have lost a friend." — Paul Sweeney