Review by Leah Harrigan
Book written and illustrated by Christine Nishiyama
Deep inside the damp, dark forest, something hides behind the pine needles and twigs. But upon closer look, there’s more than just a hidden treasure to be found. There’s a whole kingdom to explore.
We Are Fungi is a compelling introduction to the many functions of fungi that keep our planet healthy. But mostly, it is a way to cultivate wonder, a wonder that can lead children to want to know more. Guiding the reader with a welcoming sense of mystery, it depicts fungi as a presence lurking in the background yet grasping for our attention to explain all the incredible things they can do.
But what’s it like to enter the mysterious world of fungi?
In Christine Nishiyama’s debut picture book We Are Fungi, the magical world of fungi is revealed through the journey of a curious young child venturing deep into the woods, discovering the allure of these remarkable organisms and their part in sustaining a beautiful and messy world.
The story begins with an eerie intrigue as the child is pulled further into the twilight woods by her compelling curiosity. Dark shades of green, brown, and purple mirror the backdrop of underground life where shadowy figures watch the child explore her surroundings. We learn that these peculiar figures represent the hidden organisms that grow, climb, and come alive in the world around us, waiting to be known and seen.
Fungi narrate this story from their own point of view, revealing their wonder and complexity in simple, punchy statements that will amuse readers to unpack. Depicting a yeast-filled petri dish beside the 2.4-mile-wide honey fungus colony in Oregon, the fungi claim to be some of the smallest and biggest living beings on Earth. They speak of delighting our taste buds and displeasing our stomach. To the trees, they explain how they can be both kind and polite (symbiotic) or selfish and rude (parasitic).
Through playful narrative, Nishiyama divulges fascinating places where fungi inhabit our lives. They invade cheese forgotten in our refrigerator door; they come alive to raise our bread. The story evokes ripe, fusty images where fungi grow and hide like the spaces between toes and within dead leaves. They look like slimy brains and strings of hair. They have pores, gills, wrinkles, caps, and all things that can be touched and marveled at.
Not to mention some surprising details – like the fact that fungi can glow green in the dark of the night, or that they can live in poop.
In addition to piquing readers’ curiosities, the story provides basic foundational language to talk further about the incredible world of fungi. Pairing their functions with illustrations, the fungi animate themselves climbing high above and slithering down below, depicting a fruiting body above ground and mycelia threads underneath. The fungi reveal strange names like Veiled Lady, Bleeding Tooth, and Chicken Fungus. They hold the door open for the reader to want to know more.
The story culminates with an illustration of the power of these extraordinary organisms – mushrooms, yeast, and mold alike. Along a vast network of underground threads, the fungi speak of their kingdom:
We keep growing and
spreading our fingers
to connect the plants
beneath the Earth.
We keep growing
and spreading ourselves
to take over
the depths of the Earth.
Check out a read-aloud video of We Are Fungi by the Butterfly Garden Preschool, including an activity on identifying parts of a mushroom for young mycologists.