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Do you remember the books that made you a reader? What were the first books you had to have whenever a new one came out; the books you exchanged with your friends and discussed endlessly? For me, it was the Baby-Sitters Club. I remember my grandparents bought me the first book, and after I loved it, they bought me the next two. After that, every time they picked me up from school and we went to a bookstore, I would run to the shelves, hoping to see a new addition or two to the series. If there were no new BSC books, I would choose another book or try a new series.
Sure, there may have been books before these (I’m sure there were), but this is the first time I really remember being part of something bigger with books. The shared love of the series with friends of mine created a bond that eventually extended beyond just the BSC books – and even today, 35 years later, some of those friends and I continue to send posts on social media about the books we’ve read and share them with each other. There is something to be said for that.
If we’re lucky enough, we have that first series that was the catalyst for a love of reading. For my son, it’s the Magic Tree House and Magic School Bus series.
The magic of Jack and Annie
There’s a generation for whom Magic Tree House was their gateway to reading, but I’m not from that generation. Seems like I just missed that cut and was a little too old to have been a part of it. No, I got into it late…like recently, like this year 2022, because of my 6-year-old son.
It all started so innocently: I was looking for a fun study unit for my son, and saw that there was a Magic Tree House unit study available. This involved reading each book, doing worksheets on each, additional games and books, and related TV shows/movies one could watch. Although we don’t do all of that, I thought, great! There are like a million of these books, it will be perfect for the summer. So I found a box of the first 30 or so books and bought some more, and we were ready.
Then I realized there were also the Fact Tracker non-fiction books that came with each book. And there was a website. There are also the Merlin Mission books, for readers of more advanced chapters, graphic novels, activity books… there is a whole Magic Tree House universe. IYKYK, friend?
The original series (as opposed to the Merlin missions) is aimed at beginning readers of chapters. They are short books, with black and white illustrations, and basic, if not somewhat repetitive, language. (The repetition is intentional, as it helps develop reading skills). Despite this, they manage to illustrate a magical world where brothers Jack and Annie have a magical treehouse that takes them through time, with each book focusing on a different time and place, such as the Wild West or the Ancient Egypt. The first book was published in 1992, and Mary Pope Osborne still writes them today.
If you browse Instagram posts, read blog posts about reading, or check any teaching or homeschooling message board, you’ll eventually see more than a few people talking about their love for the Magic Tree House series in growing up and how books sparked a love of reading or an interest in history.
Pope Osborne began to realize how the series was a catalyst for children to turn to other chapter books, and as she traveled around the country meeting fans and students, she learned that schools with a high poverty rate could not easily access his books. So she started a program for Title I schools, where teachers apply for the program, and if the school qualifies, they donate books to each child. Each time she visits a school, she distributes books to the students. “…I realized that I was reaching an audience that I had never reached before…There was something about these rather simple books that caught fire in young readers.”
Reading with my son, I can see it. We’re on book 11 so far, and averaging at least one book a week. Sometimes we have the non-fiction Fact Tracker, sometimes not. But what I’ve noticed is that no matter what time period we read about, my son always wants to know more, whether it’s through YouTube or Nat Geo, or the Fact Tracker. I will catch him reading the books by himself or watching books later in the series. These books have that little something for kids that brings the story to life and engages them. It was fascinating to watch.
I was a little suspicious at first – will the books hold up 30 years later? Is there anything offensive? So far, not only have they held up, they’ve been surprisingly good. There’s nothing they found problematic (again, we’re only into book 11), and I’m impressed with how timeless they are. They’ve been a much better classic choice than, say, the all-too-often-used classics of the Little House series. (Spoiler alert: they don’t last… at all).
Mrs. Frizzle and me
Another seminal book series from the 80s and 90s that I kind of missed the first time around and that had a big influence on kids – and still do – is The Magic School Bus. The books, written by the late Joanna Cole and illustrated by Bruce Degen, were first published in 1986 and feature the amazing Mrs. Valerie Frizzle, an elementary school science teacher who has a magical school bus that take the kids on an excursion. through the human body, at the bottom of the ocean, in space, among the clouds, and more.
In addition to the original series books, there were chapter books, early readers, television-related books, a non-fiction companion series called Magic School Bus Presents, and Liz, the Classroom Lizard, even had its own series. There was also a short spin-off series, The Adventures of Mrs. Frizzle, first published in 1991, which focused on social studies – but didn’t take off as much.
The original TV show based on the book series ran on PBS from 1994 to 1997 and featured Lily Tomlin as the voice of the Frizz – and who wouldn’t want Tomlin to be their science teacher? It was also partially funded by the National Science Foundation and, according to PBS, was the first fully animated science show. It aired on different channels until 2012, making it the longest running science show for children. Scholastic saw the series as another way to reach students who might be “far away” from science, especially girls and BIPOC students.
In 2017, The Magic School Bus Rides Again debuted on Netflix, with a second season in 2018, and several specials since then. The continuation series has the Frizz earning his doctorate and retiring from elementary school, and his younger sister Fiona Frizzle takes over (with Kate McKinnon voicing Fiona).
Let’s just say that while it’s still a great show, it’s not like the original. The animation was a notable departure, with many viewers commenting on how much more conventionally attractive and feminine Fiona Frizzle looked, not as eccentric and far less Jewish than her older sister Valerie. Tim and Keesha, the only two black students in the class, have much lighter skin and different hair texture than in the original series. Ralphie is slimmer in the reboot, Wanda looks whiter, and Arthur’s hair and freckles have been significantly tamed.
I don’t know when I first discovered this show – maybe shortly before the pandemic? My son started watching it and I fell in love with it. The way he brought science to life and broke down complex concepts into things kids could understand, the quirky characters, and of course, the dresses the Frizz wore, made the show super fun to watch. The original books took a little longer to fall in love with – I think they’re a bit busy, with the main story and then all the factual information scattered across the page – but I loved the early readers and the chapters. Slowly, “picture books” (for lack of a better word) have grown on me, and we are slowly building our collection.
Like Magic Tree House, the Magic School Bus show and books attracted my son to reading, but was also a catalyst to learn more; this time in science. We have a Magic School Bus inspired summer camp unit where we watch an episode or two of the show on a topic, read a book or early reader, do a science experiment and explore educational videos to learn more . Mrs. Frizzle’s famous catchphrase “Take risks, make mistakes, get messy!” has been our motto for homeschooling for some time now, and reminds us of how wonderfully chaotic and messy learning can be.
Kids aren’t the only ones who still love the bus, though – adults still dress up as Frizz for Halloween, teachers (science and otherwise) on Instagram quote Mrs Frizzle and talk about how she inspired them, and during the early months of the pandemic, even parents channeled the inventive educator for their homeschooling. Although the show does not have regular new episodes and the books are not regularly released, it remains a popular and inspirational series for adults and children alike. The last book, The Magic School Bus Explores Human Evolution, was published in June 2021. Cole died in 2000 and no plans for a takeover by another author have been shared publicly.
Although I kind of missed both of these series the first time around, it has been such a learning experience reading them alongside my son and exploring topics with him. Seeing how these series of books created such a passion in my 6-year-old for history and science is kind of…well, to use a recurring theme…magical.
Which series sparked your love of reading?
If you’re wondering about other early chapters books that might be options, we’ve got you covered – and check out this article for some fantastic quotes from Mrs. Frizzle.