Today’s picture book is a beautiful work of art that explores more about mushrooms than I ever knew!
Maria Gianferrari is a picture book reader/writer, tea-drinker, dog-lover, and birdwatcher. She writes books that honor our bonds with creatures both domestic and wild and that celebrate the natural world around us, including Ice Cycle: Poems about the Life of Ice illustrated by Jieting Chen, Being a Dog: A Tail of Mindfulness illustrated by Pete Oswald, Bobcat Prowling illustrated by Bagram Ibatouilline, and Be a Tree! illustrated by Felicita Sala. She lives with her family in Massachusetts in a house encircled by trees. You can learn more about her at her website or follow her on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.
FUNGI GROW is a poem written by Maria Gianferrari that weaves in and around stunning artwork by Diana Sudyka. There are sidebars of information to build on each spread’s topic, as well as back matter, but that doesn’t convey just how fascinating the subject matter is in this particular layout. I don’t think I’ve ever learned more (or wanted to learn more) about mushrooms than I did here in this book! It’s not only well written, it’s simply a stunning marriage of text and illustrations that are impossible to separate. This is a book I had to learn more about the creation procress.
Me: You have written and published numerous picture books at this point in your career. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got started writing picture books? What was your writing journey up to the publication of this book?
Maria: I had always wanted to write, but I think the fear of rejection kept holding me back. Once I had my daughter, who was a voracious listener and very much like the character Olivia—one more book—I began to fall in love with both the childrens’ books that I grew up with upon re-reading them to her, as well as all of the wonderful new titles I was reading. That really re-ignited my dream of being an author. Once I made the decision to finally give it a try, I never looked back.
In the beginning, my writing journey was (and still is largely), one of reading and discovery and curiosity, observing the world around me for ideas—taking it all in. I took writing classes and workshops and worked with a critique group to improve my craft; went to conferences and garnered many rejections along the way. Things began happening once I got my wonderful agent, Joan Paquette of Erin Murphy Literary. My very first book deal happened six months after signing with her—a two book deal for the Penny & Jelly books, the start of my publishing career. I signed with Joan in September 2013, ten years ago, and Fungi Grow is my 18th book, with the 19th, To Dogs, With Love, following in December, (and three more currently under contract, two of which have not yet been announced).
Me: This is such a fascinating subject that you have covered so artfully. The lyrical text is astounding, especially with how much information is included. It’s such a vast topic. What gave you the idea to write a book about mushrooms in this format?
Maria: Thanks for saying so, Jena. I have longed been intrigued by mushrooms, and most of my nonfiction books have a kind of poetic voice. Part of the process of translating the stuff of STEM into lyrical poetic writing first includes figuring out what structure to take, and a kind of life cycle approach beginning with spores as “sort of” seeds seemed like a natural choice. Once I came upon the refrain “fungi grow” I could weave in various scientific facts, processes and vocabulary related to fungi, like hyphae and mycelium, etc.
Me: Can you tell us about your research process? How much research did you need to do to write this book?
Maria: Tons, and yet I am still quite a novice—there is so much to learn and discover in the field of mycology! Research is the fun part! I am a curious, nature girl at heart, and self-taught naturalist and I love learning new things about the natural world and its inhabitants.
My research process usually begins with some internet searches online—general information at reputable websites, watching videos, looking at images. I first learned about the wonderful world of mycorrhizal fungi in Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees when researching my book Be a Tree!, and that’s where this journey into the mysteries of mycelium began. I read books about mushrooms and fungi, like mycologist Paul Stamets’ Mycelium Running. One of my very favorites was Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Web (and I first learned about his work when reading Underland by Robert MacFarland). I read scientific essays and articles by Stamets and forest ecologist, Dr. Suzanne Simard (and her Finding the Mother Tree), and I take extensive notes by hand while reading.
I also read and watched interviews of scientists like Simard and Stamets and more, and listened to their Ted talks; watched movies like Fantastic Fungi, and then I read more books and articles and perused websites to find more in-depth information and took yet more notes. I did field research, though again, I am quite the novice when it comes to mushroom identification—but I jotted down observations and phrases and noted other sensory details like smells and sounds and textures. Writing by hand is slower, and it makes me feel more of a connection to the material that I’m working with, which helps me to reflect. Then I typed up and printed my notes, highlighting interesting vocabulary, images and phrases to see what patterns emerged. Next, I did focused freewriting to explore my thoughts on the topic including voice, structure and theme. So all of this is the discovery, pre-writing phase before beginning to draft.
Maria: Wow! That’s a lot of research! What was one of your favorite facts that you learned about mushrooms?
