Prue Mckeel’s life in Portland, Oregon is completely ordinary. That is, until her baby brother is abducted by a murder of crows and taken into the Impassible Wilderness. So begins a harrowing tale of adventure and rescue, one weaving lyrical prose with breathtaking illustration to tell a story of strength, love and the power of magical thinking.
Wildwood the first in a middle-grade series written by Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy and illustrated by his wife, award-winning illustrator Carson Ellis. The novel reads like a classic tale, recalling bits of Chronicles of Narnia, Alice and Wonderland and A Wrinkle in Time.
“The germ of the idea began before the Decemberists, about 12 years ago,” Meloy tells us during a phone interview. “ I had just moved to Portland and Carson had moved from San Francisco and we were living together in this big warehouse.” They had collaborated on Decemberists posters, but were looking to take on a project more intimately collaborative.
“We had this idea to do a long-form story that would be some sort of illustrated novel. We worked on it when we weren’t working at our day jobs and got about 80 pages in.” This was around the time the Decemberists really took off, and also shortly after Ellis acquired an agent and started do more editorial work, so the project was put on the back burner.
Decemberists fans will find similarities between the book and the picturesque, literary songs of the band.
It wasn’t until they both had a little breathing room that they were able to pick up the bones of the project and get back to work on Wildwood. Long hikes in Forest Park, A 5000-acre park bordering their home in Portland, largely inspired the story. The park was mapped out by Ellis, imagining the story's fictional kingdom; she created territories belonging to tree councils, an avian king and his people, bandits, an army of coyotes and other enchanted animals.
Ellis created the 85 intricately beautiful illustrations dispersed throughout the book. “We were in a unique position, to work this closely together,” says Meloy. “Typically, an author will write the story and give it over to the illustrator, and that would be it. But we would bounce ideas off each other.” This gave the pair the unique opportunity to tailor their work specifically for the other; for example, Meloy could add textual elements that he knew would complement Ellis' illustrative ideas.
Decemberists fans will find similarities between the book and the picturesque, literary songs of the band. There are glimpses of the visual and often story-like lyrics crossing over to the tale, almost as if you can hear music drifting off the pages.
Like the best fairy tales, Wildwood has a sort of darkness that is both frightening and truthful. “In some places I reeled it in; you know, it’s the question of, how far can you go?” Meloy said, when asked if there was ever a moment when he thought this just might be too scary for the intended pre-teen audience. “I didn’t want to completely clear it out of the darker elements. A lot of books for kids tend to sterilize a story.” Ultimately, while there are deaths (and an epic battle scene), Prue never loses her strength and bravery, a moral that matters most.
“I loved being taken away by stories as a child,” Meloy says. “Transported to another land and place. I was an escapist reader.” Stepping into the dream land of the Impassible Wilderness, you get the feeling that nothing is as it seems, everything is wild and new; it truly seems like a land created from childhood dreams. Wildwood is an epic fantasy adventure, with elements of magic and danger, that will enthrall readers of all ages with its lyrical prose and universal themes.
Fans won't have to wait long for more Wildwood; earlier this month, stop-motion animation studio LAIKA optioned the movie rights to the book. The group is famously known for their adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, one can only imagine the beauty to come from this collaboration.
You can catch Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis reading and signing Wildwood at BookPeople this Wednesday night at 7 pm.