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.

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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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