GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
Colin Meloy is one of those musicians who has an obsessive fan base. He's the front man for the influential indie band called the Decemberists. His songs tell stories, sometimes about real-life historical events and sometimes folklore. So it seemed like a natural progression for Meloy to write books. And he did. Last year, he and his wife, Carson Ellis, released an illustrated children's novel called "Wildwood." It tells the story of a precocious seventh grader named Prue McKeel who lives in Portland. One day, Prue's baby brother is kidnapped by a flock of crows and deposited into the woods across the Willamette River. So she and her friend Curtis go into the forest known as the Impassable Wilderness to rescue him.
And in the forest, they discover a world of talking animals, mystics, scoundrels and bandits. In the sequel, called "Under Wildwood," Curtis is still in the forest, but Prue is back in the seventh grade and bored to tears.
COLIN MELOY: And her life has kind of returned to normal, but not quite.
RAZ: But she wants to go back.
MELOY: Yeah. Well, I think anybody who had had that kind of adventure, I think, would be drawn back. I think that that's what she realizes how mundane...
RAZ: She just can't sit in the seventh grade.
MELOY: ...yeah - the rest of her life is compared to Curtis who made the decision to stay.
RAZ: He stayed behind. And his parents have no idea where he is, and that's why they go off. They set off to Turkey to go find him.
MELOY: Yeah. Yeah. So - and he's kind of enjoying his life - his new life in the woods, really unaware of the kind of havoc he's caused his family at home.
RAZ: He basically decides to become a bandit. He is in bandit training.
RAZ: And - well, there's a, sort of a sub-story, which is that their parents leave his sisters behind, and they leave them at a very unusual place. So they go to Turkey, and they've got to find somebody to look after them. Tell me about what they do to Rachel and Elsie.
MELOY: Right. Well, they drop them off at the orphanage, The Unthank Home for Wayward Youth, which is an orphanage in a machine-parts factory. And actually, that was based on a real-life thing. My dad, one day, was talking about or remembering how his parents used to board him and his brothers and sisters at the local orphanage in Helena, Montana, whenever they went on family trips or would go on a trip together.
RAZ: They really do this.
MELOY: And it was something that you could do, apparently. And it's...
RAZ: You could actually leave your kids at an orphanage at one point.
MELOY: You could - yeah. For a fee, you could board your kids at an orphanage.
RAZ: Like a kennel for children.
MELOY: I know. And I have to say my grandparents were very loving and doting parents to my dad, but I think it was sort of an acceptable thing to do at the time.
RAZ: I guess it was also a way to say: Look, if you think you have it bad at home, just imagine, you know, what's it like in an orphanage. And then you would go and be in an orphanage.
MELOY: And you would experience it, yeah. And my dad remembers having roommates, you know, who were actual orphans and feeling kind of weird about that.
RAZ: You wrote this book with your wife, Carson Ellis. She did the illustrations. And you had been talking about this for a long time. Were there parts of it that you thought, you know, this is just too dark for kids, and we're going to have to just cut this out.
MELOY: Well, I - no. I mean, I feel like I tailored it all along. And I knew that I wanted to kind of push that and make it as dark as I could, just from the books that I loved growing up - John Bellairs and Roald Dahl, who, I think, really pushed the envelope of what dark material - not necessarily dark material that kids could handle, but mostly what publishers would publish, because I think kids can handle really dark material. And, in fact, I think they really love it and long for it.
RAZ: I'm speaking with Colin Meloy. He's best known as the front man for the band the Decemberists, but he's also a novelist. And he's just released his second book. It's called "Under Wildwood," and it's for young readers. And that's what we're discussing today. I know you have one child, right?
RAZ: And he is...
MELOY: He's six.
MELOY: Six and a half.
RAZ: Did you guys read this to him?
MELOY: Carson actually read it to him when it was finished. But on the last one, I had actually read the pages as I was writing them. I didn't do that this time. I'd feel like I was moving faster but also felt more confident, I think, in my writing that, you know, I kind of needed to sit down with Carson and Hank there and read the pages to them just to make sure that they worked and they made sense. I think with this book, I was a lot more confident and didn't necessarily need that - my six-year-old's criticisms.
RAZ: Did you get any from him?
MELOY: He always wants more space alien attacks in the books. I'm trying to figure out how to fit that in.
RAZ: Did you find that he could - I mean, some of this book is tough. I mean, it's pretty sophisticated stuff.
MELOY: Yeah. My kid is a little different. I mean, he's autistic. And his fixation is books. And he taught himself to read when he was two and a half. And while he has really a hard time maintaining relationships, talking to people, even holding a pencil - he has some severe delays - he has this remarkable ability in reading and in comprehension. And I feel like he's constantly teaching us stuff.
RAZ: I didn't know that about your son. Did his relationship with reading and books, did that play a big part in your decision to do this, to write this book?
MELOY: I think it must have. Books became a much bigger part in our lives as soon as he was born and as soon as we realized what was going on, where all of a sudden, we were taking nearly biweekly trips to the library to kind of satisfy his appetite for these books. And I think we discovered a lot of books that way. And, you know, it was a joy being able to dig out books that we loved as kids and rediscover them with him. So, yeah, I think it did play a big part in it.
RAZ: Does he relate to those characters, to Prue and Curtis?
MELOY: He does. Well, I think when I was writing "Wildwood," I think a lot of the stuff that - because he was four at the time - I think a lot of it helped him kind of figure out, just kind of opposing forces, this idea of differences between people. And he was sort of mystified by the differences in the bandits and the coyotes and really fixated on this idea that they should be friends.
And so in many ways, I think that Prue and Curtis's adventures helped him kind of figure out relationships between kids, even though it's really difficult for him, and it will probably continue to be elusive to him. I hope in some way, the way they work together and the way they work with the characters in the book will help him figure out relationships to a certain degree.
RAZ: What do you think is next up for Prue and Curtis? Are we going to meet up with them again after this book?
MELOY: Oh, absolutely. There is a third book in the works. I am working on it right now. Yeah, the adventure continues.
RAZ: That's Colin Meloy. He is the front man for the band the Decemberists. His new book is called "Under Wildwood." It's part of the "Wildwood Chronicle" series, and it's out now. Colin, thank you so much.
MELOY: Yeah. Thank you, Guy. Thanks for having me on.