Ooo, Baby, Baby, It’s a Wild World

I’ve been waiting for this book for a long time–since it was just a ghost of a rumor that Colin Meloy was writing a children’s book.  For those of you who don’t know, Colin Meloy is the lead singer of The Decemberists, my favorite band, and I have had a great deal of love for him for many, many years.  I mean, can you blame me?

(He’s the one in the glasses)

Then in July, one of my good friends handed me a gift-wrapped galley from the “Bookstore Goddess,” that serendipitous force that provides The Magic Tree Bookstore and those working there with precisely what they need at just the right time.  I had no idea Meloy’s novel had finally been slated for release until I was holding Wildwood: Book One of the Wildwood Chronicles in my hands, dissolving the terrible day I’d had at work on the spot.

And then my friend said, “Open it.”

Part of my brain exploded at this point because it realized that for one ephemeral moment, Colin Meloy knew I existed.  It turned out the wonderful ladies who own the bookstore, Rose and Iris, were at a publisher’s “author dinner,” and it just happened to include Colin and his wife, Carson Ellis.  (Yes, he’s married, and I harbor no resentment because I love her work, too.  She’s an extraordinary illustrator.  I even have her embroidery patterns.)  I am pleased to report that the ladies (who got to sit beside! them and chat! with them) found the couple to be lovely, down-to-earth people.  I never had any doubts.

I would also like to note that I was reading Colin Meloy’s volume (#16: Let It Be) in the 33 1/3 book series at the time I was handed his children’s book, so I appeared to be a super-fan.  Which, I suppose I am, but in the most flattering sense of the word.

I treasured my book and treated it with the utmost care.  However, if anyone has spent time in Chicago this summer, they’ll know it takes more than a gentle touch to fend off the sudden, severe rainstorms we’ve been having; and, yes, dear readers, I was caught in one with my book and the human shield I tried to form with my body was not enough to protect it.  I was crushed.  The autograph, however, is still intact and the rest of it dried sufficiently to be salvaged, so all was not lost.  If you visit the Wildwood website, Colin has compiled a playlist to serve as a companion to the book; I would like to vote for the addition of  the Decemberists’ single, “Record Year for Rainfall.”

But enough exposition; onto the review.

Wildwood tells the story of Prue McKeel and her friend Curtis Mehlberg, who must venture into Portland’s “Impassable Wilderness” in order to save her brother, who has been abducted by crows.  To enter the Impassable Wilderness, or Wildwood to its inhabitants, is to enter another realm populated by talking animals, coyote soldiers, humans, mystics, bandits, and a vengeful Dowager Governess.  It is quickly apparent that tensions and a general feeling of unrest mar the underbrush of this magical place and something terrible lurks just beyond the horizon.  When Prue and Curtis become separated in a skirmish, Meloy develops the world he’s created by following both characters along their disparate paths. This is nice because not only do you get different perspectives and experiences, but splitting the narrative also extends the novel’s appeal to readers of both genders.

I was immediately reminded of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe, both in terms of tone and the literal act of stepping into another realm, but also in certain parallels between Curtis’ relationship with the Dowager Governess and Edmund’s with the White Witch.  Meloy is not rewriting this classic, however, but rather using his fondness of classic tales and fables to create an original work.  I would venture to say he succeeds.  There are times when his descriptions are a little too lengthy and some references a little too obscure or dated for the average middle school reader (i.e., Curtis’ fondness for Harry Flashman), but he really falls into stride a little over the halfway point, where plot and story can finally surpass the details being laid down to establish his invented world.

Overall, Meloy creates a rich narrative filled with adventure and lore that is enhanced by Carson Ellis’ illustrations, which punctuate the text and provide additional detail and charm to the novel.  Wildwood is a good choice for any fans of The Chronicles of Narnia, Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, or Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society series (of which Carson Ellis illustrated the first book).  Much like with Stewart’s novels, I see great talent and potential in this first book but also evidence of its being the author’s first children’s book.  I look forward to the next installment, knowing that Meloy will approach it as a more experienced writer, and I do recommend Wildwood to anyone look for a fun action-fantasy-adventure to finish out the summer.

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