Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis on Their Latest Collaboration, 'Wildwood'

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The Decemberists' lead singer has written an acclaimed children's book about a girl on a quest to rescue her little brother

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Autumn de Wilde

It makes perfect sense that Colin Meloy, the loquacious and imaginative lead singer of the quirky Portland-based rock band The Decemberists, would write a children's book. It makes even more sense that Wildwood, the first installment in a new fantasy series for young readers, would be illustrated by Carson Ellis, the award-winning children's book artist and long-time designer of Decemberists album covers. Released late last month, Wildwood is already garnering praise, and the Portland animation studio behind Coraline just announced plans to create the film version.

Wildwood (Balzer + Bray) is about a precocious seventh-grader named Prue McKeel, whose ordinary life in Portland is upset when her baby brother is kidnapped by a flock of crows, which carry him deep into the Impassable Wilderness, a secret world across the Willamette River. Together with her classmate Curtis, Prue sets out to recover her brother and inadvertently launches a violent revolution among the animals, mystics, and bandits of Wildwood.

Meloy's storytelling skills, honed on his epic ballads for The Decemberists, translate well to prose. He seems to delight in choosing vocabulary that will enthrall kids—tongue-tripping words like ergot, chintz, and tincture pepper the writing. Adult readers will smile at the copious modern references (Jean Grey and Kurosawa, anyone?) and the flavor of Portland is also heady throughout, from farmers' markets and craft fairs, to a scene in which the heroine threads the front fork dropout of her bicycle.

Meloy and Ellis have spoken about the thematic and artistic influences that color Wildwood—discerning young readers will spy allusions to Robin Hood, Rapunzel, Narnia, and other tales—but the result reads as inclusive and familiar, rather than derivative. In what hopefully will become a trend, Wildwood is extensively illustrated for a chapter book, with more than 75 drawings and maps. Ellis's precise, detailed style, instantly recognizable to Decemberists fans and readers of recent best-sellers like The Mysterious Benedict Society, evokes a folksy charm that is just right for the overgrown natural world of Wildwood and its inhabitants.

We reached Meloy and Ellis, who are married, at their home in Portland to talk about kids' books, free will, and how to work with someone you love.


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Balzer + Bray

Can you tell us a little about your inspirations for the place Wildwood? What do you gain from setting the story in Portland that you wouldn't get from a fictionalized city?

Colin: The germ of the Wildwood idea was really always about taking Forest Park, which is this 5,000-acre park in the middle of Portland, and turning it into its own country, its own weird world that had to be accessed in some weird way. So it was at the very beginning anchored in Portland. Something about creating a structure that was somewhat anchored in contemporary Portland and present-day reality seemed more appealing than just out and out inventing our own world.

Carson: Forest Park is also just a pretty inspiring and magical place. It's this massive wooded area that's so close to the city, and it had all of these places in it already that were sort of mysterious and interesting. The structures of old houses, old growth forests, arboretums. The Audubon Society, which is where the Avian Principality is set in the book. The whole thing basically started from this map that we drew collaboratively. We traced out the boundary of Forest Park and put a bunch of landmarks into it, and then we kept reworking it together, taking off the things that seemed like they wouldn't fit into the story, and adding fictional things that seemed like they would. Once Colin had that world, it unfolded a little more easily.

Colin, you've spoken before about how "traditional" song structures provide a framework for your music. What folk structures did you turn to while writing Wildwood?

Colin: There are a lot of pretty obvious fairy and folktale motifs, and I was also drawing from Irish folk tales. With the idea of crows abducting the baby, there's actually a kind of an evil spirit in Irish folk tales called the Sluagh, which sometimes came in the form of crows that were rumored to steal babies. So there was a bit of research done initially, looking at different archetypes in folk tales and fairy tales. I think we were also inspired by the books that we loved growing up—there's plenty of opportunity to reference those books.

What is it like working so closely creatively with someone that you love? I imagine it presents its own rewards and challenges.

Colin: It does. It would be one thing if Carson and I were husband and wife first and then collaborators. But I think our courtship and our actual love for one another had a lot to do with our wanting to collaborate, and having similar interests and fascinations. So in that sense, it's really second nature to us to be collaborating. Working on something like this was kind of high-stakes in that there was a publishing deal on the line, and an audience, and it was also a closer collaboration that anything we'd done before. There was a lot of opportunity for some friction, but we worked through it.

