Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis collaborated on a sequel to "Wildwood," giving children a chance to work through some scary stuff in a safe environment. The couple will discuss the book Wednesday at Fremont's Abbey Arts Center.
There’s no denying the comfort of “Goodnight Moon.”
But some of the most celebrated children’s books would keep a mortician up at night. Wizards and witches and no way out. Bloodshed and terror and only your wits to save you.
These themes permeate the canon of singer/songwriter Colin Meloy of The Decemberists. So it seems natural that he would venture into children’s literature, and enlist his wife, the illustrator Carson Ellis, to bring his words to life.
Theirs has been a swift and successful collaboration: Meloy and Ellis have just published “Under Wildwood,” a sequel to last year’s “Wildwood,” in which a 12-year-old girl named Prue McKeel ventured into a forbidden forest after her toddler brother, Mac, was swept away by a murder of crows. Think Narnia and Grimm’s Fairy Tales, but from a Portland perspective.
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Meloy and Carson will talk about it all at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Fremont Abbey Arts Center in an event hosted by the University Book Store.
They recently spoke by telephone from their home in Portland, where they live in a renovated farmhouse with their 6-year-old son, Hank. The place is not far from Forest Park, the 5,100 acre, well, forest park on which they based “The Impassable Wilderness” where little Mac was taken — and where Prue’s adventures unfold.
When it was released last year, “Wildwood” debuted at No. 8 on The New York Times best-seller list for children’s chapter books.
They also put a lot of the city of Portland in the pages: Not just street names, but lifestyle. Prue is a vegetarian who drinks rice milk, rides a bike and travels through farmers markets.
In that same, throwback vein, Ellis’ artistic style has a rustic, woodcut quality. Meloy’s lyrics lean toward epic tales of historic battles and folklore.
Those same themes exist in the “Wildwood” books.
You wonder: Were these two born too late?
“I don’t know,” Ellis said. “I just like the environment and costumes and architecture … anything olden.”
Meloy is just fine with these times.
“I guess I like the fact that we have easy, free drinking water and we don’t have to worry about the plague and that we have government regulations,” he said. “I am exoticizing bygone eras and plucking the stuff that I like.”
Meloy’s publicist said there would be no talk of his music here. No questions about the band’s next album or past successes, which (let’s be honest) play no small part in the interest his books have received.
So we talk about Meloy’s writing process.
“I really have to set aside time and just get to the work, rather than waiting for the inspiration to strike,” he said. “In the beginning, there was a waiting around for the bolt from the blue.”
It helped to take walks in the park with Ellis to build and sort out the “Wildwood” plot, twists and turns, and its colorful characters.
“It’s a nice place to clear you mind and develop ideas,” Meloy said. “The world we’re creating inside these books is resembling that world less and less, as we are filling them with characters and events.”
Ellis has illustrated The Decemberists’ album covers, and other children’s books, including a Lemony Snicket book called “The Composer is Dead.”
One of the great things about “Wildwood” is that nothing has to be period-correct, she said.
“You can take little bits of costuming from the history of fashion and architecture,” Ellis said. “You can just draw from whatever is interesting to you.”
She uses a nib pen to give her drawings an old-fashioned look similar to the way E.H. Shepard drew “Winnie the Pooh” and Arthur Rackham illustrated “Alice in Wonderland.”
“Those are a couple of my favorites,” Ellis said, adding that as she got older, she also admired the work of Maurice Sendak of “Where the Wild Things Are.”
Indeed, the woods have always been a great place to set children’s stories, Ellis said.
“When kids are playing in the woods, they are separated from the time they live in and their parents,” she said. “It’s the perfect place for the imagination of a child.”
But why are parents so clueless in children’s books — including “Wildwood”?
“They’re funnier when they’re clueless,” Meloy said, then added: “It’s a folktale archetype. And it gives kids an opportunity to role-play their own independence in a safe way — in books.”
Same with the violence, he said, calling it “an opportunity for kids to role-play witnessing horrible things and violence and introducing that sort of thing to them in a safe environment, couched in a book, surrounded by characters they trust.
“It’s a way to ease into those kinds of realities,” he said.
The film version of “Wildwood” and “Under Wildwood” are getting closer to reality. The books have been optioned by Laika Studios, the Portland-based, stop-animation studio that made “Coraline.” Ellis is thrilled.
“I admire Laika and I am a great admirer of stop animation,” she said. “It is so labor-intensive and a labor of love. So much magical work goes into it.”
She couldn’t say whether they were using her illustrations. That depends on the director.
That said, “I would put out into the universe that I would like to be involved,” she said.
Which leads to their son, Hank. Is he involved in “Wildwood”? Are any parts of the stories his?
“If we mined him for stories, there would be comets crashing into to the world,” Ellis said. “He has limited interest in talking animals.”
Nicole & Co. appears Sundays in NW Arts & Life. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or firstname.lastname@example.org.