Joanna Reid Basilea was born on Aug. 11, 1944, in Newark. Her father, Mario, was a house painter, and her mother, Elizabeth, was a homemaker. An influential science teacher she had as a child was part of the inspiration for Ms. Frizzle, Ms. Cole often said, though that character’s look — frizzy hair, colorful outfits — owed more to one of Mr. Degen’s math teachers.
Ms. Cole attended the University of Massachusetts and Indiana University before graduating from City College of New York with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1967, two years after marrying Philip A. Cole.
She taught elementary school, but not for long.
“It’s the hardest job in the world,” she told The Ottawa Citizen in 1999. “I said, ‘I can’t do this; I’ve got to find something easier.’”
She was working at Newsweek in New York, answering letters to the editor that weren’t going to be published, when she decided to try writing something of her own. With her love of science, she thought a children’s book about an insect might be a good starting point.
“An article in The Wall Street Journal inspired me to do some research,” she said in an autobiographical blurb on the Scholastic website. “I discovered that there had never been a children’s book written about cockroaches before. So I thought, Why not? Plus, I had ample time to study that creature in my low-budget New York apartment!”
“Cockroaches” was published in 1971, and an assortment of other books followed, including several about the Clown-Around family and anthologies like “Best-Loved Folktales of the World” (1982). Then came the “Magic School Bus” series, based on a suggestion by a Scholastic editor, Craig Walker, who paired Ms. Cole with Mr. Degen.
The books are intricate, containing not only the main text but also notes written by the fictional students, thought-bubble dialogue and other paraphernalia.