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I chose Eleanor Cameron because the familiar Mushroom Planet books and her later novels seem in a way like the work of two different writers. I've always wondered why. The pleasurable task of rereading all her books one after the other soon revealed that Cameron's passionate interests, explored throughout a writing career of almost fifty years, weave through all her work from Wonderful Flight to Private Worlds. Like Julia Redfern with her "Book of Strangeness," Cameron always tries to instill "if not outright magic, then the feeling of magic, of wonder in the everyday world."
To Cameron a sense of place is all important: "place, for me, must be loved and known, it gives rise to the book and its characters." Basidium-X, the Mushroom Planet, exists only in the world ofimagination, yet the science is well researched and Chuck and David's first glimpse of the tiny satellite rings completely true:
Through the wavering green light they made out that this entire world was pale. Over its surface grew what seemed to be spongy moss, and from it sprang primitive-looking growths that were like fern trees, with leathery fronds and trunks as smooth as bamboo. Yet these trunks were not the color of tree trunks at all, but as pale green as the rest of the plants. And there were mushrooms - hundreds and hundreds of mushrooms wherever you looked!
California as it was earlier in this century has never been so clearly evoked for children as in Cameron's books: Redwood Cove, a fusion of her favorite places in Northern California in the setting for The Terrible Churnadryne and The Mysterious Christmas Shell; San Francisco,with its special airiness and light, in The Court of the Stone Children ; Berkeley, in the glorious days when you could see right across San Francisco Bay, in the Julia Books. Seen through her writer's eye, the details of Cameron's places, of the natural world and the character's physical surroundings, feel like memories from one's own life.
Growing from these vivid surroundings, Cameron's characters, even her minor ones, seem immediate, existing as real people outside the books. Remember the faintly mushroom-like Mr. Bass, smoothing "a long, thin weblike hand" over the side of Chuck and David's spaceship, speaking "with a voice so distant, as if a wind from a far place had carried it to them."? Or our first glimpse of Mr. Theo, standing under the porch light at night with a "much-abused, ancient auto robe folded neatly over one arm" and a face "so like that of the boys' dear friend, Mr. Tyco Bass - the large eyes, the small, eager features, and the big head."
The Julia Redfern books explore character even more intricately. I recently reread them in the order they were written, beginning at a pivotal period in Julia's preadolescence, moving back through time to her early childhood, and then finally forward to the threshold of adulthood. Read in this way the whole forms a fascinating and complex "novel" for older children. Layers of character are revealed and concealed as family members and family memories surface in different times and places. I had read somewhere that the Julia Redfern books were an old-fashioned series like Lovelace's Betsy series. Not at all!
In fact, the places and characters in Cameron's books are so vivid, that they almost obliterate a sense of historical time. When Aunt Lily in To the Green Mountains told Kath that her trees were planted by Johnny Appleseed sixty years ago or more, it jarred me as a reader. Actually, I hadn't been noticing what time it was! In The Green and Burning Tree, Cameron writes extensively about her understanding of the cyclical nature of time.
We can neither perceive (or will not let ourselves, because of that unconscious inhibition or rejection) the whole Globe of Time, nor, under ordinary circumstances do we seem able to slip about in it at will except through memory; or in dreams when the barriers are down.
Whether the book is science fiction like the Mushroom planet books, or a simple fantasy, like The Terrible Churnadryne, or a realistic novel like The Private Worlds of Julia Redfern, the reader has the same experience of "a vast, all-inclusive present". Writing about the sequence of the Julia books, Cameron says, "The strange thing about going backwards is to find explanations waiting for what happened later in the time of the novels. It gives the writer a curious feeling that perhaps the whole pattern had always been there."
Eleanor Cameron's own life began in Winnipeg, Manitoba on March 23, 1912. She credits her English mother's love of storytelling for her early delight with English fantasies and fairy tales. After a three year stay in Ohio, where her father tried to farm and her mother ran a hotel (as in To the Green Mountains,) the family moved to Berkeley and stayed there until Eleanor Cameron was sixteen, taking trips to Yosemite, the redwood forests in Marin, and the Monterey Peninsula. During this period her parents were divorced and she lived alone with her mother, in "a room made of windows." On her mother's remarriage, the family moved to a larger house in the hills. The memories of this period provide much of the material for her books.
