Most big city parks are fairly tame affairs, with orderly paths, well-kept grounds, neat groves of trees and generally benign wildlife. But Forest Park in Portland, Ore., is something else entirely. A hilly, deeply forested stretch of land along the Willamette River, it has a wildness that can easily seize the imagination of someone on the settled, civilized side of the river.
Someone, for instance, like Colin Meloy, the lead singer of the brainy alt-rock band, the Decemberists. Working with his wife, illustrator Carson Ellis, Meloy transformed Forest Park into the enchanted setting for his youth-oriented novel, Wildwood.
"Where I grew up in Montana, there were plenty of places to go exploring," he says over the phone from his home in Portland. "It's all wild and crazy and hilly and removed. But then I would come out to Oregon and visit family, and being around here, there's something really dramatic about the woods."
And Wildwood is definitely full of drama. It starts with Mac, the baby brother of Prue McKeel, being kidnapped from a playground by a murder of crows; it continues as Prue, determined to retrieve her snatched sibling, makes her way into the mysterious world of Wildwood, where she encounters talking animals, evil plots, goodhearted bandits and a coyote army; it ends with a fearsome struggle to avoid a creeping, green apocalypse.
Prue, a plucky, independent 12-year old, and her 11-year old classmate Curtis, are the nominal heroes of the book, but as Meloy explains, the forest itself is the focus. "I feel like the main character in this book is the woods," he says. "I wanted to make a world that felt completely immersive, and that involved making sure that you got a real strong sense of the surroundings as you went through it."
As such, Wildwood is packed with visual content, and not just in the prose. In addition to Meloy's detailed descriptions of treetop townhouses and elaborate, root-trellised underground lairs, the pages are also brightened by Ellis's illustrations, which not only adorn the chapter headers but also weave through the text, illuminating some of the story's most dramatic moments.
Ellis — who also does the artwork for the Decemberists' albums and posters — had illustrated a half dozen books before this, including Dillweed's Revenge by Florence Parry Heide and Lemony Snicket's The Composer Is Dead. But working on Wildwood was a totally different situation for her.
"The normal formula is to hand an illustrator a finished manuscript, and there's not much of an invitation to offer feedback or criticism," she says. "There's no relationship between the author and the illustrator, and oftentimes no communication between the two. This felt more like a true collaboration, because we were talking about it and thinking about it round the clock. Colin's input was influencing the illustrations, which wasn't something I had happen with previous books, and I think the illustrations were sometimes influencing the story also."
Although the two didn't start working in earnest on the book until a couple years ago, they had been kicking around the idea of writing a children's book for seven years or so. "We were kind of framing the idea of this as a series, along the lines of the series we loved growing up — The Chronicles of Narnia, Lloyd Alexander's Prydain books, and Tolkien. We had been wanting to do a collaborative illustrated novel that would be based on or inspired by fairy tales, but the idea of setting it in the park came about maybe two or three years ago.
"Maybe like five years ago," Ellis says. "But it wasn't anything more than the idea of setting a story in Forest Park for the longest time."
Now that the book is in stores, Meloy and Ellis seem eager to maintain their momentum. Meloy has put the Decemberists on hold, even though their last album, The King Is Dead, topped the Billboard charts in January, and there's even the prospect of a Wildwood movie on the horizon, as the title has been optioned by Laika, the animation company responsible for the stop-action hit Coraline.
It should be noted that Wildwood bears the subtitle The Wildwood Chronicles, Book 1, and when asked if further volumes are in the works, Meloy answers with an emphatic yes. "There's Book 2 and Book 3, and probably Book 4 and 5," he says. "There'll be many more."