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Portland the inspiration for fantasy novel

For anyone who has lived in or near Portland, or just visited Oregon's biggest city, the new children's book "Wildwood" is a treat that mixes fantasy with real landmarks.

At first I was a bit leery of picking up "Wildwood," not just for its hefty 541-page size, but because it was written by Colin Meloy, singer and songwriter for the Portland-based band The Decemberists.

Sure, The Decemberists make great alternative music that is slightly reminiscent of R.E.M. But I generally treat celebrity-written children's books the same way I treat electric fences.

It only took a few pages to realize that the writing was strong and Meloy had created a spunky, engaging heroine in the form of the young Prue McKeel. The book gets off to a quick start, with Prue's baby brother Mac being snatched up by a group of crows and carried away.

The crows fly the baby from his home in the St. John's neighborhood of Portland across the Willamette River into a deep forest known as the Impassable Wilderness.

Prue heads into the forest to save her brother, and is joined along the way by a misfit schoolmate, Curtis.

The Impassable Wilderness is modeled after Portland's Forest Park, a 5,000-acre wood laced with trails that provides a green oasis in the urban environment.

Meloy started the book back in 2000, when he was only thinking about forming a new band. He and his wife, the artist Carson Ellis, lived impoverished lives, according to a message to readers on their www.wildwoodchronicles.com website.

Beating the odds, Meloy's band The Decemberists became successful, and Ellis began illustrating popular children's books such as Lemony Snicket's "The Composer is Dead" and Trenton Lee Stewart's "The Mysterious Benedict Society." The illustrated book they had been working on got put on the back burner.

But a few years ago, the busy couple decided to pick up the threads of the story again after moving next to Forest Park. It was easy to imagine the park as the setting for a magical world.

"It kind of feels like its own country. It's so close to the city and yet so wild in there," Ellis explained in a video on the book's website.

Meloy wove multiple local references into the book. The characters see maidenhair ferns, cedar and Douglas fir trees, and other vegetation familiar to Oregon hikers. The beautiful St. John's Bridge, with its striking cathedral-like arches, makes an appearance as the Ghost Bridge.

Ellis illustrated the book's scenes with more than 70 drawings and maps done in her quirky signature style.

"There's certainly some elements of the book that I wrote explicitly because I knew that Carson would like to draw them," Meloy said in the video.

The couple has been touring the country to promote the recently released book, which has made it onto best-seller lists. In visits to schools, the writer and illustrator duo are encouraging kids to draw their own fantastical maps of local parks. The kids have responded with maps that feature places such as Computerland Desert, Death Trap Range and Panda Sinkhole.

If you and the kids in your life want inspiration to create your own imaginative map of Lithia Park or another favorite spot, visit www.wildwoodchronicles.com/blog/ to see maps done by other children with Ellis and Meloy's help. Just beware of Booby Trap City and the flying vampire monkey.

Reach reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-479-8199 or by email at vlaldous@yahoo.com.