Prue and Janie will probably never meet since they live between different covers. But they’d like each other. They’re both smart, resourceful, open to possibility and willing to try their best at saving their respective imagined worlds, even at risk to their own lives. Maybe they’d get along because their creators—Colin Meloy and Maile Meloy—are brother and sister who share an early history of reading lists and family discussions about ideas. Here Colin, the leader of the band the Decemberists, and Maile, a writer of award-winning adult fiction, discuss their debut children’s novels and how they came to be the writers they are.
Read more memorable first fantasies for children.
Colin Meloy’s Wildwood, illustrated by his wife, Carson Ellis, imagines a vast, impenetrable wilderness that borders Portland, Ore. (It is based on that city’s Forest Park.) When a murder of crows kidnaps Prue’s little brother, she plunges into the Wildwood, accompanied only by an unpopular schoolmate, to rescue him. There, the children become separated, and each must encounter alone a fantasy world populated by animals and riven by political disputes.
The world of Wildwood is amazingly well imagined—did you and Carson Ellis spend long hours sitting around the dinner table discussing it?
That did happen! Before we even had a story, we had the idea of taking Forest Park and making it its own country that would be sealed off from the rest of the city with some kind of magical boundary so only the very intrepid would be able to pass through. That was the germ of the idea. Carson traced out the real boundary of Forest Park, and then we started populating it with places we knew, anywhere from real structures like the Pittock Mansion to weird trees or ruined foundations. Then we fed the story into the map.
You write about some pretty dark places—battles, betrayals, death. Did you ever consider holding back, or was this the story you wanted to tell?
This was the story I wanted to tell. To be honest, I get the sense people might be overly concerned about what younger readers are able to process. When you’re writing a novel for children, no matter how much research you do, you’re really going on your own experience as a kid. As a kid, I fell in love with the books that explored the darker side of human relations. I don’t recall ever being disturbed by it or having my parents disturbed by it. I think that had to do with the more permissive atmosphere in parenting in the ’70s. It wasn’t glossed over, those darker sides of life.
Is your son old enough to read your book?
He’s 5, but he was a really early reader. He actually has read a lot of it and is particularly enamored of the battle scenes.
Was it a leap to go from writing songs to writing a novel?
Even though they involve the same kind of creative work—writing—they really couldn’t be more different in the way that you do them. Writing a novel feels to me like chopping wood. You’ve got a huge stack of unchopped logs and you need to chop it into firewood, you just have to keep going and keep going. Whereas songwriting is a little more of an unknown quantity—you’re building something that can happen in a spark, and you really don’t know when that spark will happen. You can write a song in the time it takes to play it. Which is kind of a crazy thing.
Maile Meloy’s The Apothecary, illustrated by Ian Schoenherr, conjures an alternative 1950s, in which protagonist Janie and her family move to London to avoid investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee. There, she becomes friends with Benjamin, latest in a long line of apothecaries, whose family’s magical elixirs become key elements in an attempt to thwart Soviet detonation of an atomic bomb.
Do you think it’s important for today’s children and young adults to learn about the Cold War period? Do you think there are parallels between the world then and the world now?
I do think there are parallels. We still have looming nuclear threats, though they’re of a different kind than they were during the Cold War. And there’s still a pervasive anxiety, and a feeling of helplessness in the face of global conflict, that’s a part of our world.
I also think it’s useful to talk about the Hollywood blacklist, and the presumption of guilt or lack of loyalty based on people’s political beliefs—their real or imagined or former political beliefs. That happens now, too. I was talking to the Thalia Kids’ Book Club camp at Symphony Space in Manhattan, where the kids had all read advance copies, and I asked if they knew what the First Amendment protects.
They got “speech” and “religion” and “the press” right away. I asked for one more, thinking they might get “assembly,” and one of them squinted at the ceiling and said, “the right to petition for governmental redress of grievances.” Kids are interested in justice and fairness. It’s a tiny piece of the book, but I think that the more kids know about what the First Amendment protects, the more likely it is that those protections will remain.
I loved that the relationship between Janie and Benjamin wasn’t overtly sexual like young romance in so many other books—was this a reaction to today’s culture of “sexting” or simply a natural part of the story?
Janie and Benjamin are 14-year-olds in 1952, so it seemed natural for the feelings between them to be submerged and sublimated, and to come out in the brush of an arm when they’re becoming invisible. Also, they’re annoyed with each other some of the time, and they’re teamed up for a higher purpose, against forces bigger than themselves. Janie loves Katharine Hepburn, and I wanted some of that smart, bantering feeling of 1940s movies between the two of them.
There’s a rich history of literature for young people that involves both an adventure and also a story of personal, sometimes reluctant, transformation—it’s clearly evident in Janie’s character. Can you talk a bit about this coming-of-age moment and why it makes for such great books?
