Saturday, July 23, 2005


A few days ago during on my lunch break I swung past the Library to return a book.
While I was there, I logged on to one of the public computer terminals to email a friend.

Afterwards, just as I turned to leave, I noticed a table laden with a display of children’s books, and the theme seemed to be Space Travel. All manner of books with rockets or Martians or random aliens on their covers, Madeleine L’Engle stuff sprinked throughout.... and I paused for a second glance.
One title seemed to jump out at me and literally abduct something from deep within me.

I stared at the cover. I stared at the title. I was looking at an old friend who had changed in every way except name. It was wonderful, the nostalgia that poured into me as I repeated the name of the title over and over in my mind.... “Mushroom Planet, Mushroom Planet” still without having yet touched the book.
Then it hit me.
Not the book, but my recollection of it.

The memories. My brain finally located those one or two enzymes assigned to the far-distant memory of perhaps one of the very first books I had ever read as a child.
The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, by Eleanor Cameron.
So what did I do?
I scooped it up. And signed it out!
And I have just now finished re-reading it, after an interval of thirty-some years.

It is an absolutely wonderful story, yes, even in my old age, it is.
The original cover is the one displayed at the top of this blog. Having been re-issued many times now, current versions have a new, updated cover. If I had seen the original version, I would have recalled the book immediately, for my childhood Mushroom book had that cover.
In the story, David Topman and Chuck Masterson (don’t they just sound like astronauts?) are two boys that build (out of random pieces of aluminum sheeting, plasti-glass and old boat parts found in Cap’n Tom’s garage) their own spaceship!

They do this in response to an ad that David’s father saw in the paper, placed there by a Mr. Bass, who is promising “an adventure and a chance to do a good deed” to the boys who build the best ship.
The mission is to go to Mr. Bass’s home planet, Basidium X.
Mr. Bass is (of course) a Mushroom-Person who has somehow drifted to earth, travelling as a spore, many eons ago. He is the only person on earth who can observe Basidium X from its orbital position 50,000 miles from earth (one-fifth as far as the moon) because he has invented the Stroboscopic Polaroid Filter which, when attached to the lens of his telescope enables him to see the otherwise invisible Mushroom Planet.
The boys create their ship, and they present it to Mr. Bass. I just love the sign in front of Mr. Bass’s place, when they arrive.... “5 Thallo St. ALL SPACE SHIPS WELCOME!”
It is not only the best, but apparently the ONLY submission, and so they are immediately thrown into plans to leave earth for Basidium X that very night! At midnight.
The premise is so wonderfully crazy that I love it.
They are to arrive at Basidium X promptly at 2 a.m. (25,000 miles per hour, in case you are keeping track of gas mileage and all).... and while there they are to see if they can discover what the current state of the planet is by retrieving a “canning jar” of Basidium air.... and then they are to leave promptly at 4 a.m., and to be back home in bed by a little after six! Landing safely on their beach in Monterey California, a few blocks from their actual house.
When the boys tell their parents about this upcoming trip, of course, they are not believed. And so there is no panic. In fact, David’s mother sets out the appropriate clothing that he has requested for the journey.
Little do the grownups know that these boys ain’t playing games!
They are actually going. And they do. Right on time. David, as commander, has been given a little folded up piece of paper which he keeps in his wallet and periodically checks, to see if they are on course, and stuff like that! (I love it!)
Everything is going to schedule, right to the minute. NASA could learn a lot from this Mr. Bass guy!
When the boys get there, they meet two of the Mushroom People (the planet is covered in tree-tall mushroom growth, and the inhabitants look very mushroom-y too)... these natives are called Mebe and Oru, and the boys soon learn that these two are doomed to be beheaded if they cannot find a solution to the current environmental/ecological problems regarding their essential food supply on Basidium X.
The very authoritative King Ta has ordered these executions, and the boys are soon pleading with him to allow them the allotted two hours to solve the mystery. They are taken on a quick tour, given a quick historical de-briefing, and led to The Place of the Hidden Water. Here is where the dying vegetation, essential to the Mushroom People is located.
The boys are initially stumped. They are grossed out at the overall sulfuric smell of the place.
Later, when they are just about to leave, Chuck begins to eat a bit of his lunch, and herein the mystery is solved. I won’t say more because I know that all of you want to run out and buy this book today and read it.
Suffice it to say though, that just before they left earth, Mr. Bass reminded them that they needed to bring along a mascot, and (pressed for time) all that David could scrounge up was an old hen in the chicken coop by the name of Mrs. Pennyfeather. So they took along this.... chicken, into outer space.
Mrs. Pennyfeather ends up saving the entire race of Mushroomites, Mebe and Pru are spared, the boys are planetary heroes, King Ta rewards them by giving them his ceremonial necklace, and they return to earth safely, whereupon, the next day they prove to their parents that the whole thing was real.

