Fans Across The Country Tune In To Library Event With 'The Magic School Bus' Illustrator
C.H. Booth Library hosted a virtual program with longtime Newtown resident and The Magic School Bus illustrator Bruce Degen on May 19. People from all across the country, some from as far away as Alaska, tuned in for the special event.
Children’s Librarian Alana Bennison said she was “happy to have everyone join us for a very special event tonight. Our good friend, Bruce Degen — whom I’ve known since I started working at the library more than 25 years ago — has been a wonderful friend and mentor to me as a librarian. He’s a wonderful friend to the library.”
Before diving into the presentation, Degen shared that he would be discussing his journey as an illustrator and his 36-year career with the late The Magic School Bus author Joanna Cole, who died in July 2020 from an incurable lung disease.
“I will be going through the last book, the new book [The Magic School Bus Explores Human Evolution] that we did together. I’m happy to say that she got to see, in print, the first reviews, which are starred reviews, and she did say that The Magic School Bus’ last book was the best we ever did and that we were going out on a high note. I feel that way, too,” he said.
During the slideshow, which Degen titled “The Magic School Bus: From A Small Room In Manhattan To The Ends of Space And Time Via Newtown, Connecticut,” he showed many sentimental photos.
The first was his yearbook photo from The Cooper Union in 1966 that showed him holding his portfolio.
“I’m about to go out and face the world. I’m graduating from art school and had been involved in several different kinds of art and was moving on to graduate school at Pratt,” Degen said.
Recalling his first published book was Aunt Possum and the Pumpkin Man, Degen happily displayed the cover art and interior pages.
Degen went on to highlight many meaningful books he illustrated and wrote throughout his career, including I Gotta Draw — loosely based on his life, though he would tell you different — and his multi-generational hit Jamberry.
For the latter book, he noted, “I wanted to create a very joyful book,” and one that was “very colorful.”
Degen shared the technical and painstaking process he went through of lining up the multiple colored plates to get the desired effect for the illustrations in that beloved book.
He also showcased his work from books such as The Little Witch and the Riddle; Daddy Is A Doodle Bug, Snow Joke; Jesse Bear, What Will You Wear?; Jazzmatazz; Mouse’s Birthday; and Commander Toad in Space.
‘The Magic School Bus’ Era
Degen also spoke in depth about his friendship and business partnership with Cole that began thanks to Scholastic Editor Craig Walker pairing them together.
He described Walker, who has also passed away, as “the most wonderful, brilliant, funny person” who changed his life with The Magic School Bus series.
In many cases, authors and illustrators for children’s books never meet, but Degen and Cole had the unique situation of working closely with one another in order to capture the book’s science facts accurately.
Ms Valerie Frizzle, the teacher in The Magic School Bus series, was an iconic, whimsical character that took combined inspiration from both Degen and Cole.
“It was made by Joanna Cole, but I had to picture what she’d look like,” he said.
Degen had fun incorporating wild designs on her dresses and showed some of his favorite examples of her outfits from the books — including a corn of the cob patterned dress and shoes with frogs on the toes.
“Who was the model for Ms Frizzle? For Joanna, it was her fifth grade science teacher. For me, it was my tenth grade geometry teacher Ms Isaacs at The High School of Music And Art in New York,” he revealed.
Another fun fact Degen talked about was how he drew himself and Cole into multiple books. For example, in The Magic School Bus and The Electric Field Trip he drew Cole as the Joe’s Diner waitress and himself as the cook in the kitchen.
Degen also gave attendees a glimpse into what his home studio looks like in Newtown and his process to create the detailed pages for The Magic School Bus.
“You have to realize what is so incredible about The Magic School Bus that Joanna came up with is it doesn’t matter what you see on the page first. The kid can read whatever they want — the main text, the word balloons, the jokes, the diagrams, the school reports. Everything on that page relates to everything else on that page,” Degen said.
It was a long collaborative effort to create every page in the series, he said, especially the recent book, The Magic School Bus Explores Human Evolution.
He told The Newtown Bee prior to the event how the book takes Ms Frizzle’s class to the “beginning of life on Earth as one-celled animals in the primordial sea and then they evolve with the earth from the billions of years … we get to the end of the book where the kids have traced that Homo sapiens have moved out of where we all came from in Africa to all the parts of the globe and they have set up their own cultures and developed their own differences but we are basically the same animal, same DNA; we’re all Homo sapiens.”
On the last page he noted, and pointed out during the presentation, that the bus goes around the world and flies over different civilizations as the characters head back to the classroom.
They say goodbye to people in England, France, Egypt, ancient Greece, Italy, and even Ukraine.
“Our art director at Scholastic is of Ukrainian descent and told us how to say goodbye in Ukrainian, so it is written in there. I’m really glad we did that, because look where we are now. We did this book a couple years ago, and I feel like we are giving a tribute to our friends in Ukraine,” he said alluding to Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine.
“That’s the end of this story,” Degen said.
It is far from the end of his storied career, however. Degen gave a sneak peak at two books he is working on that are currently unreleased. One is a book by Fran Manushkin called Scoot A New York Tale and the other is written and illustrated by him called The Long Ride.
Concluding his presentation, Degen gave a special shout-out to his family for their support through the years and then answered questions from the audience.
Reporter Alissa Silber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.