Then, at sixteen, in what was for her a terrible uprooting, Cameron and her family moved to Los Angeles. She later attended UCLA and the LA Art Center School for three years. In 1934, she married Ian Stuart Cameron, a printer, and they had one son, David. Eleanor Cameron worked for many years as a reference librarian for schools and businesses before beginning to write full time. Essentially a private person, Cameron was fascinated by the way the unconscious offers up themes and rearranged fragments of a writer's life for use in a piece of writing. "Situations ... are like usable places - mysterious in their ability to arouse the writer's creative response."
Cameron does not dwell on her personal life, but she explains her writer's life very openly. She, like Julia, had always planned to support herself as a librarian so that she could be a 'real writer.' Although she had not published since high school, her first book, and her only novel written for adults, was accepted immediately, in 1950, for publication. Cameron writes of this book,
The sound of Virginia Woolf [in The Unheard Music] was almost my nemesis. There is something touching now, when I look back on it, in the fact I could not endure to write a single fictional sentence if it failed to give me the evocation of Woolf's sentences.
Cameron was struggling to find her own voice as an adult writer, when one day her son David, an avid Doctor Dolittle fan ...
stood there at the side of my table and told me what he had dreamed of: a story about himself and his closest friend, and how they would build a little spaceship and go off and find a planet just their size, just about big enough to explore in a day or two. (The Green and Burning Leaf)
And so, at David's request, the five Mushroom Planet books were born.
In her late forties, while continuing the Mushroom Planet series, Cameron began to write pure fantasies with realistic settings, rather than science fiction. She was also becoming recognized for her thoughtful reflections on writing for children, as well as her insightful and outspoken critiques and her passionate advocacy of children's literature: The Green and Burning Tree: on the Writing and Enjoyment of Children's Books was published in 1969. In 1971, when Eleanor Cameron was fifty-nine, she turned to realistic fiction, and to Julia Redfern, a twelve year old writer very much like her younger self. In these later books she found a medium which would bring her closer to the adult novel-writing she had broken away from years before. She achieved, I think, in The Room Made of Windows, a perfect balance.
According to Francis J. Molson, Cameron's work was slow to be recognized. Perhaps, he says, this was because of her early start in children's science fiction, not a respected field at the time. Perhaps, too, it was because of her outspoken reviews of the work of established writers. Cameron certainly tore into authors she disagreed with, like Lois Lenski, and she enjoyed a good debate with her friends as well! (Horn Book 1964).
However she may be viewed critically, her popularity with the reading public remains strong. As the Mushroom Planet Books enter their fortieth year they are highly sought after by adults. Children enjoy them greatly once they have been introduced, although the fifties atmosphere makes them are a little dated for a child to pick up independently. Cameron's books for older children appeal primarily to very capable readers; we only hope that children will continue to have access to these beautiful books.
Eleanor Cameron died in November, 1996, at the age of eighty-four, leaving a legacy of wonderful children's books. She is perhaps the only major children's writer who has also left us such a thorough and deep analysis of her own creative process and who has written so extensively on the whole field of children's literature. Three years before her death, she revised and published her second book of essays,The Seed and the Vision. Her last children's novel, the final book in the Redfern series, was finished when she was seventy-seven. In the final paragraph, Julia cries out:
.... I love the wind -" Out she went, banging the door, and stood looking off for a second, in the face of that wild force, at the vast sea of lights which was Berkeley and Richmond, then darkness, which was the bay, then lights again, San Francisco far off on the other side, sparkling and shaking as if alive, and turned and ran up the hill, watching the dark shapes of the eucalyptus all swept and flung about against the night sky, heard the stupendous roaring, and leapt up the steps two at a time, unaccountably joyous and hopeful."