There are many moments of doubt, whereupon the reader wonders if the boys are dreaming this whole adventure up. (I’m sure I wondered this much less with the first go-around, thirty-some years ago).
But it is really so well-written. So fanciful. I consider it a children’s classic.
The fact that it, and the whole Mushroom series is still in print, attests to its classic status.
Originally published in 1954, this book of 195 pages still can speak to a generation of kids, I really think it can. In fact, I hope that it can.
It is written for age levels 9 to 12, if I am reading correctly, and the author does not talk down to her readers. Here are some of the words I noted, to show that the author respects the brains of kids....
-- Cogitating, elliptical, polarization, stroboscopic, azimuth, fluid resinoid silicon, tarsier, viridian, verdigris. –
It is filled with poetically descriptive moments.... like this one, where the crazy tin ship is bringing them home, and the boys are observing the earth’s curve, surrounded by the deep, deep black of space.... “Far, far off swam the sun, a blazing ball sourrounded by its flaming corona, and so terrible in its brilliance, uncurtained by earth’s atmosphere, that they could not look at it at all. On the opposite side of the sky, still in sight, hung the round, silvery-shining orb of the moon.” (146).
The poetry is in words like “terrible” and “orb” and the phrase “uncurtained by earth’s atmosphere” is an example of wonderfully respectful language in a book for kids.

And here is something interesting... I cannot say that I truly RECALLED too many specific moments in the book. Reading it now, so many years later, it was for the most part, new to me. However, for as long as I can remember remembering, I have always felt that I would love to see the earth from outer space.

I’ve never stopped to really wonder where this seemingly ingrained desire comes from. But here in the book, right at page 7, David asks his father (who has just read to him Mr. Bass’s ad in the paper) “What would the earth look like from way out in the sky, thousands of miles away?”
I wonder now, if reading this thirty-some years ago, was perhaps the genesis of my own fascination with that question.
Again, in the first chapter, David tells his parents he would like to find a planet just his own size. Then his father says to him... “But I’m afraid that’s not possible David. Not for ten or twenty years yet, or maybe even fifty. Might be something to look forward to though.”
Well, it is now roughly fifty-one years since David’s dad, Dr. Topman said that to his son.
For kids, it is something to still look forward to.
When I was just a kid, I was once rooting around in a box of my elder brother’s old school projects. One was a sort of pictorial essay about outer space. And I remember reading his words.... “Man has not yet gone to the moon, but there are plans that he may do so in the very near future.”
I remember reading and re-reading that line he had written, because at the time I was reading it, man had already been to the moon and back! And so I remember having this little kid’s sense of having a place in history. This for-so-long elusive event had happened in MY LIFETIME. In the lifetime of my brother. It was something that had not happened yet, in both of our lifetimes, and now had! We were living in exciting times. And we still are. In many ways, our current times are very much more exciting, more momentous and monumental even, than were the days of the late 1960’s and early ‘70’s, to which I am referring.
However, because of so much modern-day information overload, so much data, so little anticipation of what’s next on the technological agenda, I think we may be in danger of losing our ability to be amazed.
Nowadays, the youngest of elementary schoolkids can tell you that even a few inches of unprotected surface-area WILL spell disaster for any spacecraft and crew upon re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere.
It was so nice to read Cameron’s book and suspend my imagination for a wee bit. To believe that a dang old chicken can save the fate of an invisible planet hovering between here and the moon. To not worry about the logistical problems of a space ship constructed of Cap’n Tom’s random odds and ends. To just climb inside the thing and believe in it as much now as I did the first time around.

The Mushroom Planet Series, consists of:
-- The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet
-- Stowaway to the Mushroom Planet
-- Mr. Bass’s Planetoid
-- A Mystery For Mr. Bass
-- Time and Mr. Bass

I want to read them all.... sometime between now and age ninety!

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