Valerie Frizzle was the invention of writer Joanna Cole, who passed away this summer of non-Covid-19-related causes, and illustrator Bruce Degen. The two were initially approached by an editor at Scholastic about concocting a humorous and stealthily informative series centered on a science teacher who leads her charges on out-of-the-box field trips. The pair ran with it, basing the project’s unforgettable central character on two of their own teachers: “The Friz,” as Ms. Frizzle’s students affectionately call her, was a blend of Cole’s childhood science teacher, Miss Blair, and Ms. Isaacs, Degen’s geometry teacher at the High School of Music and Art in New York City.
“I was in love with art, not math,” recalled Degen, a Brooklyn native who now lives in Connecticut. “Ms. Isaacs was in love with the concepts of math, and her face would glow with the beauty of the logic. I understood math for the first time, and I got a 95.” So Ms. Frizzle would share Ms. Isaacs’ gleaming eyes and pinned-up curly hair (though in real life it was blonde, not red). Instead of the chalk-dusted smock that Ms. Isaacs wore, the fictional creation wore a shirtwaist dress whose exuberant prints complemented each lesson’s theme. (It is no surprise that a small corner of the internet is devoted to “Ms. Frizzle Halloween costumes.”)
“The Magic School Bus” series, now a mainstay of pediatricians’ waiting rooms and school libraries across the globe, debuted in 1986. “There’s a reason that Joanna chose the waterworks as the subject of our first book,” Degen said of the debut, in which the students learn firsthand about the earth’s water cycle, swimming through a city’s water purification system and ultimately emerging from the faucet of a school bathroom. “She wanted to show that even the boring-est, unsexiest topic could be made into a crazy adventure.”
“The Magic School Bus at the Waterworks” would go on to inspire dozens of spinoff books and television adaptations. The original PBS animated series featured a Ms. Frizzle whose fluty voice was performed by Lily Tomlin (a role that won her an Emmy); Kate McKinnon voiced the other Friz — Valerie’s sister, Fiona — in the most recent version, Netflix’s “The Magic School Bus Rides Again.” Today, 93 million copies of the books are in print in 13 countries. A feature film is in the works, and Scholastic plans to publish the 13th book in the original series, about evolution, next year.
“We’re all tapping into our inner Ms. Frizzle,” said David Levithan, a vice president and publisher at Scholastic, who oversees the series and who recently dressed up as the Friz for a video sales conference, donning a star- and planet-print dress and curly red wig to buoy the mood of his homebound colleagues. His mother, he added, with whom he’s been quarantining in suburban New Jersey, enjoyed it too. “Ms. Frizzle is unflappable, and she manages to keep up our spirits,” Levithan said. “She finds what she’s talking about so fascinating and that is its own superpower.”