Do you like mushrooms? If you do, there’s a pretty good chance that you don’t like them quite as much as Elise Gravel does. And if you do not, there’s a pretty good chance that you will by the time you finish Gravel’s Mushroom Fan Club, a paean to mushrooms in the form of an illustrated book for children.
The Montreal-based artist’s affection for fungi is readily, obviously apparent, and the source of that affection won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with her past work, which includes a “Disgusting Critters” series on animals like head lice, slugs, and worms. “I’m obsessed with bizarre creatures, and mushrooms are certainly strange!” she writes near the beginning of the book. “They look like aliens from outer space.”
And they are indeed quite strange, as they are neither plant nor animal but fungi, occupying their own, third alternative for a broad category of living thing. Gravel not only introduces these strange creatures to her readers but also makes them seem engaging and, ultimately, familiar, like charming new friends. It probably helps that in her big, cheerful drawings of the many, many mushrooms that fill her book’s pages, she gives them all big, round, expressive eyes and smiling mouths. Though sketch-like in their level of detail, Gravel’s mushroom portraits are exact enough that her book could pass as an extremely introductory field guide, but with the faces she gives the mushrooms, they all look quite pleased to meet you.
After the gorgeous end pages, filled with drawings of highly individualized species of mushrooms, the book opens with a wordless two-page spread of Gravel and her daughters leaving a house with baskets as they head into the forest to look for mushrooms. On the next page, in which her daughters begin to search the magical-looking forest she’s drawn, we learn that this is one of her favorite things to do; that it’s like a treasure hunt that nature organized just for them, as she puts it. With the leisurely pace and lack of urgency one might associate with a pleasant, meandering walk outdoors, Gravel then goes on to tell readers all about mushrooms in general for about a dozen pages, and then she shifts gears to discuss specific types of mushrooms for the next twenty-some pages, drawing a portrait of a particular mushroom—boletes, chanterelles, morels, etc—on one half of each spread, and filling the other half with words about it.
As the book nears its final third, she again shifts gears to present more general mushroom-related information, like a list of the colorful, poetic-sounding names of particular mushrooms—Pink Disco, Bug Sputnik, Turquoise Elfcup, Drumstick Truffleclub, etc—and a list of mushroom facts, things that have happened to her while she was searching for mushrooms, and a how-to for a mushroom-related craft.
Mushroom Fan Club is, in terms of its focus and structure, essentially a zine devoted to mushrooms, but elevated by Gravel’s gorgeously rendered but accessibly designed artwork and the overall professional presentation—that is, the fact that it is a book instead of a sketchbook or a zine. Like the previous book of Gravel’s that Drawn and Quarterly produced, If Found, Please Return To Elise Gravel, Mushroom Fan Club has the intimacy and homemade feel of something that Gravel hand-crafted specifically for a single, individual reader, but mass-produced and distributed for many, many single, individual readers.
If you finish reading her book and still aren’t a fan of mushrooms, I’m willing to bet you will at least be ready to declare yourself a member of The Elise Gravel Fan Club.