There were so many cool things—they are really quite fascinating beings! I was astounded to learn that there is a melanistic fungus that scientists have humorously named “Hulk Bugs” growing on the Chernobyl disaster site. It apparently uses radiation as a source of energy for growth, so it thrives there rather than being destroyed by the radiation, which is pretty incredible.
Me: The illustrations by Diana Sudyka are stunning. They weave text and images together so beautifully. Were there any illustration surprises for you? Do you have any favorite illustrations?
Maria: They are indeed! I had long been a fan of Diana’s art, and I actually envisioned her illustrations while writing the manuscript—long before she actually signed on to illustrate. Her style is whimsical and dynamic and organic—I knew that her art would be beautiful, but it still took my breath away once I saw it!
It is truly impossible to pick just one spread—I love the entire book, and all the lovely colors and patterns and details that Diana wove in, especially the collection of delightfully cute critters that she included throughout—wonderful little surprises!
I just randomly selected this skunk one, because it’s beautiful, and it’s also funny with the funky dog stinkhorn mushrooms. I also love how Diana incorporated the smell lines.
Me: I’m fascinated with how the text and the illustrations blur in this book. It’s hard to tell in some spreads if the text is yours or Diana’s. Did she add text or simply illustrate it? Did you have art notes for her on the kinds of mushrooms included in each spread so she knew what to draw to match your text? Or did she do her own research? Was this a collaborative project between you both?
Maria: The text and sound effects were part of my original manuscript, but Diana’s hand lettering makes it blend in so beautifully and seamlessly.
Some of the spreads were about specific fungi or mushrooms, such as in the opening spore spreads, or with shaggy ink caps, cordyceps (made famous in the TV series The Last of Us), or honey fungus, where the sidebars offer more mycological details on the specific type of mushroom, which Diana then illustrated.
As a picture book writer, I have to leave space for Diana to work her own magic, and bring her visual voice complement the text, so some of the sections were more general, and that’s where Diana selected what most called to her to echo the text. For example, I used vivid verbs and lyrical language to suggest movement and energy in this series of spreads:
“And from dead stuff/mushrooms erupt!”
And Diana chose to paint a gorgeous Artist’s bracket, with a matching moth for another lovely touch.
Or this one:
“Mushrooms sprout./Parasols pop out.
Mushrooms fan/arc,/spread their skirts.”
Diana’s illustrations here feature pinwheel mushrooms sprouting and popping, and polypores and turkey tails, types of bracket fungi, with spreading skirts.
And of course, this spread also includes her signature creatures, a snail and a frog.
Diana’s a nature lover too, and did her own independent research. We worked independently—I worked on edits, while she did sketches and there was also some back and forth. Then during the phase before the final art, we collaborated more directly through our Beach Lane editor, Andrea Welch, to ensure that the art and text were both scientifically accurate. For example, on the page that features mycorrhizal fungi we had to make sure to include the proper type of mushrooms, chanterelles and truffles and not saprotrophic (decomposers) types.
We also tried to be as accurate as possible with the mushroom names, since there can be several name variations—and the names themselves, like lion’s mane, or velvet feet, candlesnuff or witch’s butter, are also fun and fanciful. The manuscript was also vetted by a mycologist to ensure that there weren’t any egregious errors.
Me: Any advice for other new picture book writers?
Maria: Read as many picture books in the genre that you want to write. I once read somewhere that you should read 1,000 picture books before trying to write one. Study them as mentor texts—pay attention to the voice, page breaks and line breaks and white space, diction/word choice as well as the structure and tone.
Experiment—write your narrative or piece of expository writing in a variety of ways, using different structures and voices to see which one clicks and speaks to you. If you want to know more about different kinds of text structures and features in nonfiction, check out STEM author Melissa Stewart’s books, website, and blog, “Celebrate Nonfiction.”
Lastly, you can write what you don’t know—that’s what research is for. Instead, write what you love! What do you long to celebrate and share with readers? What are you passionate about or obsessed with? This passion will fuel you and keep you going despite the inevitable rejections along the way—let your curiosity and wonder lead the way!
My biggest bit of advice is one that hampered me for a long time—don’t fear failure—it’s a part and parcel of the discovery process. Being playful and taking an experimental approach can help to allay some of that anxiety. One thing that really helps me is to write the first draft by hand—it’s quite liberating because it feels like it doesn’t really count somehow, and I am less likely to censor myself.
I love that. Thank you for stopping by my blog today Maria.
Dear readers, if you haven’t yet had a chance to read this book, I highly recommend it! This is one you have to see for yourself to really take in all the breath-taking spreads. It’s the perfect example of words and illustrations married together so well that it’s almost impossible to find the weaving between them. It really is a gorgeous picture book worth studying.