Transcript from an interview with Joanna Cole

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

Joanna Cole

The first words

I wrote the first book, and I was very nervous about it, 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. I sat down at the computer, and I wrote. 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." So, I knew how she was going to act. She was going to act like my science teacher; but she was going to be very enthusiastic about science and just plunge ahead, and the kids would be running to catch up with her excitement.

But I didn't know what I meant by the strange dresses and the strange shoes. So, I thought about it for about ten seconds and I said, "Well, she could have corncobs on her dress. She could have butterflies. She could be wearing ladybug earrings and ketchup bottles on her shoes." And so I used to write those things down because, at first, there was no illustrator. You know, I wrote the book first. But once Bruce Degen started illustrating it, then I didn't have to write down what her clothes were like, because he had wonderful visual imagination.

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About Bruce Degen

Bruce and I were not supposed to even meet. But meanwhile, we got to know each other, because they kept sending us to bookstores to sign books and schools to visit kids and library conventions and so forth. And so we were traveling together a lot, and we became good friends. And my husband and my daughter and I lived in New York City, and we moved to Connecticut. So, we invited Bruce and his family up for a barbecue, and they liked it so much that they moved to the town also. So, that was good, because then we knew someone in town besides our realtor.

And so we live in the same town, but we don't work together. We usually use the editor as an intermediary, because we never wanted to get into any personality differences or any arguments. We didn't want to hurt each other's feelings. Bruce, for instance, sometimes will tell the editor "I don't think that's a very funny joke." And then the editor will come and maybe she'll say, "Maybe we could tweak this joke a little bit, make it funnier." But Bruce didn't want to hurt my feelings or I didn't want to hurt his feelings by saying, "That is the ugliest picture I've ever seen in my life." So, only kidding, of course. But that's how we work together.

What I admire most about Bruce's artwork is the flexibility. I mean I'm not discounting the humor and the characters. To me, that goes without saying. But Bruce can draw anything from any angle – looking down on it from outer space, looking up at it from an ant's point of view in the wink of an eye.

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Jokes on sticky notes

I do have fun writing the jokes, although I must say that probably reading the jokes is more fun than writing them. You know, people often say, "That must be so much fun to be a children's book writer," because it looks like fun when you read the book. But it takes me six months to a year to write one of those books and it's hard work. And sometimes it's frustrating when things don't go right. So, there can be some sad moments.

But there's a lot of satisfaction also. When I do the books, I make my paper dummy out of blank sheets of paper and I use lift-off tape to tape in my word balloons, and sometimes these end up on the floor. And sometimes I'll see my dog walking by with a word balloon on his fur, saying something like, "I knew I should've stayed home today," or "Dogs have 500 million taste buds." So by the time I finish, there's paper everywhere in the house.

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An enthusiastic response

The response that we got right from the beginning on the books was very exciting and almost surprising to us. I was not, quote, "allowed" to start the second book until we found out how the educational establishment was receiving the books. And so the first book got a starred review in School Library Journal. That was such a happy moment for me. I was jumping around, because then I could start the next book.

The second book was The Magic School Bus: Inside the Earth. So, then I started writing about volcanoes and things. Right away we started getting mail. And right away there was this tremendous, wonderful response. We had no idea how people would react to the books.

It's hard to realize that at that time, there wasn't as much innovation in children's books. Now, people do all kinds of things. It's not that long ago, but it's long enough ago so that it was different.

For instance, when we made Ms. Frizzle look so weird, with her funny dresses and her frizzy hair and her crazy shoes, we were kind of afraid that maybe teachers would be offended. We thought that maybe they would think we were making fun of teachers. Well, it turned out just the opposite. It turned out that there were teachers out there, apparently, who'd been waiting to dress up like Ms. Frizzle.

And when we would go to schools, they would say, "I'm the real Ms. Frizzle," or, "I'm the Ms. Frizzle." Or someone would say, "That teacher over there, she's the Ms. Frizzle in our school."

One time I visited a school and I was giving a talk in the auditorium and a class came in. The teacher leading them was dressed as Ms. Frizzle with a wig. And the kids were all dressed in scuba diving outfits with the flippers and everything. So, you can see that our fears were totally ungrounded.

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Are you like Ms. Frizzle?

Ms. Frizzle is, first and foremost, an enthusiast. She likes her students. She admires her students, but what she likes is the subject she's teaching most. That's what she loves. So, like Miss Baer, my teacher in junior high school, she carries the class along on her enthusiasm.

And the kids think she's weird. Someone asks one of the kids, "Tell me. Does your teacher always dress like that?"

And the kid answers, "No." Ms. Frizzle is wearing her beach outfit, which has got international signal flags all over it. And the kid answers, "No. Sometimes she looks totally outrageous." So that's what Ms. Frizzle is like. She dresses funny, but she's very serious about her subject.

People ask me, "Are you like Ms. Frizzle?" And, as you can see, I don't dress like Ms. Frizzle and I don't have hair like Ms. Frizzle. But in one way we are alike. We both like to explain things. And so if you're with me, you're going to learn a lot of stuff that you may not even want to know about – because I'll tell you.

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The TV series

Well, Scholastic decided to do a TV series of The Magic School Bus. And one of the first things they did was to ask me and Bruce to come to a meeting and talk about what we thought was most important in the books, and I was very grateful to them for doing that.

I think I had a couple of things that I thought were very important. One was that while the kids make a lot of wisecracks and sardonic remarks, they're never mean to each other. When you're writing, you'd be surprised how easy it is to write putdowns. I think that's why maybe there are so many of them in sitcoms. It's harder to make a joke that's funny that isn't a putdown. So, I was very intense about that.

The other thing that I was very sure about was that when I do a book I always try to ask a basic question and then the information or the facts in the book try to answer that question. For example, in The Magic School Bus: Inside the Human Body, the question that I asked was, "How does our body make energy from the food we eat?" And then everything that's in the book is answering that question so that it's not just a stack of facts. I think a lot of times people think facts are very important. But facts are really only important as they explain concepts and ideas. Science and history are really about ideas.

So I said that and the TV people really did a wonderful job. Each one of the episodes is about one concept and the kids don't put each other down.

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"Children are made readers on the laps of their parents." — Emilie Buchwald