Bibliographical List: (An Annotated Bibliography follows this list. As I write, we have all of Cameron's books in stock except A Spell is Cast)
The Mushroom Planet Books The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet. 1954 Stowaway to the Mushroom Planet. 1956 Mr. Bass's Planetoid. 1958 A Mystery for Mr. Bass. 1960 Time and Mr. Bass. 1967
Other Young Children's Fantasies The Terrible Churnadryne. 1959 The Mysterious Christmas Shell. 1961 The Beast With the Magical Horn. 1963
The Julia Redfern Books (In the order written) A Room Made of Windows. 1971 Julia and the Hand of God. 1977 That Julia Redfern. 1982 Julia's Magic. 1984 The Private Worlds of Julia Redfern. 1989 (reelected, by Julia's age) Julia's Magic. That Julia Redfern. Julia and the Hand of God. A Room Made of Windows. The Private Worlds of Julia Redfern.
Older Children's Novels A Spell is Cast. 1964 The Court of the Stone Children. 1973 To the Green Mountains. 1975 Beyond Silence. 1980
Adult Novel The Unheard Music. 1950
Essays The Green and Burning Tree: on the Writing and Enjoyment of Children's Books, 1969 The Seed and The Vision: on the Writing and Appreciation of Children's Books, 1993, Manuscript Collection. Kerlan Collection, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.
More About Eleanor Cameron (used in this article)
de Montreville, Doris. The Third Book of Junior Authors, Wilson, 1972. An article for children written after Tree. Harrison, Barbara. Innocence and Experience: Essays and Conversations on Children's Literature. Lectures etc. given at the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College. 1987. (Excellent) Major Authors and Illustrators (cites Something About the Author) Kirkpatrick, D. L., Twentieth Century Children's Authors Macmillan, 1978. Horn Book Magazine, in passing.
Note to dealers: As you know, the Mushroom Planet books sell quickly. In an effort to level off the prices of noncollectible books on the net, we reserve the right to sell our noncollectible Mushroom Planet books for reasonable prices to individuals only. Thanks for your cooperation.
The Mushroom Planet Books The Mushroom Planet books offer growing responsibilities for the children for this little world which cannot be seen by adults. (Like the Little Prince!) In the first books, the children are concerned with the effect of their arrival on the little planet, but by the last, they are responsible for saving an entire civilization.
The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet. Robert Henneberger, illus. Little Brown, 1954 David and Chuck build a space ship just right to fly to Basidium, the Mushroom Planet, with Mr. Bass.
Stowaway to the Mushroom Planet. Robert Henneberger, illus. Little Brown, 1956 Mr. Bass is gone, and the boys wonder if they can reach the Mushroom Planet again. Then Mr. Theo, Mr. Bass' cousin, arrives and offers to travel with them. Once they are underway,they realize that they have a stowaway aboard, scientific assistant Horatio Q. Peabody, hungry for fame and fortune. How will the Mushroom People react to this clumsy stranger? Fortunately Ta, the leader, knows a potion of forgetfulness. . . Mr. Bass's Planetoid. Louis Darling, illus. Little Brown, 1958 Prewytt Brumblydge, the inventor of the Brumblitron, must be found before his invention becomes uncontrollable and destroys him and the earth. Mr. Bass is far away, but the boys try to decipher his notebook for help. The search is on and they end up on Lepton, a tiny satellite of Earth's.
A Mystery for Mr. Bass. Leonard Shortall, illus. Little Brown, 1960 Prewytt Brumblydge is in great need of Brumblium for his famous machine, and the Mycetians decide to let him have it, yet he falls ill after a series of frightening accidents and it is David and Chuck who must make the voyage without Mr. Bass.
Time and Mr. Bass. Fred Meise, illus., 1967 The fifth book in the Mushroom Planet series: Mr. Bass seeks Chuck and David's help in recovering stolen artifacts which will defeat the evil power that has hounded the Mycetians for centuries. The boys hold the future of Basidium in their hands.
Other Young Children's Fantasies
The Terrible Churnadryne. Beth and Joe Krush, illus., Little Brown, 1959 Jennifer and Tom "pushed their way through the thorn bushes. But as they did so, there was suddenly a frightful snuffling and breathing, right in front of them.... something reared up out of the shadows, an enormous dark shape with a long neck."
The Mysterious Christmas Shell. Beth and Joe Krush, illus., Little Brown, 1961 Two children living in an historic house near Monterey rescue a bit of California coastline from development, despite the mismanagement of the adults, and the news comes through on Christmas day.
