Illustrator Carson Ellis on how not to over-think children’s books

Sweet and simple

Carson Ellis is an artist and illustrator who lives in the cutest mini-compound you ever saw (complete with apple trees, chickens, and horses), just north of Portland, Ore. You've seen her work on the covers for records by her husband Colin Meloy's band the Decemberists. And in the last decade for a slew of children's books, including Meloy's three best-selling Wildwood books and Lemony Snicket's The Composer Is Dead. She won a 2010 Silver Medal from the Society of Illustrators for her work illustrating Florence Parry Heide's Dillweed's Revenge. She is equally capable of creating more nuanced, sometimes darker work for galleries and museums, though she doesn't get as much time to have art shows as she'd like.

The 38-year-old Oregonian did collaborate with the eldest of her two sons, Hank Meloy, on a fascinating series of drawings on display at MOCAD last fall, as part of their "People's Biennial" show. To celebrate the release of her exceptional new children's book, Home (Candlewick Press), Ellis will speak and sign books on Saturday, March 28, from 1 -2:30 p.m. at Book Beat, 26010 Greenfield, Oak Park; 248-968-1190;; admission is free. You can always check out her work at

Metro Times: You've done so many things that I can't believe Home is your first solo book. How did this come about?

Carson Ellis: Well, like you said, I've done a lot of books. I've been illustrating books for 10 years. My first book came out in 2005.

MT: And which collaboration was that?

Ellis: The very first book was The Mysterious Benedict Society, which was like this middle-grade novel. And there's been a bunch since then, both picture books and novels, and of course those Wildwood books with Colin. The whole time, I really wanted to do my own book. But I just couldn't; I didn't have the idea. It was a daunting prospect for me; I wanted to do it so bad. I think I cared about it more than anything else, and I didn't want to put anything into the world that I didn't think was worth putting there.

MT: What were some of the rejected ideas?

Ellis: Mostly I was focused on trying to tell a story. There was an idea of a little animal going through the forest and meeting other animals along the way, and narrating to the reader things that he would find in the forest. Like, "Here's an acorn, and this is what this does." Which I still think could have been a sweet idea. But there's something about it that didn't feel very novel to me, and my heart wasn't totally in it. In short, I was totally overthinking it. I was paralyzed by my desire to do this thing so badly that I didn't know what the right thing to do was. And, so, you know Blexbolex? You probably know that comic artist.

MT: The German guy? Yes, he's super.

Ellis: Do you know his book called People?

MT: I have bought that book for several friends that have kids, yes. And for myself.

Ellis: It's an amazing book. I was looking at it once, thinking about how not-hung-up on a good narrative he was, how he's just like, "Here's this thing that I love to draw: people." And in the book he just riffs on that, but the book builds this weird narrative somehow just organically between the relationship between the [right and left pages]. It does end up telling so much of a story, and it's super fascinating the way it works, and it's beautiful. So I finally thought to ditch the idea of telling a good story, and instead do something that I know how to do, which is draw something I love to draw. I love to draw houses. I love to draw homes, and I like to draw interiors. And I like to create environments where you're forced to wonder about the inhabitant. And then I just wrote the manuscript in 20 minutes. It was so easy to write, once I had the idea.

MT: Who's the audience for this?

Ellis: I was aiming for that sweet spot in kids books — that place where it feels like the book is for really anybody, you know? A book can be totally accessible and engaging for kids and yet as accessible and engaging for their grown-ups, ideally. They market this for 4- to 8-year-olds. So that's a lot of kids that don't even read yet, you know? Your parents are reading that book to you, so it should be as good of an experience for them to read as it is for their children. The book that made me really want to be a kids book author and illustrator was Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak. You know that book? It's a weird one. And it's really poetic, and it's kind of sad, and the art is really good. And that book is for kids for sure; they love it. But it's also really moody and kind of serious and dark — nice for grown-ups.

MT: Would you like to do a board book next — something for younger kids?

Ellis: Yeah. I would totally do that. I love board books, something satisfying about how indestructible they are.

MT: Detroiters got to see work by you pretty recently at MOCAD. Were you able to come out to the opening for the "People's Biennial"?

Ellis: I did come out, and I brought my son Hank, who was my collaborator for that show. [Co-curator Harrell Fletcher] asked me and the other artists to choose someone they thought was a visionary-type person to collaborate with, whose creative outlet was operating outside of what we think of as the art world. So I thought of my son, who's 8 [laughs]! He is autistic, so he has some communication challenges that make him a unique, eccentric kid. But he really loves aliens, and he's hung up on the concept of aliens being misunderstood.

He thinks a lot about aliens. He talks about alien awareness a lot and how we need to be aware of the plight of the aliens, and accept them, and help them to feel less misunderstood and stuff. It's a sweet thing to watch him process his otherness through this obsession with aliens. He's got a whole catalog of aliens in his brain, and some of them were invented, and some of them come from things he's read. He's also kind of like an 8-year-old conspiracy theorist; he's really into the Babylonian Brotherhood and theories about the disappearance of Amelia Earhart.

So we sat down, and I drew all these aliens. And while I drew them to his specifications, he would tell me what they look like, what they eat, what their habitat is, and what their temperament is like. I recorded him while we were making these drawings so that, at that MOCAD show, which was arranged with a lot of little self-contained galleries, there was an audio recording of him describing all these aliens that played in the gallery. I brought him to the opening, and he was so excited for like, five minutes. And then he was like, 'I hate it here. We have to leave!' It was so loud and crowded. He was like, 'How long are you going to make me stay here?' I said, 'Well, we did fly to Detroit for this, but I guess we can leave now.'

MT: What's next for you?

Ellis: I'm working on another picture book for the same publisher, another one that I wrote myself. And then I have a couple more books with Colin, including a picture book that we're working on together. And I have a novel that I'm working on that's not a Wildwood novel. So, yeah; we stay busy.

About The Author

Mike McGonigal

Metro Times music editor Mike McGonigal has written about music since 1984, when he started the fanzine Chemical Imbalance at age sixteen with money saved from mowing lawns in Florida. He's since written for Spin, Pitchfork, the Village VOICE and Artforum. He's been a museum guard, a financial reporter, a bicycle...
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