It would be hard to find a more charming non-fiction picture book – about a seemingly unpleasant topic – than The Mushroom Fan Club, Montreal author-illustrator Elise Gravel’s celebration of the titular members of the fungi kingdom. The usual kids’ book move – take something gross (acne, poop, creepy-crawlies) and amp up the ew factor – is almost entirely absent here. Gravel really, really likes mushrooms and sees them not as gross or icky, but as downright beautiful and cool.
The Mushroom Fan Club is powered by Gravel’s disarming enthusiasm. With its personable approach, casual asides, and goofy humour, the book has the feel of a classroom visit from the Mushroom Lady. “If I were a bug,” Gravel writes, “I’d like my house to be inside a gyromitra!” (That being the mushroom that “looks like a brain.”) The book is structured very loosely as a walk in the woods with Gravel and her daughters as they hunt for cool-looking mushrooms – such as boletes, which are delicious; polypores, which grow on the trunks of trees like fungal shelves; and the Lactarius indigo, which produces a bright blue, milk-like substance and which is so rare Gravel has never actually seen one.
In her delicately coloured illustrations, Gravel depicts each low-lying specimen with a pair of cartoon eyes and a shy smile. It’s a subtle and disarming visual motif that adds to the book’s approachability. Even the Amanita virosa, a mushroom so poisonous it earned the nickname “Destroying Angel,” is given an entirely non-toxic visual persona.
The Mushroom Fan Club is not hard science, obviously, but packs in just enough information to give readers the fungal basics. Instead of a glossary, Gravel ends with some fun mushroom facts, an easy mushroom-cap print-making activity, and, most characteristically of this warm and engaging book, a list of “things that happened to [Gravel] while hunting mushrooms.” (My favourite of which is “found a giant bear poop.”) This book won’t turn young readers into instant mycologists, but it very well might make them crouch a little closer to the ground the next time they walk in the woods, in search of a telltale cap.