Arts | Family Fun

Adventures in 'Wildwood': Q&A with Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis

Carson Ellis and Colin MeloyDelve into reading The Wildwood Chronicles and you may look at your neighborhood through different eyes. Could your local park be home to a magical kingdom? Does the city bridge secretly lead to a fantastical universe? If you listen closely, can you hear the owls and foxes chatting?

The just-released third book in the young-adult trilogy by Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis, Wildwood Imperium, promises to continue enchanting kids and adults alike. Set in Portland, Oregon, the series particularly resonates with Northwest readers who can look out their windows to evoke a similar landscape — foggy mornings, fir trees and an abundance of recycling bins and bicyclists.

The magic begins with two 12-year-olds who unlock the “Impassable Wilderness,” inhabited by talking animals, mystics and their own unexpected resilience and friendship. As frequently happens to children who encounter magic, they are called upon to rescue the realm.

The Wildwood world comes from the imaginations of its author, Colin Meloy (of the acclaimed band The Decemberists) and his wife, Carson Ellis, the books’ illustrator, whose work also graced the pages of Lemony Snicket’s The Composer is Dead. The first Wildwood installment debuted in 2011 and landed on the New York Times best seller list for children’s chapter books. It was quickly followed by the sequel, Under Wildwood in 2012.

While classified as young-adult novels, the series mesmerizes younger readers while remaining sophisticated enough to attract adults. The artwork sets the trilogy apart; the maps are an especially welcome throwback to the lands of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis chatted with ParentMap about what awaits readers in Wildwood Imperium, why their 8-year-old son is such a helpful critic and what to expect at their February 12 reading and signing at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.

Wildwood creates amazing worlds and adventures. What books captured your imagination as kids?

Carson Ellis: I certainly read Narnia a zillion times. I read them over and over. A little bit later I fell in love with Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. I read the first three and, oh my God! I loved them. Also, The Secret Garden was a favorite.

Colin Meloy: It was a lot of the same for me. I dipped in and out of Narnia. I skewed more towards Lord of the Rings. The fantasy series, The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander, was good, too. I was also really into Ray Bradbury and Roald Dahl.

Wildwood ImperiumHow long were the seeds of Wildwood in your imaginations?

Colin Meloy: In some respects, the Wildwood books predate even our work together doing Decemberists stuff. Carson and I were living in a warehouse in Portland and were really excited about doing our creative work. We have a common aesthetic and were trying to figure out how to work them together. We had the idea of doing a long-form story that I would write and she’d illustrate. I wrote about 80 pages and Carson did a handful of illustrations. I think our creative attention span was pretty limited at that point, though. We were jumping from thing to thing, so the project was shelved.

Carson Ellis: It was something we’d do on a Friday night — let’s go work on the story! It was super nerdy!

Colin Meloy: Then our creative lives took off with the band and Carson was doing more editorial illustrations. She did a few children’s books and the agent asked about other ideas. She mentioned in passing that we’d worked on a story and they were excited. I was taking a lot of walks in Forest Park (Portland) and it sparked ideas in its own Narnia and Middle Earth way. That’s where the idea sprung from.

The Northwest landscape is a character of sorts — Portland’s Forest Park, local bridges and Pittock Mansion are all included. Did you interact with these places while working on Wildwood?

Colin Meloy: Definitely. We’ve now moved, but we were kind of living up in the woods at the time. There was a ton of stuff we drew from that area, not only for the books, but for a lot of the songs I was working on at the time. Things were steeped in that landscape.

The books are heavily illustrated. What is the importance of illustrations to a book?

Carson Ellis: I think it helps draw kids through the book. Some kids need illustrations more than others. As a kid, I was an avid reader, but it motivated me to keep going if I knew an illustration was coming up. There was a thrill in that and it’s still exciting when you find one even as an adult. Especially for kids transitioning out of shorter, chapter books into longer books, illustrations are an extra incentive.

[For the Wildwood books], I read through the books with a notepad and noted everything I wanted to illustrate. We both wanted the books to be heavily illustrated. I wanted it to be reminiscent of the books from our childhoods that had maps and colored plates, like Winnie the Pooh and Narnia. Illustrations played a key role in those books. 

