Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Q&A with Maria Gianferrari



Maria Gianferrari is the author of the new children's picture book Fungi Grow. Her many other books include Be a Tree!. She lives in Massachusetts.


Q: What inspired you to write Fungi Grow?


A: While researching Be a Tree! (illustrated by Felicita Sala), I came upon the wonderful world of mycelium and mycorrhizal fungi—the fungi that partner with trees, and that led me down the path to all the other marvelous mushrooms and fungi out there.


The research of scientist Suzanne Simard, and books like Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life, and Underland by Robert Macfarlane also inspired the book.


Q: Can you say more about how you researched the book? And did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I read the aforementioned books as well as some of Dr. Simard’s articles. I have perused, but not fully read her Finding the Mother Tree. I also read some of the work of mycologist Paul Stamets, and watched both of their TED talks—fascinating stuff! The movie, Fantastic Fungi, has an accompanying book which I also enjoyed, though the movie released after I had written the book.


It’s really hard to just pinpoint one thing—there were a lot of surprises, actually: about cordyceps and other kind of parasitic fungi, now popularized by the series, The Last of Us, and how fungi can be used for mycoremediation purposes, the cleaning up of pollutants and other materials.


Perhaps the most surprising thing I learned is that a type of fungi called “Hulk Bugs” thrive at the Chernobyl Nuclear Accident site, and seem to use radiation as an energy source. It didn’t make it into the book, but another fungus can survive the intense radiation in space. Plus, they are just plain beautiful and other-worldly.


Q: What do you think Diana Sudyka’s illustrations add to the book?


A: Everything! I have long been a fan of Diana’s art, so I was delighted when I found out that she had agreed to illustrate the book. Diana’s art elevates the entire book and breathes so much life into it.


I love the different perspectives she chose as well as the earthy color palette, and her use of frames for the various vignettes. It’s full of dynamism and is absolutely stunning!

Q: What do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about fungi?


A: I think the perception that most people have is that all mushrooms and fungi are decomposers, but that is only one type.


That also relates to the common misconception that fungi are somehow “bad,” that they are killing plants, but the fungus is just doing what it’s meant to do. They play a variety of necessary roles in our ecosystem, depending upon the type of fungi that they are.


Saprotrophic mushrooms are decomposers—they recycle dead matter and make new and nutritious soil which other plants, animals and micro/organisms need to survive.


Then there are the ones that partner with plants and trees, mycorrhizal types of fungi, and they share resources that each need and are mutually beneficial to one another.


Parasitic fungi feed on living organisms, and need a host plant to survive, sometimes killing it, but then there are also endophytic mushrooms which seem to invade host tissue, yet the host plant remains healthy.


There are something like over 10,000 known mushroom species, which is only a fraction of what’s out there, so there is more that’s unknown than known about them. So perhaps that is another perception—that mushrooms and fungi are somewhat mysterious, and that definitely holds true.  


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I love trees, so I’m currently working on another tree book. I’m also in the process of revising some older picture book projects, also about the natural world, my favorite topic to learn and write about.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: It’s a busy publication year for me. In addition to Fungi Grow, I have four other picture books out this year.


The first, Being a Cat: A Tail of Curiosity, illustrated by Pete Oswald, released in April. You and the Bowerbird, illustrated by Maris Wicks, and Thank a Farmer, illustrated by Monica Mikai, will be published in August and September respectively. In December, just in time for the howl-idays, To Dogs, with Love, illustrated by Ishaa Lobo, will be released.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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