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'Magic School Bus' author Joanna Cole dies at 75

Popular children's series has sold tens of millions of copies and sparked a popular animated TV series and Netflix series.
Image: Kids play at The Magic School Bus exhibit.
Kids play at a "Magic School Bus" museum exhibit in Minnesota. Joanna Cole's books made science easy to understand and fun for children around the world.Joe McLeister/Star Tribune / Getty Images file

NEW YORK — Author Joanna Cole, whose “Magic School Bus” books transported millions of young people on extraordinary and educational adventures, has died aged 75.

Scholastic announced that Cole, a resident of Sioux City, Iowa, died Sunday. The cause was Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis.

“Joanna Cole had the perfect touch for blending science and story,” Scholastic Chairman and 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."

Image: Author Joanna Cole
Author Joanna Cole wrote the popular "Magic School Bus" books that transported millions of young people on extraordinary and educational adventures.Annabelle Helms/Scholastic / AP

The idea for "The Magic School Bus" came in the mid-1980s. Scholastic senior editorial director Craig Walker was receiving frequent requests from teachers for books about science and thought a combination of storytelling and science would catch on. He brought in Cole, whose humorous work such as the children’s book “Cockroaches” he had admired, and illustrator Bruce Degen.

“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.”

With the ever maddening but inspired Ms. Frizzle leading her students on journeys that explored everything from the solar system to underwater, “Magic School Bus” books have sold tens of millions of copies and were the basis for a popular animated TV series and a Netflix series.

Plans for a live-action movie, with Elizabeth Banks as Ms. Frizzle — who was based on Cole's middle school science teacher — were announced last month.

After hearing the news of Cole's death, Banks wrote on Twitter that she was "sending love to Joanna’s family."

"These books have brought so much joy to children for so many years and I am so honored I get to help shine a light on the legendary Ms. Frizzle," she said.

A number of young adults also paid tribute to her work on social media.

“I was raised to believe that the earth was six thousand years old,” wrote one Twitter user. “Magic School Bus was my one window on real science, my one hint that maybe that isn’t true.”

Many shared how Cole's books encouraged an early love of science.

Others wrote how the television series adaptation had helped them feel safe in an often frightening world.

"One last field trip. Thank you for all the adventures years ago," added voice actor Michael A. Zekas.

Before Scholastic senior editorial director Walker's death in 2007, he had encouraged Cole and illustrator Degen to explore more "controversial topics" such as climate change, the author told PBS in a 2019 interview. Cole's final book with Degen, “The Magic School Bus Explores Human Evolution,” is due to be published later this year.

A lifelong fan of science, Cole was a native of Newark, New Jersey, and a graduate of the City College of New York who worked as a children's librarian and magazine editor before “The Magic School Bus."

She is survived by her husband Phil; daughter Rachel Cole and her husband, John Helms; grandchildren, Annabelle and William, and her sister Virginia McBride.