The Wildwood books are age appropriate, but also sophisticated in terms of vocabulary and themes. Why is that important?

Colin Meloy: I knew going in that these books weren’t going to be a hit with every kid, especially when there are so many options for what kids can do with their leisure time. I wanted to write a book that should be in the world. I think there are different ways of looking at writing for children. One is having to accept a certain style, mode and length. For me, though, I was constantly reading beyond my level and had long ditched children’s books by the time I was 10 or 11. I feel I’m writing books for the kid I was, the books I would’ve wanted.

Prue McKeel, one of Wildwood’s main characters, is an artist. Is she inspired by Carson?

Colin Meloy: Yes. As you’re getting into the nitty gritty of crafting an 11-year-old girl, you’re trying to connect with any 11-year-olds you know. There were few. So, the other way to do it was for me to think about former 11-year-olds - adults and what they might have been like at 12. Carson seemed like a good model. I don’t think she ever really drew superheroes, though (like Prue does).

Carson Ellis: No, but I did draw birds (like Prue)!

Colin, do you identify with Curtis Mehlberg, one of the primary male characters?

Colin Meloy: I ended up drawing a lot from my own outlook. I may not have been as oppressed as Curtis in school, but I feel like he was a channel for some of my concerns. I did feel like suddenly everyone stopped drawing superheroes and wanted to play basketball instead. Part of me kind of went through that. I went went along with it and played basketball, but what I still really wanted was to draw samurai swords.

Can you tell us a bit about Wildwood Imperium?

Colin Meloy: The previous book, Under Wildwood, spends time setting up events that come to a close in Imperium. In that sense, the two books work together pretty closely. A lot of the loose strings are tied up in mysterious and amazing ways. I think this one goes off the rails just a little bit, which will hopefully be exciting to readers. I feel like I was trying to tap into a sort of higher imagination and tweak expectations. Hopefully it will pique readers’ curiosities.

What are the illustrations like?

Carson Ellis: There are a couple of color plates that are kind of evocative. One is a tall ship sailing on the ocean and there is a huge crag with the ruins of a castle on the top. So far, all of the story has taken place in a landlocked forest world. It was exiting to have someone eventually make it to the ocean. Another illustration is of a girl in an abandoned, old stone house with no roof and it’s very foggy. She’s placing a bunch of objects in a bowl. I can’t tell you what she’s doing, though. That’s a surprise!

How many more Wildwood books do you foresee?

Colin Meloy: It will be a trilogy for the time being. We may come back to it eventually. There are certainly more stories to be told in that world, but for now we’re moving onto other creative pursuits. I think Imperium brings it to a close to a certain degree, but it’s by no means an absolute finale.

Your son is almost 8 years old. Does he love the Wildwood world yet?

Carson Ellis: He is an incredible reader! He started before he was 3 years old. He’s had them read to him as they were written, at the end of each day. He was given the opportunity to give feedback. On the most recent book, it was the first time he had a concrete idea of something that should happen and Colin included it. It was totally thrilling to him! These books have kind of dominated our family and he’s been really involved.

Colin Meloy: He wanted more alien invasions, so there were certain things that didn’t work. At the end of the day, we’d read aloud after dinner. I’d think, ‘Oh, I need a different word in that spot,’ and he’d help me find a synonym.

Is it particularly enjoyable to do a Northwest reading, such as the Feb. 12 reading coming up at Third Place Books?

Colin Meloy: Doing things in the Northwest is really nice because we feel like the kids are so aware of the landscape — the Doug fir trees, the moss and the wet, damp ground. It’s something they’re actually around, so it’s easy for them to evoke it in the books. In that sense, I think Wildwood really connects with Pacific Northwest kids. For kids who live elsewhere, maybe they don’t take such things for granted and are enthralled by something new and exciting.

Carson Ellis: It is exciting for us. I think a lot of Seattle kids and families know (Portland’s) Forest Park from visiting the area. When we’re in Portland, the kids know the Ghost Bridge is the iconic St. Johns Bridge. There is a closeness when we do events for kids that know the world of Wildwood.

Hear Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis read from Wildwood Imperium on Wednesday, Feb. 12, at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.

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