I first came across the Mushroom Planet books many years ago, when I was still near the target age. I was fascinated by them, drawn into a world that seemed to blend mundanity, magic, and science in an impossible brew that still, somehow, managed to work. Once I became a parent, eventually I hunted down the first book for my own children.
The first of Eleanor Cameron’s Mushroom Planet books, The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet still casts a spell many years after its first publication. David and Chuck, two best friends, build a rocketship (well, a full-sized model of one) after reading a mysterious newspaper advertisement asking for just such a spaceship and promising “adventure” to the boys who bring the best spaceship to an address that they’re not even sure exists.
Mystery piles atop mystery and revelation on revelation, until the two boys find themselves on a rescue mission to a tiny, invisible planet orbiting only a short distance (astronomically speaking) from the Earth itself!
The writing is smooth, straightforward, and engaging, and Cameron’s characters are sketched out with clear and emphatic detail. In some ways, Mushroom Planet reminded me of a Heinlein Juvenile; here we had two young people of the target demographic age, sharing an interest in adventure, who grab that chance with both hands and show resourcefulness, inventiveness, and determination that many adults might lack. At the same time, despite the strangeness that permeates the book (more on that in a moment), there is an overarching emphasis of reason that very much echoes Heinlein, especially in the matter-of-fact interaction of the boys and the adults around them.
Still, there is a bizarre, almost dreamlike quality to the book itself, due at least in part to the juxtaposition of a strong and clear respect for and use of scientific approaches and terminology with truly mystical phenomena that cannot be explained by any science known to man.
The scientific wizard Mr. Bass — there’s no better way to describe him — creates inventions that sound scientific, may even BE scientific in a way, and yet his work is surrounded by all the enigmatic atmosphere of the most mysterious sorceror.
He cannot, or will not, explain the real mechanisms of his inventions, and seems able to produce tremendous results from minimal resources or effort. Peculiar events happen merely by association with him; for instance, after David and Chuck complete the spaceship, the next morning the spaceship they have constructed is… better. Larger, sleeker, and so on, yet within a short time the boys have accepted these changes, as they tend to accept, after only minimal discussion, the other oddities of Mr. Bass and his inventions.
At the same time, the rescue and its conclusion rest on firm, rational grounds, so that we keep being anchored back to reality. This book is a study in contradictions – bizarre, impossible events are directly connected to scientific facts and then back to near-mystical events with scarcely a pause, and yet it somehow all hangs together.
The true strength of the book, though, is the optimistic drive of the boys to achieve goals that even they know will be challenging indeed. We’re first shown this in their decision to build the spaceship,and the efforts they devote to it, but ultimately the greatest demonstration is in their solving a literal life-or-death puzzle in one of the climactic moments of the book.
This was nearly as fun to read as an adult as it was when I was a child, and certainly it had a new appeal because I was introducing my children to these books. I have to order the others soon!
A fascinating book and well worth the read even if — or perhaps especially if — you are an adult who is trying to remember why some kids’ books still stick with you.