Kids’ Books, I: Shrooms

As much as I hate the sight of a child — seriously, I make the apotropaic sign to ward off evil with my fore and pinky fingers whenever I see a child under about ten, or a stroller — I cherish a small, carefully selected library of childrens’ books, some of them going back to my own single-digit years.

It’s possible that I loathe children as much as I do because I remember what they were like when I couldn’t get away from them. As Florence King said, “they expected me to play with the watery moles.” (Having half-heard breathless grandma-gossip about molar pregnancies, she was convinced that most of her contemporaries were the result of same, and I’m not sure she was all that wrong.) The one thing that was clear was that most of the creatures nursed their own ignorance and stupidity into a luxurious, tropical flower, in a way that precluded anything like intellectual joy or spiritual enthusiasm.

I did not attempt to share my tastes in literature. I learned early that the little pills who sat beside me in class after class could spray snot on anything that spoke of exhilaration and joy. I figure they are still doing it, with ladles-full of scorn for whoever delights in something that is not, at that moment, on the top of the charts or trending on the Internet.

I leapt on the Narnia books, the Princess and the Goblin, the Faun and the Woodcutter’s Daughter, and then when I was still only about six I latched onto the Mushroom Planet books. Does anyone remember these? Apparently the first two are back in print, though dead-tree publishers haven’t been enterprising enough to bring back the other three. I own old, knackered hardcover library editions of #s 2, 3, and 4.

Everything that could possibly be wrong about a childrens’ book is wrong with these — and they work anyway. The child-heroes are two generic American prepubescent boys — the kind that you know in your heart are more interested in noogies and fart jokes than in other planets, and who dandle in their hearts a lasting scorn for girrrlllsss — I wonder about the author, who wrote the stories at the request of her son and gave one of the protagonists his name; I really do wonder. The science is potted, the premise ridiculous — two elevenish boys from Monterey building a space ship out of sheet metal and boat ribs, which somehow works because of scientific innovations unique to their peculiar mentor, the undersized and elderly “Mr. Bass”. The boys’ parents are complacent and doofoid in the way of 1950’s and ’60s sitcom parents, and the mother of one — “Mrs. Topman” — figures in the story only as the provider of packed lunches, cakes, and maternal admonitions. I picture her as one of the improbably wasp-waisted and chemically cheerful mothers pictured in promotions for blenders and ovens, back in those days.

The boys depend on David’s grandfather, “Cap’n Tom,” for some of their construction tips; he’s an old salt out of another kind of advertisement. Instead of saying “WHAT THE FUCK SOMEONE WANTS YOU TO FLY A PROTOTYPE SHIP INTO OUTER SPACE AFTER BUILDING IT YOURSELVES WHEN THE UNITED STATES HAS A WHOLE SPACE PROGRAM STRUGGLING TO MAKE SPACE FLIGHT POSSIBLE ARE YOU KIDDING ME,” these progenitors say nothing more admonitory than the equivalent of “Wear a sweater.” Oh, and the father-character is a doctor who actually makes house calls. I guess that wasn’t as improbable in its time.

I think it works because the story strays into the mythic. Mr. Bass, the diminutive, slightly green-skinned astronomer who quite ridiculously advertises for boys to build a space ship for him, is a Mushroom Person or Mycetian — a member of a secondary race that reproduces by spores.  I daresay we are steering close to the Green Man of multiple traditions, including Native American peyote legends in which a little green Spirit of Peyote figures. I am not goofing on you here. Things like this travel under the skin of consciousness; ask Carl Jung. Mr. Bass is supernatural, and so are his tribe on the hitherto undetected Earth satellite of Basidium — a small rock on which fungus-based life won out, but on which the prevailing race inexplicably still has male and female genders, and a crisis in survival which the boy astronauts arrive just in time to avert, because they’ve brought a hen and her eggs will save an entire race from death… calling all archetypes?

There’s more: drinks of Lethe in the second book, for example, and a rebirth from underground that I swear Alan Garner must have read when he wrote The Weirdstone of Brisingamen  (there’s one for a future post).  Or not, because these stories are universal.

Twice the author sieved up a half-drowned character from the sea. The cardboard-cutout mother of the explicit narrative notwithstanding, she let her hubristic hero figures tangle with the Big Bitch.

And people think it’s about outer space. Well, sort of, perhaps. I wonder how the shroom culture is doing, up in Monterey.


8 thoughts on “Kids’ Books, I: Shrooms

    • Heh! I’m pretty impervious to those cutesy “bedtime story” books — they’re exactly what I find wrong about the culture of childhood. I’ll spot you Beatrix Potter because the drawings were so good, while Narnia had Paganism leaking through every scene (aside from which, Lewis could actually write). But my idea of a cute cartoon animal is Omaha the Cat Dancer.

      The books that fill my double shelf are science-fiction adventures, historicals, and fantasies, in most of which young people have to grow up very fast or images from the landscape of dream intrude surreally into daily life. The Curdie books? Does anyone read those any more? Erik Christian Haugaard? The Bronze King?

      I’ll write about some more of them.

  1. I loved the Narnia books – and figured out about age 11 that there was a heavy religious theme. I was atheist by then, and it annoyed me, but my desire for talking animals was too strong to abandon the whole series after I’d loved it so when younger.

    I don’t know of the others you go into detail about! I’m a bit sad that I missed them. I did read Madeleine L’Engle as a child, and she gave me a basic grasp of quantum physics. Despite, once again, bringing a creator into the mix. I’ve always had a talent for smelling out bullshit between the science and history she gave me, however.

    I think the best kids’ books are the ones where there are no ‘authority figures’ and the world is not quite what it seems – to the adults, anyway. Embrace the odd while you still can! I think even children know it won’t last.

    • Yes, l’Engle!!! Same problem there — the longer she wrote the more preachy she got, too — but she was stabbing at elements of what’s called the Perennial Philosophy, the common admonitions to decency and awareness that pervade all sorts of different religions and ethos. I identified horribly with Meg Murry, who was also always getting sent out of class for being a smartmouth, though the idyllic family home just made me laugh bitterly.

      • Oh, yes, 2.5 kids and a very, very smart dog. And an overwhelming love of family. But I’ll treasure the books forever because I can now visualise more than three dimensions.

        I was too young to identify with Meg, so probably felt closer to Charles.

          • I’ve rather felt more boy than girl most of my life – can’t recall identifying with any of the female siblings in the Narnia books, for instance. At best, I wanted to be a better Eustace and ENJOY being a dragon.

          • Ha! Yep, I always preferred the idea of being the prince in the fairy tale. I identified a bit with Lucy though, because her special “gift” had to do with healing people. It’s always been a vexed issue for me — at any given moment I feel uncertain whether I’d rather fix people or kick the shit out of them.

            Strax is my new hero.

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