In 2013 I began researching Eleanor Cameron's life. In late 2015 I finished a first draft of her first and (so far) only biography. It took awhile, but the book will be out in Feburary 2018 from the University Press of Mississippi. Below is the story of how it came about.
The Story Behind Eleanor Cameron's Biography
I was 9 years old when I first discovered The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron at the public library in my hometown of Bloomington, Illinois. The spine, with its rich blue and green color scheme and evocative combination of words, called out to me. I was a Star Wars devotee, so any book promising interstellar travel demanded attention. I took the book home and devoured its 214 pages in one night. It was the first time that I became so immersed in a book that I couldn’t stop reading.
A short time later I was browsing at the other public library in town and made the startling discovery that Wonderful Flight had sequels. The one on the shelf was called Mr. Bass’s Planetoid but inside under the heading “The Mushroom Planet” were listed three additional sequels. Strangely, I didn’t take Mr. Bass’s Planetoid home that day. Maybe I was in the middle of another book at the time. Maybe I didn’t want to read one sequel without reading the others. Maybe I just planned to read it later. Whatever the reason, I left the book there and promptly forgot the names “Eleanor Cameron,” “Mr. Bass,” and “Mushroom Planet.”
In college I took a course on children’s literature. Doing serious academic study of children’s classics caused my thoughts to wander naturally back to that book I’d read as a kid, about the boys who build a rocket and solve a problem for some aliens. I’d forgotten the title and author, but not the feeling I’d gotten from reading Wonderful Flight, that intense need to know what would happen next, that complete immersion in a different world. I asked around, but only got blank stares. Occasionally someone would ask if I meant Explorers, a 1985 film directed by Joe Dante that features three boys who build their own spaceship. I had seen and loved the movie as a kid, but I knew that wasn’t it. The Internet was just in its infancy then, so with only a thin plot summary I had no chance of finding the book. Sometimes I wondered if it had just been a very vivid dream.
On a break from college, my friend Stan and I strolled through Barnes and Noble and I told him about my elusive and possible mythical book, and he responded in a most logical way: “If you can’t find that book, you should write it yourself.” I was a writer forever looking for ideas, and they didn’t get much better than that one. I began to brainstorm my own version of the story.
In the way the universe works, once we’ve moved on from focusing our attention on a problem, it solves itself. In this case a book I’d happened to pick up from a free pile outside the English department office – Young People’s Literature in Series: Fiction by Judith and Kenyon Rosenberg – happened to have a section on science fiction. And there they were: The Mushroom Planet books by Eleanor Cameron. There was a list of the titles, each with a brief summary, so there could be no doubt. I’d found the book!
Of course now my conundrum was that I was well into my own version, tentatively titled The Broken Planet, and didn’t want any accusations of literary theft. So I didn’t immediately seek out The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet for a reread. Of course now any time I entered a used bookstore I went right to the children’s section and looked for books by Cameron. Once in awhile I’d see a paperback of something vaguely intriguing called The Court of the Stone Children, but no Mushroom Planet books.
I graduated college and moved to Minneapolis, still working on The Broken Planet, which had now morphed into a novel-within-a-novel about a directionless college graduate trying to recreate a beloved childhood book (you can see that I had to reach quite a ways for inspiration). In my head, the novel would alternate between the writer and his work, with each section commenting on the other. This still doesn’t seem like a bad idea for a writer with the skill to pull it off, which I clearly wasn’t.
While working on the novel(s), a bookstore visit finally paid off. At Half Price Books in St. Louis Park, I found the first two Mushroom Planet books in their 1988 paperback editions with covers by Peter Sis (and no interior illustrations). I knew I couldn’t not buy them, but I also knew that having them in my possession wasn’t a great idea. So I compromised: I bought them and gave them to a friend for safekeeping until I’d finished my work.
I finished the draft in 2000 and sent it off to agents. I didn’t get many responses, but the ones I did get were rejections, and so I decided I didn’t believe in the final product enough to fight for it, though I felt perhaps The Broken Planet could be salvaged. I revised it a couple of times and even read it aloud to my one of my fifth grade classrooms. They loved it and asked for a sequel, but I still didn’t feel the manuscript was worth the trouble of sending to agents or publishers.
Around this time I finally allowed myself to reread The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet. I was amazed to find how much I had subconsciously retained of the Mr. Bass character. My own version, Dr. Neptune, had a similar physical description, a word he said distinctly and repeatedly (“marvelous” to Mr. Bass’s “pre-cise-ly”) and lived in a circular house. There were a couple of other similarities as well, and though my book was very different in theme and style I knew I could never in good conscience pursue publication.
