Melissa’s Review of Wildwood, by Colin Meloy, illustrated by Carson Ellis
An epic for middle readers? Sure. If those middle-readers keep a dictionary or app handy to recall the meaning of stevedore, stoat, mullioned, or culvert.
Read the first few chapters, and you may think you’ve fallen down a rabbit hole and into a vaguely British den of articulate animals whose furnishings and adventures closely resemble those of most of your childhood fantasies. Ramshackle treehouses linked by precarious bridges and ladders? Check. Frequent opportunities to fly? Check. Heroics achieved by Radio Flyer and bicycle? Check, check.
In this Book One of the Wildwood Chronicles, we meet brazen Prue McKeel: twelve-year-old bird fan and quasi-loner; older sister to one-year-old Mac; yoga-practicing, messenger-bag-wearing, bicycle-repairing Portlander with a capital…well, P.
While baby-sitting one rainy day, Prue watches in horror as a murder of crows kidnaps baby Mac. She vows his rescue—even if it means braving the legendary Impassable Wilderness: the thorny, charmed (fictional) thicket of forest in the middle of (actual) Forest Park.
Its inhabitants call the territory Wildwood, and it turns out to be a much-contested piece of forest over which tribal factions war, armed variously with pitchforks, colanders, and packs of coyote soldiers. When her classmate Curtis tags along, Prue finds herself scrambling against time to save Wildwood and the lives of many—including her own.
Written by Decemberists front man and Portland resident Colin Meloy (brother to Maile,) and illustrated by his wife Carson Ellis (award-winning illustrator of Lemony Snicket and other children’s books,) Wildwood is a collaborative work of art, twelve years in the making. The story’s richness may owe itself to the creators’ firm grounding in an actual place: its material seems to come directly from a city’s collective unconscious.
Portlanders will recognize landmarks, local habits and quirks, and familiar neighborhoods in the magically mundane version of the city. Outsiders might find it an entertaining alternative to a guidebook.
Despite its topophilic detail, Wildwood maintains universal appeal with its delicate handling of classic fairy tale themes, especially that of “divine origins.” Seen through the just-an-ordinary-kid eyes of Prue, the theme takes on more subtlety. It’s a fantastic spin on your garden variety case of adolescent individuation: the disillusionment of parent-as-superhero, “my parents aren’t who I thought they were.”
Weaknesses? It could have stood for a bit more editing. The first half galloped right along, and kept me up late for just one more chapter. Right around the middle of Part Two, though, the action gets bogged down in too much ornamental prose and atmospherics—Angus, a bandit with a raspy voice whose cage was the farthest out… sighed a reply. “That bairn’ll be born any day now, I expect.”
By this point, the old-timey saltiness is well-established, and begins to feel heavy-handed. Bits of dialogue often feel unnecessary. Ornate diction calls attention to itself rather than serving the story’s momentum. Likewise, the naming of minor characters—Angus, Seamus, Hydrangea, Henbane—sometimes felt like arbitrary additions from a list of cool baby names, or shoes in an Anthropologie catalogue.
As other reviewers have pointed out, this could be due the story’s planned trajectory: Wildwood is the first in a planned trilogy of Prue’s adventures, already being optioned for film by Laika Films (Coraline.) Perhaps this bogginess is due to a need to set the stage, to name the cast of characters.
Overall, the damage is minor.
P.S. The book is also gorgeous (deckle edged, compact, with color illustrations,) making it a great gift item for just about any age on your shopping list—unless you read it first. Better get two copies.