Though Colin Meloy is best known as the lead singer of indie-folk-rock band The Decemberists, he is also an accomplished children’s author.
Listen to a few seconds of a Decemberists song and you’ll conclude that Colin Meloy is a talented songwriter, his stunning and eccentric lyrics making him an indispensable figure in the indie music scene. But his passion for writing and storytelling isn’t confined to the world of music.
Having published five middle grade novels, including a New York Times bestseller, he is clearly passionate about all aspects of the written word. In fact, his focus only shifted to music after graduating college, where he studied English, theatre and, later, creative writing.
Though his initial plan was to become an author, Meloy did dabble in music throughout his youth. In High School he was a member of Happy Cactus, which released an album titled Cricket in 1992. During his time at college he was the lead singer for the band Tarkio. However, his musical talents received more mainstream attention when he became the frontman of Oregon indie band The Decemberists.
The Decemberists formed in 2000 after Meloy met bassist Nate Query and keyboardist Jenny Conlee. In 2001 the band self-released a 5 song EP, which was re-released by Hush Records in 2003. Their debut album Castaways and Cutouts was released later that year.
The band’s music reflects Meloy’s interest in not only writing lyrics, but creating stories. Some songs are stories in themselves, such as ‘Mariner’s Revenge Song’ from their 2005 album Picaresque, while albums like The Hazards of Love have an overarching narrative.
Meloy’s writing style is unparalleled. His subject matter varies, from dark and morbid themes to more lighthearted tunes. Both his often unconventional lyrics and the stunning musical abilities of the entire band create a musical experience that cannot be replicated.
Middle grade fiction
Writing was Meloy’s “first love”, his “plan A” after leaving college. In a 2012 interview with Entertainment Weekly, he described music as a “tangent from writing”.
Though this “tangent” led to a prosperous music career, the publication of Meloy’s first novel proved that his gift isn’t confined to songwriting. His books contain vivid and spellbinding narratives, perfectly balancing fear, excitement and intrigue.
Speaking to Publisher’s Weekly in 2022, Meloy discussed what initially drew him to writing for middle grade audiences. “I’ve just been drawn to writing for that crowd,” he explained. “I feel like you don’t have to worry about a lot of the rules that either younger, like chapter or picture books, or older, like YA or adult novels, put in for you”.
All five of Meloy’s novels are illustrated by his wife, Carson Ellis, whose whimsical illustrations have graced other well known children’s books like Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society.
“I really wanted to work with my wife Carson,” he said, “and have it be heavily illustrated, and it just had that feeling of a children’s book”.
Wildwood was Colin Meloy’s New York Times bestselling debut and the first book in the Wildwood Chronicles.
Prue, a 12-year-old girl from Portland, Oregon, is swept into the world of Wildwood when her brother is carried away by crows and into the ‘impassable wilderness’, a fictional jungle inspired by Oregon’s Forest Park. Joined by her friend Curtis, Prue sets off to rescue her brother before her parents discover him missing.
Inspired by Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth and C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, Wildwood has a truly magical feel. There is a huge focus on the wonder and importance of nature, which Meloy believes is his key message to young readers.
“That’s like a big message of the books,” he explained, “go and explore your local wilderness and see what kind of crazy things you can imagine happening.”
Under Wildwood (2012)
Back in her hometown, Prue now faces the challenge of starting seventh grade. Curtis, unbeknownst to his family, has remained behind in Wildwood to undergo “bandit training”. His parents, desperate to find him, travel to Turkey, leaving his sisters Rachel and Elsie in an orphanage for ‘unadoptable’ children.
Prue and Curtis are reunited and must once again respond to a call to save Wildwood, this time from the evildoers – a group of shape-shifters – and the threat of environmental exploitation.
Under Wildwood wasn’t as successful than Meloy’s debut, however it received more positive reviews. Many consider it better than the first, citing its improved writing style and more consistent pacing. Despite it targeting a middle grade audience, it has been described as a book the whole family can enjoy.
Windwood Imperium (2014)
Wildwood Imperium concludes the Wildwood Chronicles and ties up many of the loose ends left at the end of the previous novel. While Curtis has left in search of his long lost brothers, it’s up to Prue to bring together two toymakers, Carol and Esben, so they can rebuild their mechanical boy. However, Rachel and Elsie, with the help of the Unadoptables, must first rescue Carol and Esben from the Titan tower.
Wildwood Imperium received little attention, with fewer reviews and online ratings. There were mixed responses from readers, with some criticising its choppy pacing and others embracing its inconsistencies.
The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid (2017)
Moving on from the world of Wildwood, The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid transports readers back to 1960’s France. This Robin Hood-esque tale follows 12-year-old Charlie Fischer, the lonely son of an American diplomat.
Charlie is drawn into the world of the Whiz Mob, a group of young pickpockets who steal from the rich, and soon becomes part of the gang. But when he falls victim to an elaborate con, he vows to take back what was stolen from him.
Colin Meloy is no stranger to writing about the past. A number of The Decemberists’ songs explore historical settings, like ‘The Legionnaire’s Lament’, which tells the story of a homesick soldier in the French Foreign Legion.
From the vivid descriptions of streets to the glossary of pickpocket-slang, it’s clear that, like with his lyrics, Meloy didn’t jump in without doing his research.
THE WHIZ MOB AND THE GRENADINE KID
The Stars Did Wander Darkling (2022)
The 1980’s setting of The Stars Did Wander Darkling gives it serious Stranger Things Vibes. Set in 1987, it follows the adventures of Archie Coombes and his three friends as they investigate a large cave that has appeared on the Oregon coast.
What sets The Stars Did Wander Darkling apart from Meloy’s previous novels is the poetry that he weaves into its pages, including the works of Arthur Rimbaud, Lord Byron and William Butler Yeats.
The Stars Did Wander Darkling is another instance where Meloy uses striking natural landscapes in his writing. Growing up in landlocked Montana, he explained, is what drew him to writing about the coast. “The first time I’d ever seen the Oregon coast, a kid coming from Montana, it was just extraordinary”.
“I think I’ve always loved books that use existing geography and kind of remap them because I think it kind of gives a sort of extra level of realism to it, that this is somehow accessible and yet is still in the realm of imagination and fiction”.
THE STARS DID WANDER DARKLING
Though he is yet to announce anything concrete, Meloy has hinted at future writing ventures. “I’ve got various writing projects in different states of work and completion, but nothing I can really speak about,” he told Publisher’s Weekly.
In the same interview he revealed that he was working on new Decemberists music and that “we’ll probably find our way into the studio in the next year or so”. To fans’ delight, a February Instagram post confirmed that the band have begun recording new music.
Meloy has also expressed an interest in writing for adults. However, he promises that whatever it is, it won’t take the form of an ordinary novel.
“Whatever it is,” he said, “it’s gonna be weird”.