A baby is snatched by crows. His sister treks into the woods to find him and is followed by one Curtis Mehlberg, "son of Lydia and David, resident of Portland, Ore., comic-book fan boy, persecuted loner."
Wild adventures ensue.
If the story sounds like modern-day folklore from the band the Decemberists, it is, in a way. The sturm und drang just isn't set to a catchy blend of the band's bouzouki and harmonized vocals. It's the premise of a new book series for middle-grade readers from the Decemberists' frontman, Colin Meloy, and his illustrator wife, Carson Ellis.
It's the rare musician who, in the middle of a critically acclaimed career, would decide to hang up his guitar for a while to sit down in front of a computer. Yet hot on the heels of his band's Popes of Pendarvia world tour in support of its latest album, "The King Is Dead," that's exactly what the 36-year-old musician is doing.
"The Decemberists will be pretty quiet for a bit," said the singer, adding that it will be a few years before fans see another record. In the meantime, Meloy plans to give this series of at least three books, which begins with "Wildwood," his full attention.
"Now that the band is 10 years old, the record-and-tour cycle started to feel like it wasn't satisfying my creative impulses," Meloy said by telephone from the Portland home he shares with Ellis and their 5-year-old son, Hank. "I was just wanting something else, so we thought in the downtime it would be fun to work on this story."
In many ways, "Wildwood" is a natural extension of Meloy's songsmithing, which demonstrates an innate appreciation for rarefied language and imaginative storytelling. There's a cinematic quality to Decemberist songs — an appreciation for nature and old-world craftsmanship that easily translates to the hip, illustrated fairy tale that is "Wildwood." That sensibility is underscored by Ellis, whose whimsically dark pen-and-ink drawings recall the work of Edward Gorey and Roald Dahl.
In a book that reads like a mash-up of "Alice in Wonderland," "The Chronicles of Narnia" and "The Lord of the Rings," Prue, 12, is its adventurous and headstrong protagonist who sarcastically suggests to her parents that roughing up old ladies or sticking up a hardware store might be appropriate baby-sitting activities. Of course, Prue does none of these things. She is fiercely loyal to her brother — so much so that, rather than tell her parents he's been kidnapped by a flock of squawking birds, she goes after him into the Impassable Wilderness. And her friend Curtis follows her.
In the works longer than the Decemberists have been a band, "Wildwood" dates to the late '90s when Meloy and Ellis first moved to Portland and were living in a warehouse where Meloy "was just starting to play around with music and [Ellis] was starting to work on illustration stuff," he said. "We had this idea of working on a novel together … because we enjoyed making up stories and playing off one another's creative impulses."
Originally about a girl searching for her lost father and titled "How Ruthie Ended the War," the story contained many of the hallmarks that would eventually define Meloy's songwriting — a fascination with the arcane and archaic that freely wanders from forest to sea and frequently ends in battle. Meloy got 80 pages into the story and then "got busy with other things," he said.
Reimagined as "Wildwood" several years later, the story was inspired by the 5,000-acre Forest Park on the edge of Portland where Meloy and Ellis often take walks. The book takes its title from an actual trail.
"There's something about creating fantasy that is anchored in reality just enough that I thought would really tap into a kid's imagination. This idea that enchantment is possible, that you can recognize the trappings of a contemporary world but, just on the other edge of this forested line, there's a completely other reality," Meloy explained.
Before Meloy had fully envisioned the story, Ellis outlined the park and the two started populating the space with characters, re-creating the forest as an enchanted country that was home to clothed coyotes in plumed helmets that speak English and other talking animals.
"I've always been fascinated by forests, and it pops up in Decemberists music as well: this idea of the woods as being imaginatively beyond the pale, where if you go into the woods, you're stepping outside of your safety realm and stepping into something unknown and potentially dangerous but also adventurous and exciting, and you'll inevitably learn something."
Ellis' illustrations as well as Meloy's music — and now his writing too — are inspired by classic fairy tales and the books they grew up reading from the '60s and '70s. Darkness pervades, yet the macabre is tempered with humor. The crows that carry Prue's brother into the sky were inspired by an actual Irish fairy tale about a spirit that abducts babies — and by Maurice Sendak's "Outside Over There," which, similar to "Wildwood," centers on a child taken away on a sister's watch.
How Prue's adventure evolves will be revealed in the second installment of "The Wildwood Chronicles," out next August.
"I really do want to commit as much to doing 'Wildwood' and the other books as I possibly can," Meloy said. "It's the thing I'm most excited about right now. It's something I want to do right and focus on it, and when we're ready to go back to music, we will."