Let My People Go (on Holiday): The Magic School Bus does Ancient Egypt

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Would Ms. Frizzle teach history as well as she taught science?

Nearly twenty years ago (!), I wrote a book on children’s science fiction series with my friend Marietta Frank, Back in the Spaceship Again (Greenwood, 1999). One of the series that I discussed, and liked very much, was Joanna Cole and Bruce Degen’s Magic School Bus series. After complaining that “In picture-book science fiction series, scientific concepts are both presumed and presented incorrectly” (65), I go on to praise Magic School Bus for being “accurate and simple” (66). So when I was looking for children’s nonfiction texts on Ancient Egypt recently, and saw that Cole and Degen had produced a book on Ancient Egypt in their Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures series (Ms. Frizzle is the teacher who took children into scientific adventures on the Magic School Bus), I ordered it straight away. I wanted to see how the book would depict Ancient Egyptians in terms of both their appearance and in terms of their labor system, as both aspects of Egyptian society have been important to people of African descent. In both cases, Cole and Degen’s book seems to avoid issues rather than confront them in ways that the scientific adventures in the Magic School Bus series do not.

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The Magic School Bus series teaches science in a simple but accurate way.

Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures differ from the Magic School Bus books in several ways. First, the Magic School Bus books take place within a classroom setting; Ms. Frizzle takes her class on field trips on the eponymous bus that doesn’t have to follow the laws of physics—so the class goes inside the human body, out into space, and back in time to the era of the dinosaurs. The children write reports on what they learn, which the reader can see and evaluate. Student learning is therefore the focus, even though the books contain fantasy, adventure and humor as well. But in Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures: Ancient Egypt, the teacher is not in her classroom. “It was the first day of school vacation. I had said goodbye to my class. I had packed my bags and locked my door. Now I, Ms. Frizzle, was on the move!” (n.p.). In the Magic School Bus books, the story is part of the school curriculum, and is focalized through the adventures and school reports of the students. The Ancient Egypt book, on the other hand, is from the point of view of Ms. Frizzle, acting not as a teacher but as a tourist, and it is definitely extra-curricular. This says, I think, a lot about the attitude toward primary school history, and also about who history matters (or should matter) to; the group of tourists that Ms. Frizzle joins is made up of more adults than children. There are no school reports.

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Rasheeda, seated in the bottom right-hand corner, writes in her diary about what she sees. Her vision of a single marketplace becomes the truth of all Ancient Egyptian marketplaces.

In place of the school reports, however, Cole and Degen have depicted pages from one child’s travel diary. This might at first seem like a fairly equal substitute; both are child accounts of knowledge gained through their adventures. But the Magic School Bus school reports include reference to the work of scientists, and also make room for alternative theories. For example, in The Magic School Bus Lost in the Solar System (Scholastic 1990), one child writes in a report on asteroids, “Scientists think they are the building blocks of a planet that never formed” (24). This technique teaches child readers both about current theories and about the idea of theory itself, recognizing that ideas about science change as new knowledge becomes available. History, as depicted in Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures, however, is fixed. Rasheeda’s travel diary does not refer to historians, only describes what she sees. Diary entries begin with definitive phrases: “In the marketplace we saw” (n.p.) and “What farmers grew” (n.p.). Scientific knowledge has the potential to change over time, but history, in these books, is known and knowable. This makes the illustrations of Ancient Egyptians matter, because here again, a “truth” about history is depicted. Degen’s illustrations show Egyptians as orangey-brown in skin color, to random degrees, with Rasheeda—the African-American visitor from modern times—as considerably darker than all of them. Modern Egyptians are tan-colored. Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures leaves no room for the idea that Egyptians may have included some people who had more “African” features.

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Sarah Courtauld’s The Story of Slavery does not paint a pretty picture of slavery (although it doesn’t say the slaves built the pyramids either).

Another reason that this difference between Cole and Degen’s depictions of science and of history matters so much (particularly for a blogger concerned with ideas of race and diversity) becomes clear on a single page of the narrative, the page about who built the pyramids. I have written before about how books on slavery often begin with Ancient Egypt—see, for example, Sarah Courtauld’s The Story of Slavery (Usborne 2007).

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“People” are wrong about slavery. These Ancient Egyptians are perfectly happy to be dragged from their farms and do hard manual labor–as long as there is beer.

Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures also mentions slavery, but in quite a different way. “People often think the pyramids were made by slaves,” Cole and Degen write, “but that isn’t true. Pyramid builders were paid in bread and beer, just like other workers” (n.p.). The language that Cole and Degen use in this passage is extremely important, because it removes authority (historians did not think that the pyramids were built by slaves, people did—and they were wrong), suggests that slavery did not exist in Ancient Egypt (and, whatever the truth about who built the pyramids, historians are pretty sure that slavery existed), and defines not-enslavement as being paid in bread and beer, as if slavery couldn’t have existed if the workers were fed. Rasheeda’s diary entry adds, “Many farmers worked on the pyramid during the flood, when their farms were underwater” (n.p.), suggesting that the farmers were glad of some off-season work (and beer and bread). Both the box about what “people often think” and Rasheeda’s diary entry present history generally as factual, and these facts specifically as the correct and only interpretation. However, even historians who think that the pyramids were not built by slaves (at least not in the way that we think of slavery now), do not think the workers were part of a labor market of free individuals. Archaeologist Mark Lehner, with the University of Chicago, put it this way in an interview with the PBS show Nova: “the King’s men come, and it may not have been entirely coercion, but it seems that everybody owed a labor tax. We don’t know if it was entirely coercive, or if, in fact, part of it was a natural community donation”  (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/who-built-the-pyramids.html). The key words there: we don’t know. Teaching kids about history should open them up to the same kind of questions and possibilities that teaching them about science does, not just offer them half-truths and surface-level observation. Ms. Frizzle’s Adventures: Ancient Egypt lets kids go into the past, but only as temporary tourists who are kept away from history’s wrong side of the tracks.

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