Bruce Degen, Illustrator of "The Magic School Bus" and More

November 17, 2006

    The science research is new and in-depth, the writing of author Joanna Cole perfect and the characters are charming, curious kids. But what brings The Magic School Bus" to life?

    The art of illustrator Bruce Degen, that's what.

    Detailed, colourful art and and an inviting, magical quality are essence of "The Magic School Bus". The beloved book series is celebrating 20 years of success in 2006, having captured the interest of a generation of youngsters in science, biology, astronomy and nature. Bruce Degen enhanced each storyline with his watercolour paintings, bringing characters, critter sand the teacher, Miss Frizzle into a reality that kids relate to and can understand.

    Knowing from the time he was in elementary school in Brooklyn, New York, that he wanted to be an artist, Bruce Degen's path was set. While in grade school, his teacher saw that she had a budding creator on her hands and permitted him to create art at the back of the classroom. His talent was obvious, taking him to art school in LaGuardia High School, to a Bachelor's Degree in Art from Cooper Union, and on to a Master's Degree in Fine Art from Pratt University.

    Bruce Degen's road to fame took him through different aspects of art. He worked at an ad agency, painted scenery for an opera and worked as a print-maker. He also taught at New York's School of Visual Arts.

Degen Water Works

Unsatisfied as a fine-artist, it dawned on him what the problem was. The art he created as a child was filled with characters, storylines and humour. It made people smile. "You don't see many people walking around a gallery are chuckling," he said on "And I realized that I wanted a chuckle." Kids' books were the perfect place to find it. The longer impact that kids' books left on readers was important too. "When a [reader] tells you how much he or she likes your book, you realize that you've given something that has become part of someone else's life."

    Before the Magic School Bus books came along, Bruce Degen authored and illustrated projects of his own. He created "Jamberry" in 1985. Published by Harper Collins, it has been reprinted several times in board book, hardcover and paperback form.

    His endearing illustrations enhance kids' books such as "The Commander Toad" series by Jane Yolen, and Jesse Bear books, written by Nancy White Carlstrom. Bruce Degen's expert hand with watecolours give the warm, child-friendly touch that compliment the stories.

  "The Magic School Bus" books began with "The Magic School Bus at the Waterworks," an unusual place for a children's science book series to begin. (The author and illustrator were paired by their editor at Scholastic.) The book took off and began what is one of the most popular science series for kids. Joanna Cole infused the books with humour and her life-long love of science and nature. Comprehensive research on each subject and compiling the latest, most accurate information and statistics are strong points of the books.
Bruce Degen made them visually joyful and entertaining.

   To get illustrations underway for "The Magic School Bus" books, Joanne Cole forwards her finished manuscript dummy, sticky notes of jokes, word bubbles and research to Bruce Degen. He reads her completed story, examines the sketches she has made and reviews the research. They discuss what each imagines the final product will look like, and then the artist begins his work. Watercolours outlined in pen and ink give the flow and depth Degen wants. He gives ultimate credit to the writer of the story. "The writing comes first," he noted.

Degen Jam 2

   Designing "The Magic School Bus" teacher's wardrobe is one of Bruce Degen's favourite jobs. Miss Frizzle's outfits range from outrageous to downright fun, and the artist takes the chance to hint at the next book adventure with her final costume. The kids were "drawn" from classmates of his own children, with names chosen by the author. With at least eight students, there is enough variance in personalities that almost any kid can find a favourite character.

  "The Magic School Bus" became even more popular when picked up for television in 1994. In all, 52 half-hour shows were created. Ending production of new shows in 1997, it is still seen on several channels on an almost daily basis. Good science and good tv are hard to top, even if it is a little older; teachers and students love the books.

    Collaborating again with Joanna Cole, Bruce Degen is now illustrating a new series of books with Miss Frizzle as the star. In it, Miss Frizzle travels the world in the School bus, giving kids a fun education in Social Studies, such as "Miss Frizzles Adventures: Ancient Egypt". Along with the new theme, Bruce Degen is also taking the series in a new artistic direction. Instead of transparent watercolours, he is creating the art in Gouache, an opaque, vibrant set of colours that evokes a fresh new feel to the storylines.

    Continuing to write and illustrate his own books, Bruce Degen created "Daddy is a Doodlebug", a story of a father and son pair of bugs, and "Sailaway Home", a rhyming story about a little pig's imagination. (Both published by Scholastic.)

    Picture and chapter books, puzzles, sticker books, colouring books, software, DVDs, television shows, website, merchandise - "The Magic School Bus" is available in many entertaining formats. The book series captured a number of awards: Best Books of the Year by Parenting Magazine and Boston Globe-Horn Book Non-Fiction Award, plus others. The Magic School Bus" website is loaded with new experiments, new science information and a lot of fun.

    The Degen family make their home in Connecticut.


Degen Snow
© Susanna McLeod 2006