Updated: Jun 14, 2020
Early in my career, I got a call from my rep (at that time) asking me if I had ever heard of the Magic School Bus and if I wanted to illustrate a Magic School Bus book. Having no idea what I was agreeing to, of course, I said yes. As it turned out, the animation series was just about to be released on PBS, and things were really heating up for the publisher. They were looking for several artists to help illustrate books that would hit the market to coincide with the release of the PBS television show. It was about to go from a very popular book series to a very popular TV show to an even more popular book series based on the very popular TV show. How do you say no to that? When artists sign up to work on licenses, art directors will often ask for a sample to see if the artist can handle that particular license. The artist's job is to emulate the original creator's work, in this case, Bruce Degen, as closely as possible, so that's exactly what I did.
I studied Bruce’s work and practiced working with his style until I had it down cold, then I created a sample and sent it off to my rep. It was well received and I was in. I received a contract to work on my first Magic School Bus book. It was about Miss Fizzle’s class traveling to outer space. I was pretty unfamiliar with the series at that time but that was all about to change.
The manuscript showed up and I got to work. The process generally goes something like this. A publisher puts out the word they are looking for artists, usually by contacting a rep or artists they have worked with before and trust. Artists respond by submitting sample art. The artists who submit the samples they like best are offered a title or whatever the publisher needs them to do. With animated properties like the Magic School Bus the titles are often based on an actual episode. The publisher will send the artist all the material they need to do the best job possible. That usually includes some kind of spec manual with model sheets and a video of the episode. In the case of the Magic School bus it was such a new property some of the videos weren’t always totally finished when they showed up and once or twice the voices of characters like Phoebe or Dorothy Ann were done by the animation sound engineers. It was a little strange seeing this little girl characters with adult male voices.
The book was fun to work on and I was really thankful to put away my airbrush and work with watercolor again. It took me a while to adapt to Bruce Degen’s drawing style but he was pretty cool with letting the artist show their hand a bit in the illustrations. For those of you who have worked in licensing you’ll know this is exceedingly rare and so it threw me at first. The idea that the style was not completely set was new to me so I wasn’t sure which direction to go in. Should I follow the original books or go with the animated look? They were both very different and I ended up settling somewhere in between. After I finished my art I sent it off to my rep for review before it went to the publisher. I got a call from my rep first thing the next morning. I figured he was calling to congratulate me on a job well done. What else could it have been? Boy, was I ever wrong. What I received from him was some of the most severe criticism I had ever received in my entire career then and now. Mind you, this was not coming from the publisher this was coming just from my rep at that time, the publisher hadn’t even seen the art yet.
One of the pages I had painted showed a couple of the characters sliding down an ice hill on Mars. Admittedly I knew this art wasn’t going to win me any awards but my rep really tore into that piece when he saw it. We went back and forth, me telling him it wasn’t so bad and him telling me it looked like a spit sink after a root canal and it needed to be fixed before he could send it. Hilarious now, devastating at the time. Anyhow he sent it back to me along with a couple of other pieces art and I worked herder on fixing them then I did on the entire book. I resubmitted in the nick of time and off it went to the publisher.
The following week I got a nice note from Scholastic thanking me for a job well done. I worked on quite a few more books in that series and they all paid ridiculously well compared to any other publisher I was working with at the time. Although sometimes I question a few of the tactics my old rep used I did learn a lot from him. He later apologized for the remark and we laughed about it but aside from all that working on those Magic School Bus books was a very special thing for me and I have a soft spot when I look through all that old art. My son was such a huge fan of the Magic School Bus at the time and he was just the right age for it. We were able to spend a lot of time together watching the videos and reading the books. For him it was like Magic. I was invited to his classroom to draw with his class and even though I wasn’t Bruce Degen famous I got to be a rock star for my son and his friends and that was magic enough for me.