More than six years of working in the children's department of a bookstore taught me this important lesson: The genre is bloated with baldly mediocre books written by celebrities. I don't know who started this godawful trend, but it's relentless. Joy Behar, Jerry Seinfeld, Jimmy Fallon, Gloria Estefan, Madonna—that's just skimming the surface, and it is a singularly hideous collection. (There are exceptions; Julie Andrews has written a couple of first-rate kids' novels.)
So when rumors of Decemberist Colin Meloy's new children's novel started, I was annoyed. Many coworkers at the store were hopeful; the involvement of his wife, Carson Ellis, was promising—she's been illustrating children's books for years (as well as making art for Decemberists album covers, posters, T-shirts, and sets). And if any kind of celebrity could turn out something not sinfully ugly, pedantic, or shoddily rhymed, perhaps it'd be a Portland rocker. But there was the pronounced possibility that it could go in the opposite bad direction: a "kids" book featuring unrealistic, hyperarticulate characters who have pretentious hobbies and make constant music references. In other words, not a children's book at all, but a little book-shaped pile of obnoxious show-off aimed at adult Decemberists fans and dressed trendily in kid-friendly wrapping. I didn't think this because I hate the Decemberists (I don't) or hipsters (ugh, that word). It's just exceedingly rare that someone who makes art for grown-ups can also make even competent art for children.
To my astonishment, Wildwood (the first in a planned series) is not remotely the affected bullshit I feared. Yes, its characters are bespectacled, bike-riding, vinyl-browsing, Kurosawa-referencing children. But it is squarely in the realm of kid lit—if you pick it up, expect a full-on fantasy world with talking animals, a quest, and a lot of fairyland politics. It's dark at times (possible baby-stabbing, realistic war violence), but it's clearly for preteens. "That's the perfect audience to write for," Meloy said in an interview, "because they still have a foothold in that childlike imaginative world and yet are developmentally able to handle more complex ideas—and they've not quite fallen into the cynicism of adolescence."
More than 500 pages long, Wildwood is a pretty thing to hold in your hands, with maps on the endpapers and Ellis's finely detailed illustrations (including a handful of frame-worthy color plates) scattered profusely throughout. It's rather old-fashioned; they don't make many books like this anymore. The project itself predates the Decemberists: Meloy and Ellis were living in a Portland warehouse after college and wrote and illustrated 80 pages' worth before shelving it in favor of his music and her other work.
Ultimately, it would've made local bookstores' staff-pick shelves, VIP author or no. Which is nice, since even if it sucked, it would've sold like crazy. All the kids who inevitably get it from their cool aunt for Christmas are getting a real book this time instead of a vanity project.