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The Magic School Bus is back — and it’s tackling evolution

Over three decades, Ms. Frizzle and the students on the Magic School Bus have visited the dinosaurs, dived inside the human body, gotten lost in the solar system, traveled inside a beehive, and explored the senses, among other adventures. Now, creators Joanna Cole and Bruce Degan say that the eccentric and lovable elementary school teacher and her class are about to take their “longest class trip ever” — back billions of years to understand the origin of life.

“Evolution is always important because it is still at work today,” Cole said, especially when it comes to another weighty topic they’ve covered — climate change. “Studying evolution can help us understand the past, but it might also help us prepare for the future.”

In using the lens of evolution to observe and appreciate how the natural world works, Degan said that “this book really got to [him] more than any of the books that we have done.”

“The Magic School Bus Explores Human Evolution,” written by Cole, and illustrated by Degan, will be published in July 2020. The PBS NewsHour caught up with them to talk about how some people could find it controversial, and why it’s more important than ever to tackle the subject now.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

O.K., so the Magic School Bus has gone all over time and space. Why did you want to do a book on evolution?

BRUCE DEGAN: The old head of Scholastic, Craig Walker, once told us that he could offer the best nonfiction [and science books, but] kids wouldn’t order them. But, there would be the corniest joke books and they would buy them. So he said, what if we can offer some humor? And he invited us to do the Magic School Bus series.

When the time came, and Craig knew he was facing cancer, he said that for the last couple of books, he’d like to leave a legacy of some controversial topics. The first one we did was climate change, maybe 10 years ago, which was even more controversial then, than it is now. And evolution is the second one.

JOANNA COLE: A famous scientist once said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” That really means that evolution is the story of life on Earth.

Do you expect it to be controversial?

JOANNA COLE: I anticipated controversy with our book on climate change, but it didn’t materialize, so I am not expecting it for this book.

BRUCE DEGAN: Well, there are people who object to evolution, because it contradicts their ideas that come out of their religious beliefs. There are people who believe the Earth is flat. And I’ve spoken to home-schooled kids who said the Magic School Bus was banned in their homes, even before we went on to these more difficult topics. But the decision we’ve always had is that we have to go with good science. And we should not make it a false equivalency of “he said, she said.” Let’s face it, most scientists believe the planet is billions of years old, and that’s a fact.

So how do you research a big topic like evolution?

JOANNA COLE: I always read many scholarly books and articles, and I also read popular magazines and books. By the time I finish reading all of that, I pretty much know what I want to focus on.

BRUCE DEGAN: After Joanna does a lot of research and writing, she sends me cartons of books and I go through them, and visit museums too.

Tell me about this particular book? Can you give a little preview of what’s inside?

JOANNA COLE: This book starts with Arnold wishing he knew more about his family tree. Ms. Frizzle answers that wish by taking the kids back in time, to meet their very first ancestors. It starts 3.5 billion years ago, and brings them from simple cells to modern humans, with lots of amazing stops in between. It is the longest class trip ever!

BRUCE DEGAN: We start by showing the simple cells, then complex cells, then sponges, which have differentiated cells, then the jellyfish, with more specialized cells, like mouth parts and it swims and undulate, then little creatures called sea worms– the first life that had a spinal nerve, then early fish, then fish with jaws, and it continues on… It’s amazing that the age we are in is just the last, little sliver of time.

What did you learn that surprised you?

JOANNA COLE: The latest research about the rise of humans in Africa was fascinating. The discoveries keep coming, not only from East Africa, but South Africa as well. As primates evolved in Africa, there were several species of ape-people. Scientists are still discovering how they are all related, and which species are the closest ancestors of humans. While I was working on the manuscript, it seemed there was a new research article almost every day!

BRUCE DEGAN: It was also fascinating to see how evolution uses parts that already exist, and makes them into new parts. For example, the structure of early fish developed into harder cartilage bone parts and became a jaw. And the fact that these forms started developing and then converted into new forms. Everything from the mitochondria to the development of bones, and skins that were dry so you could get out of the water, so you can get up and move and run. It is just astounding to think of all the different variations.

It sounds like this book made you appreciate things you hadn’t before.

BRUCE DEGAN: It really is amazing to me, because here I am talking to you on the telephone, and I am sitting in a building, looking out at trees and life, and they’re all doing their thing and all of them are successful at it. Isn’t it amazing that each of these systems are working as they are? Why does that butterfly come to these flowers every day and just know where to go? I would say emotionally, this book really got to me more than any of the books that we have done.

Was it important to you to do this book at this particular point in time, when there’s an extinction and climate crisis and questions about the future of life on the planet?

JOANNA COLE:: Evolution is always important because it is still at work today. Not only are bacteria and viruses evolving to resist medicines, but humans are also evolving. We evolve to adapt to the climate and the world around us. Studying evolution can help us understand the past, but it might also help us prepare for the future.

BRUCE DEGAN: We’re very aware of the crisis on the planet. I can see it on the trees on my property, things like sugar maples, which liked colder weather, well it got a few degrees warmer, and now the sugar maples are failing because they need to have a little more frost, and less warmth. And when we are burning the great lungs of the earth to plant crops to make money.

You could take the wide view that dinosaurs died out, that there were several big die-outs, and humans will too, no big deal, something else will replace it. But you won’t take your money with you! (laughs)

It just makes you aware that life is fragile as well as tenuous, there are huge die-offs and great losses, and so it makes you aware that, maybe you don’t want to help a big die-off, maybe it would be smart not to do that.

How has the Magic School Bus series changed over the years, if at all?

JOANNA COLE: I don’t think it has changed. It continues to be a combination of humor, fiction and science.

And it’s also always been diverse, before many other children’s books were.

JOANNA COLE: When we started the Magic School Bus, there was not much diversity shown in children’s books. We wanted to represent children in the real world.

Let’s talk about Ms. Frizzle. Where did she come from?

JOANNA COLE: Ms. Frizzle is based on my junior high school science teacher and Bruce made her look like his high school geometry teacher. The children and Liz the lizard come from our imaginations and what we thought would be funny for kids.

What do you think is the legacy of the Magic School Bus?

JOANNA COLE: I’m told that it has interested children in science and also has made easier for teachers to teach science. Teachers have told me they avoided teaching science before the Magic School Bus and it made science accessible to both teachers and children. Young people have also told me that they became scientists due to the influence of the Magic School Bus. That is a legacy that I’m very proud of.

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