Around this time, I came across the hardcover of Wonderful Flight at a bookstore in my hometown. It had the same cover as the one I’d checked out from the library 20 years before. I bought it, and the circle seemed complete. I’d read the book, lost it, tried to recreate it, and found it again.
I didn’t know that I was just at the end of the beginning.
In the fall of 2013 I was teaching a reading intervention class for struggling 7th and 8th grade readers. In an effort to demonstrate the power of reading, I introduced myself through books that had been important to me in various phases of my life. The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet figured prominently, of course. One student took particular interest in the book and wanted to know more about it. I found myself telling him about the sequels that I’d never read and he asked me the obvious question: “Why not?”
I realized I was long overdue in reading more of Eleanor’s work, and that set me off on a fact-finding mission. I was immediately surprised by a few things. One was the length of her bibliography, nearly 20 books, nearly all of them wildly different from one another. The second was the lack of availability of those books. Only a couple were still in print, others were selling for highish prices on places like Amazon Marketplace, eBay, and Abebooks. And the last thing that surprised me was the lack of information on this author who’d had a 40 year career and had won several awards. I found a couple of brief bios here and a fan page devoted to the Mushroom Planet books, but her Wikipedia page was woefully short on information and there was nothing on the Internet of any depth regarding her life.
At this point I started to get a little excited. Could it be that, in the age of information, I'd stumbled into undiscovered territory? This set me on two parallel tracks. One was to find and read all of Eleanor's books and the other was to unearth more information about her life. The former mission turned out to be easy. The Hennepin County Library system had all but one of her books, The Beast with the Magical Horn, which I was able to pick up on Amazon Marketplace. I began going through her books chronologically, and was soon amazed by the range and depth of her work; her career was so varied (a stream-of-consciousness adult novel, space fantasy, time fantasy, realistic period pieces, literary criticism) it was almost hard to believe that it was all the same writer. The second mission was the more difficult one. Even the academic databases and newspaper archives available though the public library didn't have much on her life.
But then came an improbable breakthrough. One afternoon I was searching for reviews of Eleanor's first novel, 1950's The Unheard Music, and one of the results referenced "The Eleanor Cameron Papers." It turned out that Eleanor had donated all of her original manuscripts and her correspondence to the Kerlan Collection, a massive children's literature archive housed at the University of Minnesota. There were 15 boxes of material available to the public, and they were just a couple of miles away from my house. What were the chances of that?
This is, of course, where things escalated. On my first trip to the Kerlan (located at Elmer Anderson library on the West Bank campus) the first box I opened had a wealth of press clippings, reviews, letters, and even an unpublished manuscript for a sixth Mushroom Planet book. It started to seem like I might be able to reconstruct Eleanor's life using those papers. And so what had started as curiosity became obsession. Over the next year and a half I would make 36 trips to the library and go through every single paper in those 15 boxes.
Every trip brought new revelations. Though I had a rough chronological guide provided by her books and other published work, putting the events of Eleanor's life together required me to play detective. I had a lot of clues but I had to figure out how they all fit into a narrative. When I made a connection or found evidence to confirm a hunch it was an extremely satisfying feeling. I was amazed by how much I enjoyed the work and how natural it felt, though I'd never done anything like it.
One of Eleanor's novels, The Court of the Stone Children, is about a girl, Nina, who befriends a ghost (essentially) from the early 1800s named Dominique. Dominique wants Nina to help clear her disgraced father's name, which requires Nina to sort through the layers of the past and illuminate what had been lost to time. Once I read that book, it was difficult to not equate it to my experience of communing with the past to uncover Eleanor's story.
At some point in the middle of researching (much later than I should have) I realized that several of Eleanor's correspondents would still be very much alive and that I might actually be able to track them down. That would lead me to the final, and most exciting, phase of my research.
After spending several months with Eleanor's papers, most of which are letters, it occurred to me that several of the people with whom she corresponded would still be very much alive, and that I might be able to track some of them down. This notion terrified me a little bit. Working with paper is one thing. People are less predictable.
The first person I got in touch with was Stephen Kuehler, who as a 9-year-old Mushroom Planet fan wrote Eleanor a letter. She wrote back and a correspondence began. When he was 14, Stephen's grandmother took him to Pebble Beach, California to visit Eleanor. She gave him the royal treatment. Their friendship and correspondence continued through the rest of his teen years and into adulthood. Stephen is now a librarian at Harvard, and was thus pretty easy to track down. He was thrilled to hear from me, and we spoke one evening in July of 2014. Through his stories Eleanor came to life. I could barely sleep that night.
