The Story Behind Eleanor Cameron's Biography
I was 9 years old when I first discovered The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planetby
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 before too long 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 reference 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 copy 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