With a 2016 Netflix reboot well underway, The Magic School Bus remains a lauded book-turned-television series. Loved by parents for a commitment to evolutionary science, strong girl characters and the appearance of a publicly funded classroom that gets shit done, it is also worthy of praise for its main character’s unique place in the canon of Children’s Literature.
Known for much more than her iconic mantle of red curls and quirky wardrobe, Ms. Frizzle deserves celebration as one of the most influential heroes of contemporary children’s literature. Written by Joanna Cole, and illustrated by Bruce Degen, the multidimensional character of Ms. Frizzle remains the fulcrum of The Magic School Bus series and all of its multi-media aberrations.
Straddling a line between Fiction and Reference, Ms. Frizzle has spent the last 29 years leading a diverse array of readers on themed “field trips.” Belted into the dynamic, and slightly demonic, “magic school bus,” The Frizz plunges her elementary school class into the crevices of the Earth, through their own digestive systems and into the furthest reaches of outer space. I suppose that if you have a giant school bus that your pet lizard can drive, things like gravity and time just don’t apply to you.
In direct opposition to many of its print and TV contemporaries, the franchise, including picture books, chapter books, audio titles and the ever-popular television series, remains remarkably gender-neutral. Cole has crafted a world, led by The Frizz, that appeals to all readers, inviting them into a learning space where girls are masters of science and math, competing comfortably with boy characters for on-air time (easily passing any book version of the Bechdel test).
Ms. Frizzle is a critical role model for both kids of all genders, striking a noticeable contrast with most other adult women characters. Valerie Frizzle is clearly unattached to any male character, a fairly radical choice on the part of Cole. Instead, this character is dedicated completely to the advancement of science, and her interesting, if slightly perilous, experiential teaching methods.
An adult might extrapolate Ms. Frizzle’s marital status one step further by suggesting that Cole allows Frizzle the freedom of an ambiguous sexuality. Although the flamboyant character appears to have an awful lot of male friends that make convenient cameos throughout the chapter and picture books, there is a complete absence of commitment on anyone’s part. Although, not specified as a lesbian or bisexual character, when LGBTQ lifestyle representation is so sorely lacking across all genres of children’s lit, this slight departure from the heteronormative is a refreshing option for our kid-readers.
Ms. Frizzle is an absolute queen of the STEM field, and her female students are quick witted proteges, particularly Dorothy Ann, who confidently stamps out any mansplaining on the part of Ralphie or Carlos. This teacher doesn’t have time for the gentle nurturing of your classic teacher character. Upon close reading, her character offers almost zero affectionate words to her charges (who are often dangling from trees in the rainforest or avoiding death by dinosaur tread), responding at all only when their queries are science-based.
Valerie has no time to cuddle, coddle or mother these children. But, unlike other “non-mother-mother” characters (think: Marilla from Anne of Green Gables), Ms. Frizzle simply doesn’t give a darn. It isn’t a part of her nature to do anything other than be a serious science teacher, rebelling dramatically against the idea that all women are biologically preprogrammed to nurture children. Ms. Frizzle offers her readers another lens through which to see what adult womanhood can look like. And when so many characters in children’s lit reinforce the notion that all women will one day eventually become mothers it’s exciting that Cole has carved out for us a way to talk about and internalize that not all women follow that path — and that, like The Frizz, that option is exciting, relevant and to be honoured.
A beacon of intelligence in the face of the overrepresented “culture of stupidity” that clings to many literary girl characters, Ms. Frizzle is master-paramount across all fields of science. Instead of a stuffy depiction of the boring professor trope, The Frizz is a risk taker, a knower of gadgets, a worker of chemistry, a doer of robotics and astrophysics. Ms. Frizzle makes her readers, both boys and girls, want to engage with the science that surrounds them and is unabashedly in love with her work.
Ms. Frizzle’s importance cannot be stressed enough. Given the huge success of the series and the fact that just as many boys and girls will connect with the titles, Ms. Frizzle shines a quirky glow on their impressions of adult women, helping both genders to internalize the idea that we are so much more than classic literary tropes would lead us to believe.