The Meloy siblings, sister and brother, have, in their previous incarnations (before they took up writing for children), scaled the heights of artistic success and critical approval. She, Maile, is the author of two highly acclaimed novels – Liars and Saints and A Family Daughter – as well as two fine short-story collections, all written with adults in mind. She has been named one of The New Yorker magazine’s Top 20 under 40, its list of the most promising young writers.
He, Colin, is the lead singer and songwriter of the cooler-than-cool band, the Decemberists.
Are these two celebrities doing what so many of their ilk are currently doing – “descending” into the realm of children’s literature in the misbegotten belief that writing for children requires no other art than that which they already possess or profess? Mr. Meloy, for his part, disabused us of that notion in an interview in The New York Times: “We’re not leveraging quasi celebrity to do this,” he said. “And hopefully people would see this as not something I’m doing on a whim, sort of a vanity project, like Madonna writing a picture book.”
Are we to believe Colin Meloy – and by association, his sister – when he insists that he is not slumming with his celebrity sibling? The short answer, on the strength of these two debut children’s novels, is yes. That said, should the siblings consider sticking to their respective knitting, adult fiction for her and top-of-the-charts albums like The King Is Dead for him, because, really, they’re much better at that? This time the answer is … not necessarily.
Both novels begin firmly rooted in the here and now. In The Apothecary, 14-year-old Janie, only daughter of two about-to-be blacklisted Hollywood scriptwriters, has moved from Los Angeles to early-1950s, still-rationed London with her parents, just ahead of their appearance before the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee. On her first day at school, Janie sets eyes on the intriguing Benjamin Burrows, son of the eponymous apothecary, who, it transpires, has mysteriously disappeared.
Wildwood begins with a disappearance as well. In a masterfully composed opening scene, 12-year-old Prue is having breakfast on a Saturday morning in Portland, Ore., and being prepped by her parents for a day of babysitting her little brother, one-year-old Mac. The day goes well until late afternoon, when, while the two are in the park, the sky darkens with huge crows (a murder of crows, as Prue, an aficionado of The Sibley Guide to Birds, tells herself) who seize Mac tottering beside his Radio Flyer wagon and carry him off in their talons. Frantic, Prue follows on her bicycle, travelling into the deeply forested territory known to Portlanders as the Impassable Wilderness.
From these starting points, both novels whirl off into other worlds of pure, mostly unadulterated and mostly utterly absorbing fantasy. In The Apothecary, Janie, Benjamin and their friend, a small East End Londoner with “great spectations,” named Pip, are racing against time and an assortment of villains to help Benjamin’s father contain the radiation from a Soviet atomic-bomb test on an Arctic island. Potions are consumed to ensure invisibility, in some instances, and to change the children into birds in others. Depths of terror are plumbed, heights of young love are scaled.
There’s also terror aplenty in the Wildwood, as the Impassable Wilderness is known to its inhabitants. Crows may have kidnapped Mac, and presumably they roost in the Wildwood, but legions of other inhabitants, not least the armed ranks of Coyotes and their leader, the Dowager Governess, threaten the life and limb of Prue and her unlikely companion Curtis, who has followed her into the woods. Finding and saving Mac is the ultimate goal and resolution of this wildly inventive tale.
Comparisons are quite often invidious, never more so than when made between siblings. It’s just asking for trouble. Suffice to say, then, that sister Meloy was born to write – in any genre, it seems. The Apothecary is a beautifully paced novel, the arc of its storytelling delivers a remarkable voyage for young readers, who will identify, or want to identify, with the superbly drawn Janie, Benjamin, Pip et al.
Brother Meloy, on the other hand, maybe not so much, but that’s not to say he can’t write. He surely can and he surely must. It’s just that at 500-plus pages, Wildwood feels a little overwritten, a little rococo in its almost endless prose. That may be a fogey’s point of view, because, without a doubt, nine- to-12-year-olds will dive in and scarcely come up for air. They will pore over Carson Ellis’s line drawings and colour plates, exquisite interpretations of the Wildwood world and story that give this book the visual heft of a classic.
We want more of this stuff for young readers of a certain age from both of these writers. Happily, in the case of Wildwood, at least, sequels are promised.
Susan Perren writes about children’s books for The Globe and Mail.