Yes! The idea that childhood is a time when everything is possible, and that there’s some inevitable loss in growing up, is incredibly poignant and powerful to me. It’s in A Wrinkle in Time, it’s in the Narnia books, it’s in Philip Pullman, it’s in Treasure Island, it’s in everything great.
Your book addresses the often gray nature of conflict by bringing it to a very personal level—the scientist working with the Russians on the bomb is someone the other scientists want to meet. Why is the idea that enemies are also human an important one for kids to be exposed to?
Dehumanizing enemies is what people do. It’s how monstrous things happen, on both global and everyday levels. There were cheesy ’80s songs in my childhood about the need to see enemies as people like us, but there’s truth in cheesiness. I love books where villains aren’t entirely villainous, and heroes have flaws—where there’s some shifting around in that gray area.
The Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov is a character in The Apothecary, and the apothecary and his colleagues feel that he’s a like-minded soul, someone who would be interested in using science for peace, even though he’s part of a system that’s out to destroy them. And I think Sakharov would have been a like-minded soul, and the rest of his career bore that out.
Which kids’ novels do you like to read?
Colin: I’ve dug into a few. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. I read The Hunger Games and I read a Harry Potter novel. But not a ton. My taste in adult novels runs toward the fantastic—I’m not a fantasy reader or science-fiction reader, but I like books that skirt the margin of the genre. Like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which presents itself as an adult novel but involves magicians walking the land. Michael Chabon—a few of his books skirt that margin, he’s a champion of that idea. I think reading that stuff informs what I do, but I’m channeling it through an illustrated novel that’s heavily influence by fairy tales.
Maile: I loved Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, and John Green and David Levithan’s Will Grayson, Will Grayson. I revere Philip Pullman—both His Dark Materials and the four Sally Lockhart novels. I think Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret is incredibly beautiful. I just reread A Wrinkle in Time and The Westing Game, two favorites from my childhood. Skippy Dies by Paul Murray isn’t a young adult novel but it it’s about kids, in the most harrowing way.
Both of you have written fantasy books for children that share a few themes and also show some pretty dark images. Is there something about your shared history that led you both to write these particular books?
Colin: We grew up in a pretty progressive family, one that wasn’t afraid of talking about ideas. There was never a subject that was not allowed. There was a lot of talk about real political conflicts. I remember going to No Nuke rallies with my mom and having a very clear idea of what had happened in Hiroshima. Maybe that was the difference: There was such an established boundary between real violence and imagined violence that I had no problem distinguishing between the two. I could recognize the threat of a nuclear holocaust—I remember being totally terrified of the A-bomb—but I also could read a Tolkien book without being like, why don’t they just become friends?
Maile: I can speculate on my own behalf. Mine is about the 1950s Cold War, and we had the 1980s Cold War in our childhood. MX missiles were being put in the ground in Montana, where we lived, so we knew we’d be an early target. We grew up with the movie War Games and the idea that we could be pulverized at any moment. And also with the idea that the Cold War was dehumanizing, and nuclear proliferation a terrible endgame. The Apothecary is a fantasy that you could do something about it.
Did you and your sister share your work with each other when you were writing it? Did you talk about your books, or about writing in general?
Colin: No, I didn’t tell her I was doing this. We’ve shared ideas, and early on with the Decemberists, I used to send her lyrics before I sent the CD book to the printer so she could edit the grammar, which I was thankful for. But when I started doing this, I just wanted to do it without any input from her, because she’s so established and so well respected. I also didn’t want her to feel like I was stepping into her territory. I was sensitive to that—it goes back to me stealing her Yaz and Depeche Mode tapes from her room. When I mentioned it to my dad he said, “You know your sister’s doing that too.” It was a complete accident.
Maile: We’ve shared things before, but these ones we didn’t, maybe because we were already sharing them with other people. Life gets busy. We talk about books we’re reading. When I was putting together a story collection, we talked about the similarity to arranging the songs in an album, and how the order changes the experience. With these books, we’ve been talking about the publishing process.
When two writers grow from the same family, I always imagine a very literary upbringing: poetry at the dinner table, a house crammed full of books. Was your childhood home like this?
Colin: We weren’t reading poetry at the dinner table, but our parents were really supportive of us reading. Summer vacations were often filled with booklists to check off as we go. Maile always did better than I did working through the list. She just wrote that essay for the New York Times about when she got her 10-speed bicycle for reading all those books. I was doing the same thing, but I think I only made it through a couple of books. She was more precocious academically and was also three years older. But I do remember that bike, and it was pretty sweet.
Maile: We did read a lot, and were read to and told stories. No poetry at the dinner table, but lots of hypothetical questions. We didn’t have a TV, and when we did we weren’t allowed to watch it, which was embarrassingly weird at the time, but probably not a bad thing…But there was a lot of sending us outside to play, too.