Carson: There were definitely hard moments. I think this is like my sixth or seventh book, and none of them had a fraction of the kind of real collaboration that this book has had. Normally on kids' books, the illustrator starts working when the text is done, and there's not a lot of room to offer feedback on the manuscript, or for the writer to offer any feedback on the illustrations. So this is new for me—not working with Colin, but this kind of round-the-clock collaboration where we were always hashing it out and always talking about it. But I do think there's a kind of telepathy that happens when you're married that makes you able to get to the right thing a lot quicker than when you're working with someone you don't know. I can sort of picture in my head what Colin is picturing in his head when he's writing a scene—a lot of the time anyway. And I think when he's writing he can picture how I would draw it, which is kind of neat.

You mentioned a couple of moments of friction that arose while working on the book. Can you give an example?

Carson: We weren't necessarily on the same page in terms of things like palette when we were first putting the proposal together. We were trying to figure out the tone, and what the illustrations would look like, and there was lots of...squabbling. We finally, through a lot of trial and error I think, came to something that we were both happy with.

You started thinking about the story more than 10 years ago—how did the experience of becoming parents five years ago influence the direction of the final book?

Colin : The story that we were working on 10 years ago was the beginning of it but it doesn't resemble Wildwood that much. It was pretty scattershot—we had written maybe 80 pages and drawn a rough handful of sketches before we abandoned it. I think having Hank gave us an opportunity—being around that kind of mind and diving into reading kids' books. Even though he's certainly not the target age of this book yet, we were feeling out the world of children's literature, like any new parent. When we did get back into the story, that really helped us refine it in a way that made more sense as a kids' book.

Carson: I think that original story that we were working on many years ago was so psychedelic and weird and inappropriate for kids. We might not have known that it was inappropriate for kids, or we did and we didn't care. Being mindful of your audience wasn't really on our minds. But many years later, watching our kid be a reader, and watching him get excited about books, we were like, "Let's make a book that kids will love." And it was probably due in no small part to having a kid of our own who loves to read so much.

Carson, a number of the books you have illustrated— The Mysterious Benedict Society , The Composer Is Dead , Dillweed's Revenge , and now Wildwood—are darker stories with a sense of humor about them, or about precocious children thrust into dangerous situations. What attracts you to these kinds of tales?

Carson : I just like them. I think they're funny, like the kinds of books that I used to read when I was that age. I loved Florence Heide when I was a kid—she wrote Dillweed back in the 1970's—and I loved Roald Dahl. It's just a kind of macabre genre of these books that's been around since, I don't know, Victorian times, that I was always drawn to. And I don't choose those books, the editor chooses me. I guess something about the way I illustrate is a good match for them.

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Balzer + Bray

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What was your stylistic approach to the illustrations in Wildwood?

Carson : I had done a lot of sketching, but didn't actually sit down to do the final interior illustrations until the first draft of the manuscript was done. Originally I wanted them to look like Pauline Baynes's line drawings for the Chronicles of Narnia, I just love her. But I was also looking at a lot of Polish book designs from the 1960's, which were a bit more abstract and classical looking. I think I fused those two things a little bit. I knew I wanted to use to use gouache, and that there would be color illustrations, and I knew I wanted grey tones so that I could do atmospheric spots. The final result is that the black and white things are in gray gouache with black ink. The chapter openers are kind of classic line drawings, and the six color illustrations are in color gouache and ink.

Wildwood is being marketed for both children and adults. It makes sense, given your grown-up fan base through the Decemberists, but also seems to consider a growing adult interest in kids' literature.

Colin : I knew that would be the case. Not only because of my background, but also because more adults are reading those kinds of books. But I really made an effort to keep that apart in my mind, and write for the audience. So mostly I wrote for the nine- and 10-year-olds, but I'm pretty certain there are a lot of adults reading it, too.

Wildwood bumps against some fairly heady ideas of morality—the perils of free will, or Curtis's transformation from pacifist to solider and bandit, for example.

Colin : I hope that there's stuff in there for kids to wrap their brains around. I think it's an appropriate time developmentally to bring up some of those ideas around conflict and moral polarity. One of the things that I think a kid would draw from that is that there's really no telling what is right and what is wrong. You just have to trust your gut. Often, the moral imperatives put on the world are faulty. That may be a deep thing for a kid, but I think it's painted pretty clearly.

I understand this is just the first book in a planned series. What's next for Prue and Curtis?

Colin : There are lots of things! Curtis is making his way in the world as kind of a full time resident of Wildwood, and Prue will inevitably be drawn back in. But then there are other characters too. I feel like Wildwood established the ground rules for that world, and now it's time to play with those rules, and dig a little deeper. I really do think the main character of the book is Wildwood and its different provinces. It gives you freedom to let characters come and grow and go away and come back. So that's what we'll do going forward. We're already at work on the second one.

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Rachael Brown is a writer and analyst for Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit organization working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. A former Atlantic editor, she has written for The Guardian and Smithsonian.com, among other outlets. She is also a former public high school teacher.

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