Born in New Jersey, Cole excelled in school, and “I thought that reading science books for pleasure was an ordinary thing.” She got her bachelor’s degree in psychology, took some graduate courses in education, and became an elementary school librarian in New York City. After a gig with Scholastic books, she became Senior Editor for Young Readers at Doubleday Books. She was apparently either bored or thought she could do at least as good a job as the authors she worked with, and in 1980 decided to be a freelance writer. Her first book was about cockroaches because there weren’t any other children’s books about them.
After a couple of titles, she hit on her formula. She wrote the first in the series in 1985, and it was published in 1986, featuring elementary school teacher Miss (and later Ms) Frizzle: the Magic School Bus was born — “the freshest, most amusing approach to science for children that I’ve seen, gushed New York Times science writer Katherine Bouton. “Elementary school science should never be the same again after the Magic School Bus series is completed.” Over the years she wrote multiple volumes, illustrated by artist Bruce Degen, covering germs, dinosaurs, insects, weather, and more — which together sold more than 93 million copies. The franchise was expanded to an animated TV series (with Miss Frizzle voiced by Lily Tomlin), which ran for 18 years, and video games. “Joanna’s books, packed with equal parts humor and information,” said Scholastic Chairman & CEO Dick Robinson, “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.” Cole, he said, “had the perfect touch for blending science and story.” The last of the series written by Cole, The Magic School Bus Explores Human Evolution, comes out in the spring. Cole died July 12, at 75.