The Ideal Introduction to Science Fiction: A Fantastic Flight to the Mushroom Planet

In this fortnightly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy booksAlan Brown looks at the forefront and leading edge of the field; books about soldiers and spacemen, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. The stories are full of what Shakespeare called “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, conflicts, and exciting stuff.

I’m looking at some of the oldest books in my collection, some of which I bought from the academic book club when I was in elementary school. On the bookshelf, Eleanor Cameron’s 1954 novel, The Fantastic Flight of the Mushroom Planet, caught my attention. It immediately evokes fond memories of homemade spaceships, a small, mysterious man who might not be human at all, and how a hen and her eggs end up saving the world.

I remember reading the first hardcover edition of Fantastic Flight to the Mushroom Planet, borrowing it from the local library…just thinking about that library brings back so many fond memories that I can almost smell the unique fragrance of many books at close range. I was so impressed with the story that I used my pocket money to buy a copy from an academic book fair in elementary school (my paperback says the edition was published in 1966). This might be one of the first books I bought at a book fair, but it’s far from the last. I’ve learned that you can find joy not only in reading books but in owning them. I recently saw an academic book truck outside my local elementary school and am glad they are still around.

Fantastic Flight to the Mushroom Planet was a huge success, a whimsical, compelling story that made readers feel like fantastic adventures might be just around the corner. In fact, you might say that this story fits perfectly into the category of what Diane Callahan calls “curious fiction” in a recent article.

About the author

Eleanor Cameron (1912-1996), born in Canada and immigrating to the United States as a young woman, was a librarian, literary critic, and author of twenty books. Her fiction was devoted almost entirely to books for young readers, and one of her fantasy adventure novels, The Stone Boy Court, won the National Book Award in 1974, one of many awards and nominations she received throughout her career. Her longest series began with Fantastic Flight of the Mushroom Planet, a novel that would eventually have five sequels. The book was born at the request of her own son David, who wished to feature himself in books.

Cameron was a librarian who worked for the Los Angeles Public Library and Board of Education. She took children’s literature issues very seriously, wrote two books on literary criticism, and regularly spoke and wrote in journals on the subject. She gained attention for a three-part essay titled “McLuhan, Youth, and Literature” published in the Clarion Books Journal, in which she criticized the then-popular philosopher Marshall McLuhan for some theories while also criticizing the writer Roald Dahl.

Children at risk

Of course, one of the most effective ways to create narrative tension is to put your protagonists in dangerous or dire situations and then let them figure out how to get out of them. I’ve heard writers say that, more often than not, dire situations befall them first, and the solution to the problem comes to the writer intuitively. The authors place the protagonists in war, natural disasters, shipwrecks, extreme weather, and other dangerous situations. They deprive them of the stability that housing, food, health, money, jobs, families, and loved ones provide. It seems that the more terrifying the trials, the more satisfying it is to see the protagonist overcome them.

However, children’s fiction writers must walk a delicate tightrope. Portraying children at risk can be upsetting or even offensive to readers. Since parents have a responsibility to protect their children, putting these fictional children in danger could have a bad influence on the adults in the story. There is always a concern that stories about children putting themselves at risk might lead young readers to think that they, too, might behave dangerously or irresponsibly for the thrill and risk, with no regard for real-world consequences.

Eleanor Cameron’s Fantastic Flight to Mushroom Planet certainly puts boys David and Chuck at risk, sending them into space in a homemade spaceship before any other human has ever made such a trip. But the story mitigates that danger through the calm presence of the enigmatic Mr. Bass. He may be eccentric, but the reader gets the sense that he can see into the future, and the apparent danger is tempered by the fact that he’s guiding the boys’ adventures and equipping and improving their spaceship. There’s enough risk to be exciting, but not enough to scare the reader that a character might lose their life or suffer any harm. Also, Mr. Bass’ interactions with the parents in the story seem to ease their concerns and allow the boys to go on adventures without adult interference.

Fantastic Flight to Mushroom Planet

The book begins with David Topman’s father showing him cryptic ads in the newspaper about a “Wanted: Two boys for hazardous journey. Low pay. Inquire at once.” David and his friend Chuck investigate and meet Mr. Bass, who reveals that he’s from the planet Basidium, located on the opposite side of the sun, and his planet is in danger. He needs the boys to pilot a spaceship to Basidium and retrieve a substance that will save his planet. Mr. Bass equips the boys with a spaceship, food, and instructions for the journey.

The journey is full of exciting moments, including a close encounter with a meteor shower and a malfunctioning spaceship. When the boys arrive on Basidium, they discover that the planet is inhabited by mushroom people who can communicate telepathically. The boys befriend two young mushroom people, Tyco and Vada, who help them find the substance they need. The boys then return to Earth, with the help of a chicken named Henrietta who lays eggs that power the spaceship.

Fantastic Flight to Mushroom Planet is a delightful adventure story that captures the imagination of young readers. It’s a story about friendship, bravery, and problem-solving, with fantastical elements like mushroom people and a spaceship powered by chicken eggs. The book’s themes of exploration, friendship, and problem-solving make it an excellent choice for young readers who enjoy science fiction and fantasy.

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