Berkeley author bringing 'Amelia' children's series to a close
By Lou Fancher
Author and illustrator Marissa Moss is tying the knot.
Oh, it isn't marital -- the Berkeley writer and founder of the two-year-old independent press, Creston Books, is already married. This knot is like the knot at the end of ropes anchoring a fleet of boats or a knot tied in thread used to stitch together a patchwork quilt.
Celebrating the 20th anniversary of her award-winning "Amelia's Notebook" series, Moss's "Amelia's Middle-School Graduation Yearbook" brings the handwritten, diary style books aimed at young people age 9 to 12 to an end.
In today's world of "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," zines, graphic novels, and a proliferation of self-published books, "Amelia" might not be recognized as revolutionary. But in 1995, a book packed with ink-line drawings, arrows, "notes to self" and text bubbles was too radical for big publishing houses.
"Amelia" eventually found a home at Tricycle Press, a small imprint of Berkeley's Ten Speed Press that no longer exists. Earning starred reviews from children's book associations and publications, the series' backlist was purchased by American Girl for $3 million before the rights were sold to Simon & Schuster. The notebooks went on to sell over 5 million copies and created a tidal wave of young fans who found familiarity and solace in Amelia's battles and triumphs.
"After reading the first book, I knew she was going to always be a part of my life," Michelle Dwyer says. "Finding her notebook was like stumbling upon a secret world that I thought only existed in code between me and my best friends that passed notes."
Dwyer, now a 27-year-old writer in Baltimore, Maryland, says Amelia and the movie "Titanic" entered the same league for her, "blowing my mind" and having "a gargantuan impact" in 1997.
When Amelia was bullied at school, fought with her sister or complained about her mom, there was no sugarcoating. Inspired by the books' realistic voice, Dwyer made zines -- photocopied pamphlets filled with doodles, handwriting and collages.
"Amelia gave me the courage to take a risk because her notebooks always had a (do-it-yourself) element to them and made me believe I could produce my own stories in the same spirit," she says.
Maeve Norton, 22, lives in Brooklyn, New York. Recently graduated from Pratt Institute with a BFA in Communications Design, Norton started reading the series at age 10. Attracted by the familiar, black-and-white composition notebook cover, she says Amelia "helped me feel less alone and showed me how cool it can be to be yourself."
The books' artwork drew lifelong fans.
"In third grade I began reading, rereading and repeatedly checking out the Amelia books at the library," says Megan Jones, 21, Springfield, MO. "I enjoy Amelia for the illustrations because drawing was one of my favorites things as a kid."
Paige Murray, a 19-year-old college student in Pomona, California, says the colorful pictures meant she "couldn't put them down." Ten years later, she continues journaling. "I would love to see a grown up version of Amelia. Is she in college? What is she doing now?" she asks.
Moss says that even though she has "a strong stomach for risk," she has no plans to take Amelia beyond middle school. "Amelia is me. In middle school, I was cool enough, but in high school, I was a weirdo writer who got together with friends to read Shakespeare."
Besides, she suggests, the porousness of an elementary or middle school kid squeezes into absolutes in older teens and adults. "The younger years are when you're figuring out who you are or who you want to be. It's an incredible crucible in your sense of self," Moss says.
But just because the series is ending, Moss isn't finished spreading the messages and modeling in Amelia's Notebooks.
"The minute we teach kids to read and write, we tell them drawing is less intellectual, less useful. Of course, that's wrong," she says. "Pictures are ways of thinking, articulating, expressing. The value of going back and forth between words and pictures, spitting things out in whatever way is right, mustn't be lost. I wish more teachers would be open to that."
And the pressures Amelia faces, unfortunately, remain prevalent.
"Friendships and bullying, practicing how to be with another person -- it's like practice for a marriage," Moss says. "There've been times when I've had an adult problem that has become an Amelia book."
Asked about their feelings as the series ends, the four fans who represent millions of readers say they'll accept the inevitable way everyone must grow up, but they'll never relinquish their Amelia collections or forget the impact a book has had on their lives.