Six Degrees of Wildwood by Colin Meloy & Carson Ellis
No book is a perfectly self-contained artifact. Books are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of literature — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic works and five other books we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the books are highly, highly recommended.
A murder of crows plucks a baby from a little red wagon and carries him away through the cloudy skies of Portland, Oregon, and down into a dense, foreboding forest of trees. His sister Prue lies to her parents, packs her messenger bag and sets off for the woods, followed only by Curtis, her bumbling classmate. Both of them are soon swept into the bustle and drama of a world not far from, but wholly separate from, their own. As frontman and songwriter for The Decemberists, Colin Meloy has made a name for himself by teasing out tales like this of woebegone children, fantastical happenings and well-summoned archetypes into song, so it should be no real surprise that his first real journey into fiction trots down a similar path. It should be no surprise, either, that his words are once again reflected in the wry, careful linework of artist Carson Ellis, who has illustrated all of The Decemberists’ record covers in addition to kids’ books like Lemony Snicket’s The Composer is Dead and The Mysterious Benedict Society. But for Meloy and Ellis, who also happen to be married, Wildwood, the first in a three-title series of middle-grades novels, wasn’t an exercise in divided labor, with him scrawling and her sketching. They plotted out its world and its characters together, setting the story in a fantasied-up version of their hometown of Portland, and drawing both inspiration and guidance from books they loved as kids and still love as grown-ups. And so when actress Amanda Plummer narrates Wildwood‘s audiobook, she’s not just delivering Meloy’s half of the project, leaving Ellis’s work to languish on a page somewhere. Even without the images present, it’s a fully collaborative deal. And with so many visual and narrative reference points, both intentional and coincidental, bubbling right under its surface, we couldn’t help making some connections.
Imagined worlds draw their power from the depth of their own details, and the realm of Wildwood feels stunningly whole, from the politics that divide its inhabitants to the way the creatures and humans interact (or don’t). This comes from careful consideration on the part of Meloy and Ellis, who built the framework for the book’s reality by studying their favorite literary worlds and the rules that governed them, including the pastoral English setting of Wind in the Willows. Kenneth Grahame played fast and loose with the relationship between the people and people-like creatures in his 1908 classic, anthropomorphizing his creatures and mostly shielding their existence from humans, but allowing occasional interactions on vaguely-defined terms. This was also the general M.O. of Disney, which adapted the novel into The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad in 1949, which then became a Disney World ride in 1955. (Laika, the Portland-based animation studio responsible for the elegantly eerie adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline is working on a big-screen production of Wildwood, though somehow a theme-park ride tie-in seems unlikely.)
THE SARTORIAL SOULMATE
The relationship between humans and their anthropomorphic brethren is well defined, too, in Roald Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox, though less rife with complex inter-species politics than Wildwood. The story’s core conflict seems simple enough: A wily fox keeps snatching poultry from the pens of three bumbling farmers, who are driven mad by the continual theft and attempt to kill the critter by alternately shooting at, digging up and bulldozing over him and his family. This would do no more than echo the conflicts of farmers of temperate lands the world over if not for the fact that, in classic Dahl style, the vermin in question are highly intelligent, organized and mighty fashionable to boot. Quentin Blake’s classic illustration shows Mr. Fox in a smart vest, tails and neckerchief, making him a sort of sartorial predecessor to Wildwood‘s army of coyotes clad in Napoleonic military uniforms. (In an early draft, the coyotes were described as being dressed in medieval armor, but Ellis didn’t love her accompanying illustrations, so Meloy rewrote the whole section to dress them in a more suitable fashion.)
THE CHILD PROTAGONISTS
C.S. Lewis proved first, and best, that kids make the best escorts through strange, new worlds. Narnia, of course, was discovered by accident by the innocent snooping of bored, displaced Lucy Pevensie, who at first struggled to convince her siblings of its very existence. Meanwhile, Wildwood has always loomed large on the periphery of Prue and Curtis’s consciousness, and they enter into its fray with years of warnings ringing in their ears, but entirely unprepared for what they finally encounter. In both cases, mere children are thrown headlong into grave peril and thrust into political turmoil beyond anything they’ve experienced in the rest of their short lives, and not only handle the chaos with more grace than adults might but also maintain a certain baseline sense of wonder about the place that reveals its nature in ways not usually accessible to grown folk.
Inside the front cover of Wildwood’s paper-and-ink copies is a sprawling, detailed map of the book’s reimagined Portland, the city split down the middle by the Impassable Wilderness. But even when removed from its physical context, the map still serves the reader: Meloy and Ellis plotted out the whole world of the book on paper before a single chapter was written, layering their imagined landscape over actual topography, renaming and repurposing real-life landmarks in Portland’s Forest Park to form the bones of their new world. In doing so, they joined a long history of storytellers-as-cartographers, including J.R.R. Tolkein and his renderings of Middle Earth, though his maps tended to shift to fit his narratives rather than shaping them directly.
THE ADOLESCENT METAPHOR
A square-peg of a teenage girl and her misfit schoolmate follow her younger brother off on an unexpected journey through a world both far away and unimaginably close to their own. Wildwood fits that bill, of course, and so does the first installment in Madeleine L’Engle’s series following Meg Murry, her pal Calvin and her kid brother Charles Wallace, who travel not through the wilds of Portland but through time and space itself. Red-eyed, telepathic, disembodied space monsters and the threat of being evaporated by entering the fifth dimension may loom as larger threats than anything lurking in the Impassable Wilderness, but the stories still seem sympathetic. Being a 12-, 13-year-old girl is strange enough as it is; throw a bunch of strange creatures, alternate realities and mortal peril in the mix and it’s still just another day on the long, weird road out of adolescence.