The Beast With the Magical Horn. Beth and Joe Krush, illus., Little Brown, 1963 A fantasy in which a beautiful unicorn proves a friend to the girl Allison and the king's son Basil. "And typical of great fantasy, in which the writer is obviously steeped, the symbolism and overtones never intrude but are felt or remembered -depending on the reader's age - after the book is finished." Ruth Hall Viguers, Horn Book.
The Julia Redfern Books (Listed by the order written)
A Room Made of Windows. Tricia Schart Hyman, Little Brown,1971 Julia and the Hand of God. Gail Owens, illus., Dutton, 1977 That Julia Redfern. Gail Owens, illus., Dutton, 1982 Julia's Magic. Gail Owens, illus., Dutton, 1984 The Private Worlds of Julia Redfern. Tricia Schart Hyman, Dutton,1989
(Listed again, by Julia's age)
Julia's Magic. Julia is youngest in this book, living in a wonderful cottage Berkeley with her erratic and charming father, an unpublished writer, and her reliable mother. Her curiosity gets her into mischief, and sometimes seriously so. When Julia breaks a valuable perfume bottle of Aunt Alex's, Hulda the cook is blamed until Julia confesses. Cameron gives Julia the same birth year as hers, 1912. That Julia Redfern. Julia's father builds her a desk and leaves for the Army, and much of the beginning of the book consists of her letters to him. She gravitates toward situations which get her into trouble, passionately rescuing a mouse who shows up in her aunt's formal dining room during dinner, and otherwise causing chaos. Julia's father is shot down in the war and killed, her mother becomes very ill, recovers and publishes her father's last story. Julia and the Hand of God. Here Julia's family are living with Gramma in crowded quarters. On her twelfth birthday, she has lunch with her uncle in San Francisco, and he gives her a journal, "The Book of Strangeness" This is the story of some of the things, funny, sad, adventurous, that go into that book, among them the terrible Berkeley fire of 1923. At the end of the book, Julia finds a new apartment for the three of them, away from the influence of her grandmother.
A Room Made of Windows. Her room in the new apartment with windows all around is the center of the Julia's world. Julia, headstrong, courageous, passionate, often selfish as well, plans to be a writer and works hard at her craft. She also begins to make friends in her new neighborhood and comes to understand, if not accept, her mother's longing for remarriage. Eleanor Cameron was an only child; here Julia has a close relationship with her eccentric and ideal brother.
The Private Worlds of Julia Redfern. In this book, Julia, fourteen and fifteen, is caught up in a new awareness of the relationships among those she loves. Her beloved Uncle Hugh finally leaves impossible Aunt Alex (one of my favorites), and Julia understands that her mother is truly happy with her new stepfather. Julia untangles the myths and facts surrounding her father, and writes a published piece about his death. Reading this piece helps her communicate with her family. One wonders if this Julia, who seems headed for happier times, will have to suffer a depressing move to Los Angeles as Eleanor Cameron did. There is no doubt about it, Julia exists outside the books!
The Court of the Stone Children. Dutton, 1973 (fantasy) Nina is new in San Francisco, having moved from the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, which she loves. She is drawn to the French museum and becomes involved in the work going on there, and the determination of a lone ghost, Dominique to clear her father's name. Cameron weaves the Napoleonic past with San Francisco of the present in a lovely and gripping American fantasy.
To the Green Mountains. Dutton, 1975 Kath Rule's dreams of the Green Mountains in Vermont and of her grandmother's house, which she had visited so long ago. She longs for her mother to extricate herself from the hotel where they must work to support her father's hopeless efforts at farming. Ultimately, her mother's interference with the lives of her African American employee (she bought him law books, to the horror of the town) creates unbalance, and the death of a woman she respects, his wife. So, at least, tragic events shake Kate and her mother free of their trap, and they take the train north, toward to Green Mountains.
Beyond Silence. Dutton, 1980 Grieving for his dead brother, Andrew accompanies his father to the castle in Scotland where the father spent his childhood. The castle is now a guest house. Here he is drawn back into the past through flashes of perception and an inexplicable letter.
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