Poor Prue McKeel. Girl can’t catch a break. Not only is seventh grade kind of dull, but a murder of crows just abducted her baby brother, Mac. So it goes for the heroine of the Wildwood Chronicles, a children’s series written by Colin Meloy, front man of Portland band the Decemberists, with illustrations by his wife, Carson Ellis. “How five crows managed to lift a 20-pound baby boy into the air was beyond Prue, but that was certainly the least of her worries,” writes Meloy in the opening pages of Wildwood, the first of a planned trilogy. To make matters worse, the crows carried the one-year-old into the Impassable Wilderness, so ominous and impenetrable a stretch of forest, it doesn’t even warrant a proper label on a map. It’s simply “I.W.,” a giant green blob west of Portland that city folk avoid like it’s Costco.
With the pluck of a Portlandian who can realign her own bicycle wheel, Prue pedals into the Impassable Wilderness on a rescue mission, reluctantly taking along her geeky classmate Curtis as a sidekick. In the depths of Wildwood, the duo discovers a world teeming with magical plants and talking animals, a territory that more closely resembles Narnia than Disneyland. Darkness descends and border wars loom as the country recovers from a coup. Militarized coyotes battle human bandits for territory, the crows are separatists that even the Owl Prince can’t control, and an exiled Dowager Governess is plotting genocide by marshaling the forces of deadly ivy.
And that’s just the first book. The second installment, Under Wildwood, was just published in September by Balzer and Bray. Here, Meloy crafts unpredictable and terrifying new scenarios for Prue, Curtis, and the children of the Wildwood Chronicles, including black fox assassins and an orphanage that puts its tenants to work on a factory assembly line. Shades of Roald Dahl and Lemony Snicket emerge; Miss Trunchbull, Dahl’s child-tossing headmistress in Matilda, would fit in nicely in Meloy’s world, ordering the orphans to produce more—more!—Bifurcated U-Bolts. Or maybe she’d be inclined to throw Prue out of the forest by her hair. In an interview with Time magazine, Meloy said he hoped to marry the “expansiveness of Tolkien with the humor of Dahl.” That’s no surprise: Fans of the Decemberists’ bookish folk-rock know that Meloy has long delighted in burying and drowning characters in the band’s songbook, much like Dahl terrorizes children, only to see the tiny heroes rise triumphant. It’s the kind of children’s literature that adults keep on their bookshelf.
Complementing the macabre tales is richly inked artwork by Ellis, a children’s book illustrator whose fanciful drawings also dressed up Lemony Snicket’s The Composer Is Dead. Meloy and Ellis had talked for years of collaborating, and this series is as much her brainchild as his. Among Wildwood’s 85 hand-painted images, including full-page color insets of a buzzing metropolis deep within the forest, is a charming quarter-page sketch of a badger pulling a rickshaw. The badger appears only for about two paragraphs, to transport Prue to the residence of the Owl Prince. When his editor wanted to cut Prue’s furry transport, Meloy declined. He’d written in the badger just so Ellis could draw it. If that’s not love, what is?
Ellis, Meloy, and their son Hank live in Portland on the edge of Forest Park, an eight-mile-long swath of Douglas firs and western hemlocks that serves as the foundation for the Impassable Wilderness. “It kind of feels like its own country—it’s so close to the city, yet so wild in there,” Ellis has said. Portland and Portlandia-style cliches make multiple appearances in the novels, from Prue’s budding vegetarianism and love of The Sibley Guide to Birds to the city’s Shanghai Tunnels that resemble the underground labyrinth in Under Wildwood. Meanwhile, the heroes want to protect the land and commune with the plants, while the villains champion industry above all else. At the Unthank Home for Wayward Youth, the orphans are forced to chant a mantra that equates working the assembly line with being adopted. It would also make for a decent ironic refrain in a Decemberists song.
Machine parts make machines.
Machines make convenience.
Convenience is freedom.
Freedom is family.
While these whiffs of anti-industry and political unrest may go over the heads of the 10-year-olds thumbing through the Wildwood Chronicles, Meloy’s philosophic touch may make us think twice the next time we enter our own Impassable Wilderness.
Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis Book Reading and Signing for Under Wildwood
Oct 10 at 7 University Book Store hosted by Fremont Abbey, 4272 Fremont Ave N, 206-634-3400; bookstore.washington.edu