I had a similar experience talking to another of Eleanor's friends-turned-correspondents, Jeffrey Jon Smith. The depth of feeling and admiration he holds for Eleanor (and her books) even 20 years after her death made me realize the responsibility I'd taken on in telling her story.
From there I became determined to talk to everyone I could possibly find. I tracked down the sons of her best friend, Rita Lipkis. I got in touch with Karen Nelson Hoyle, the former curator of the Kerlan Collection, who was responsible for bringing Eleanor's papers to the archive. I spoke with Sarah Windes, the widow of J.D. Stahl, a children's literature expert who probably would have written Eleanor's story had he not passed away much too young in 2010. Ms. Windes gave me his letters and papers. I got in touch with one of Eleanor's editors at Dutton books, Donna Brooks. She's out of publishing now, but one of her final discoveries was a guy named John Green.
In one of the strangest sequence of events, I responded to a blog post comment by author and illustrator Eric Shanower (Age of Bronze, Marvel's Oz comics), who was a Mushroom Planet fan himself. It turns out that Eric knows Russell Phillips Chappell, who was close friends with Eleanor's son David, and served as his executor when he passed away in 1997. Russell filled in a bunch of information that was missing in the papers, especially about the respective ends of Eleanor and David's lives.
I spoke with Eleanor's nephew, Colin Cameron, on the phone in June 2015. The first Mushroom Planet sequel, Stowaway to the Mushroom Planet, was dedicated to him when he was a kid. It turns out he had gone on to have a notable career himself, becoming a highly-sought-after bass player in L.A.. He played in singer-songwriter Paul Williams' band, which is how he ended up on the soundtrack to The Muppet Movie, an album I memorized as a child. When we spoke he mentioned that he was battling some complications from surgery to remove cancer. Six days later, he died.
Eleanor was friends with and/or had an impact on countless authors, and I was lucky enough to speak with many of them. I interviewed picture book author and illustrator Dan Yaccarino (Doug Unplugged, Unloveable) about his love of The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet. I exchanged e-mails with celebrated science fiction and fantasy author Lois McMaser Bujold on the same topic. Peter Neumeyer, a children's literature professor at San Diego State University and author of three picture books with none other than Edward Gorey, graciously spoke to me a couple of times about his friendship with Eleanor.
Eleanor was also closely acquainted with a many big names in children's literature and fantasy, including Beverly Cleary, Lloyd Alexander, Gregory Maguire and Ursula Le Guin. I was lucky enough, through the connections I'd made, to be able to correspond with the latter two. Gregory offered a lovely reminiscence of Eleanor, and Ursula allowed me access to dozens of letters between her and Eleanor dating from 1969 to the mid 1980s.
In the spring of 2015, my wife Wendy and I took a trip to the Monterey Peninsula in California, where Eleanor lived from 1968 until her death in 1996. It served as the setting for several of her books. It was as beautiful and breathtaking and peaceful as she'd described it, especially bucolic little towns of Carmel and Pebble Beach and the amazing Point Lobos, her absolute favorite place on Earth. We also went to Berkeley, where she grew up, and visited her childhood homes.
Besides the interviews and travel, researching Eleanor's life led me to read dozens of books I'd never have read otherwise. Besides her fiction, Eleanor was a prolific critic, and she wrote extensively about the children's literature of her time. And so I was happy to be led to such undiscovered (by me) classics as Tom's Midnight Garden (Phillipa Pearce), The House in Norham Gardens (Penelope Lively), A Chance Child (Jill Paton Walsh), Bilgewater (Jane Gardam), The Once and Future King (T.H. White), Eva (Peter Dickinson), Call the Darkness Down (Dixie Tenny), and Minders of Make-Believe (Leonard Marcus). The art appreciator in me was happy to be introduced to the illustrative works of Joe and Beth Krush and Trina Schart Hyman
I finished a first draft of the biography in July of 2015 and sent it out to three publishers. After over a year of going through the consideration process at two different presses (including being read by four experts in the field) and many many revisions, the manuscript has now found a publisher. I am so gratified that Eleanor's full story will be out there in the world, and I'm amazed to look back on the way simple curiosity (and a dose of barely-controlled mania) led to such unexpected places, events, and people. And so I'm most thankful to Eleanor herself, for taking my on that first wonderful flight to the Mushroom Planet, and then on the amazing journey through her remarkable life.