No doubt about it, Bruce Degen likes to combine humor with his art, an appealing combination for kids of all ages. In this exclusive video interview with Reading Rockets, the illustrator of the wildly popular Magic School Bus books talks about his early experiences as an artist and his current projects.
After studying art in high school, college, and graduate school, the time came for Bruce Degen to decide how he would earn a living as an artist. "You don't see many people walking around a gallery and chuckling," he says. "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 is Bruce Degen's clever hand that brings The Magic School Bus to visual life. He stylized Ms. Frizzle's wacky shoes and outrageous dresses. He formatted the books horizontally to include the multiple layers of Cole's text. Yet long before the blockbuster series, Degen had already illustrated popular books such as Jamberry, Jesse Bear, What Will You Wear?, and Commander Toad in Space. Degen's own sense of humor and subtle jokes add a playful quality to all of the books he illustrates.
The story behind The Magic School Bus
When an editor at Scholastic Press wanted science books that were fun for children, he called Joanna Cole. Cole had written well-researched science books as well as wacky fiction stories. When Cole combined these two styles, the result was a nontraditional manuscript layered with word balloons, school reports, and jokes on sticky notes. The story was about an eccentric teacher named Ms. Frizzle who led her class on a magical field trip.
The editor called upon Bruce Degen to make visual sense of this complex book idea. Degen, a talented and versatile illustrator with a good sense of humor, suggested ways to fit the school reports, jokes, and dialogue into an engaging picture book. The result of Cole and Degen's first collaboration was The Magic School Bus at the Waterworks, published in 1986. It received rave reviews from children, teachers, and the educational community.
Since that time, The Magic School Bus has become a household name and a nationwide phenomenon. The series has made science fun and accessible to an entire generation of elementary school students. It has provided teachers with high-quality, entertaining science books that children can't wait to read. The Magic School Bus is why second graders can clearly explain the process of evaporation. The Magic School Bus is how a six year old knows that there are nutrients in his bloodstream.
Seventeen years after their first book, Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen continue to research new subjects and create new books. The success of The Magic School Bus books led to an animated television series that further popularized Ms. Frizzle and company. Most recently, Cole and Degen have begun a new social studies series called Ms. Frizzle's Adventures.