Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis on the Magic of Middle Grade

You may not know it, but you know Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis. Meloy is the lead vocalist and guitarist for popular indie rock outfit The Decemberists, while Ellis is a Caldecott Honor-winning author and illustrator. (She also supplies illustrations for the band.) They live outside of Portland, Oregon, on a farmstead, with their two young sons and a proliferation of fruit trees.

When they’re not busy touring the country and winning awards, the couple write and illustrate bestselling books. Heard of the Wildwood Chronicles? Yep, that’s them. Their latest collaboration, The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid, takes them all the way to Marseilles, France, deep into the den of a mysterious school for pickpockets.

Thankfully, they escaped unscathed, just in time to chat with us a bit about why they love writing for middle grade readers, which of them would make a better pickpocket, and other intriguing things. Before you read on, be sure to circle November 1 (at 6pm) in red so you can come meet the Ellis-Meloys here in the shop! Off you trot.

Both The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid and the Wildwood Chronicles are for middle grade readers. Colin, what do you love about writing for that age?

Colin: I think that age group is a blast to write for—you’re old enough to grasp pretty complex ideas, but not so old as to be too cool for more fantastic stories. It’s really the ideal reading age, both for writers and readers.

There’s a wisecracking omniscient narrator in this book, who will occasionally break the fourth wall with an opinionated interjection. Colin, where’d you get the idea for that, and what was it like to write?

Colin: The story felt like it needed that guiding hand. Someone who was watching the story unfold from the reader’s time and perspective. It also adds to a playful vibe, which felt right.

Carson, how does illustrating for chapter books differ from creating art for picture books? Your audience is older, the story is fleshier—how do the illustrations grow in tandem?

Carson: I love them both! But they’re very different. There’s a lot more conceptualizing that typically goes into illustrating a picture book. The art is a more critical component—in the best picture books its role is as important as the text—and there are so many things to think about: layout, impactful page turns, where the visual narrative should ape/diverge from/contradict/elaborate on the text, etc. There are so many different approaches to illustrating any picture book, especially if you didn’t write it yourself. It usually feels like a hard puzzle that I need to solve and it sometimes makes my head hurt. But when I do solve it, it’s very gratifying.

Novels, on the other hand, are a lot less complicated. They’re more what I imagined this job would be like when I was a kid, aspiring to illustrate books. I read a book that I like, and I make a note when I get to a scene I want to draw. Then I go back and draw it. It’s mostly the fun part without the conceptualizing and headaches. There are other puzzles to solve and always conceptual decisions to make. And, of course, there are art directors and editors—I don’t always get to draw all the things I want in just the way I want to. But for the most part it’s pretty fun.

I also love to illustrate for middle grade readers. I think they appreciate illustrations in a special way because they’re so immersed in their books. I remember how much Pauline Baynes’ illustrations for The Chronicles of Narnia meant to me. I can still picture a lot of them in my head today. Middle grade readers are the best audience: They understand a lot of sophisticated, nuanced, challenging stuff but they’re open to—even expecting—all kinds of magic and craziness in their books, and the illustrations in those books can be equally sophisticated and equally crazy. It’s such a great window in a reader’s literary life. I wish it could last forever.

You’re married! How does working together differ from working on individual projects?

Colin: I feel like we’re very lucky to share a kind of brain link. We’re often excited by the same ideas, the same approaches. If Carson is hyped about something that’s elusive to me, for whatever reason, I still know the idea has merit. I trust her sensibilities!

Carson: Whatever we’re working on, regardless of whether it’s a collaboration, makes its way into the culture of our family somehow. I get to hear songs being worked on a lot when Colin’s writing music for a new record. He helps me figure out how to solve problems with books I’m writing. And when we’re working on something together it’s just more so, I think. There’s more talking and discussion about that thing because we’re both working on it. But I actually feel pretty invested in the music Colin’s writing and his feedback is a pretty important part of my own creative process, so these days it all kind of feels like one big collaborative stew. 

The Wildwood series was set in Portland, Oregon, where you live with your family. The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid is set in Marseilles, France, in the 1960s. What inspired that setting, and what preparation did you do to familiarize yourselves with that world?

Colin: The book could’ve really happened in any city or country—I picked Marseille because I’ve always been fascinated by the city. We spent a week in Marseille last year, while I was still writing the first draft, and I can’t imagine writing the book without having done that. I picked the early 60s because there were so many more pockets to target then—everyone wore suits!

Carson: Marseille is such a great city! I had been there when I was younger and it made a huge impression on me. It’s an ancient port city on the Mediterranean that would have been a fascinating mix of architecture and cultures in the 60s. And it had a seedy reputation then, too (it still does, maybe unfairly). But mostly it’s just gorgeous: the perfect place to set a novel about pickpockets and the perfect place to spend a gorgeous week researching a novel about pickpockets. Which is what we did—mostly by taking walks to get a sense of the city and its layout and neighborhoods. I did a lot of sketching there too.

Following up on Question 5, which of you is the better pickpocket?

Colin: Oh man, probably Carson. I’m a bit clumsy.

More by Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis

Under Wildwood
Wildwood Imperium

Author photo by NashCO Photo.

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